Survival tips Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Business owners and executives have all heard or experienced horror stories of IT projects over-budget and behind schedule.

There is an old adage: A poorly-planned project takes three times as long to complete as planned, but a well-planned project only takes twice as long. While this is in jest, it illustrates the challenges of successfully leading a business project, says Kevin Christ, a principal with Avvantica Consulting LLC.

There are bountiful sources of advice written for project managers, but little for sponsors who are ultimately accountable for results, says Christ. Smart Business spoke with him about how sponsors can lead their projects effectively.

What is an IT-enabled initiative?

The real objectives for an IT project are to provide tangible business benefits via new business processes, roles and responsibilities. Technology is only an enabler. These initiatives utilize call center applications, Web-enabled self-service, data warehouses and other technologies. Typical goals are increasing efficiency, boosting sales, eliminating costs and opening new channels — not simply implementing software.

To guide such projects effectively, a businessperson, not a technologist, should lead. Executives ultimately responsible for such projects are known as sponsors. These people often are new to large, long-term IT-enabled projects and must overcome many hurdles.

What challenges do sponsors face?

Sponsors are often frustrated by steep learning curves, often beyond their area of expertise. Sponsors must rely on the expertise of others to be successful; it is not possible for anyone to master all of the essential disciplines. Sponsors can find it difficult to determine when to immerse themselves and when to rely on others.

Important competing priorities challenge sponsors. While having overall accountability for the project, they continue in their real jobs — running the business. They manage and lead operations, sales, accounting, human resources or other functions.

Sponsors must guard against upward filters on project information. In many companies, sponsors are protected from issues and concerns that could derail the effort, rendering them unable to intervene. Too often, they are only told what the team believes the executives want to hear.

How can a sponsor overcome such challenges?

The project sponsor is most able to keep the business objectives in the fore-front. A sponsor must ensure that a ‘business change initiative’ doesn’t become ‘just an IT project.’ Be sure the effort remains focused. Eliminate the noise of creeping scope.

Do not compromise on the right project manager and resources for the job. Assign your best people. Ensure the project manager has a long history of success on projects of similar size and complexity.

Talk to peers both inside and outside the company. Learn from sponsors who have been successful and those who have not.

Reward the team. They are enlisted for high-stress roles and tight deadlines. Make projects desirable for your best people.

Risk requires safety nets. Quality assurance reviews and peer reviews should be used throughout projects to mitigate risk.

Hold IT leads accountable for process and costs. Hold functional business leaders accountable for delivering benefits. In the end, business management restructures the workflow and organization around new systems.

Over-communicate. No matter how much you try, there will be people who do not accept or understand the coming changes. You must be clear, unwavering, and painfully redundant in delivering key messages.

When planning, most people are optimists. Ensure that you have set aside contingency dollars and hours and for surprises that were not known up-front.

Be practical. Staff members cannot be 100 percent on a project that requires 50 hours per week and continue to do their existing job. They must be freed from current workloads, or plan a part-time commitment to the project.

If you are in unfamiliar territory, retain an adviser or confidante that can assist you in understanding the disciplines and process that you are leading.

How does a sponsor’s role benefit a business?

Projects without active business leadership are often doomed to failure. Without an effective sponsor, the team will be slowed by scope creep, unmade decisions and various inevitable roadblocks. Sponsors can keep key staff from being diverted to other priorities that inevitably arise. While the IT staff is trained to do things right, only the sponsor can ensure that they are doing the right things, thus keeping the project true to the vision.

KEVIN CHRIST is a principal with Avvantica Consulting LLC. Reach him at kchrist@avvanticaconsulting.com.