Dec 31 2009

You Can Keep that Long-Term Project on Track — Here's How

Photography by John Welzenbach

Information technology managers often find themselves in the role of the fixer, having to stay nimble and deliver on short, fast projects — snuffing out difficulties as they arise.

But what about IT projects that stretch beyond the short term? What about those initiatives — broad infrastructure overhauls, for example — that can't be constrained to the timeframe of a few months? Long-term projects can prove unwieldy as priorities shift, workers stray from relevant tasks and new risks arise unexpectedly.

As it turns out, a few best practices can keep long-term projects from morphing into longer-term disasters. A two- or three-year IT initiative may seem daunting, with good reason, but you can manage such an undertaking if you keep your team focused on a handful of overarching tips that will help you stay the course.

Break It Down

So what's Rule No. 1 to keep these big projects on track? Bobby Cameron, vice president and principal at Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., doesn't hesitate with an answer: "The first thing is, don't do them." He's only half joking. Cameron says long IT projects should be segmented into smaller components because they're more manageable, allow for greater flexibility and deliver rewards along the way. "The best practice is to chunk them, meaning, break them up into smaller pieces."

Forrester findings indicate that only about 13 percent of IT organizations try to handle projects that last more than a year. The mean length for a project is between six and nine months — not because all of an initiative's goals are achieved within that timeframe, but because many IT groups now break up their long undertakings into modular components. An enterprisewide storage upgrade initiative might take a couple of years, for instance, but an agency can segment it into a dozen pieces.

Alan Lorish, CIO at the Bureau of Economic Analysis, seconds this philosophy. Lorish advises using project management software that can help an agency divvy up tasks and set critical milestones that need to be met along the way. This component approach allows for small successes as a project progresses, which is good for the IT team's morale. It also makes it easier to track project schedules and budgets. Project management tools can even warn IT managers if they have overcommitted resources to any particular part of an ongoing project.

But boiling down projects into easily digestible components is useless without frequent communication about how things are progressing, Lorish says. He recommends quarterly meetings with the agency's stakeholders to hash out project progress and make any needed adjustments. As projects draw nearer completion, meetings should be held more frequently.

And regular communication should extend beyond keeping the lines of contact open with the executive-level officers who hold the purse strings. Downstream communication from the CIO to developers, programmers and other IT staff is equally important; then these IT team members can keep front-line program and project managers apprised of possible bumps in the road.

"I spend a lot of time communicating with my managers about their projects and having discussions with teams about how things are going," Lorish says. "You have to know whether users are happy, how testing is going. You have to have constant vigilance."

Ask a Lot of What-ifs

Gino Marchetti, with program management consultant Robbins-Gioia in Alexandria, Va., and the site director for the Homeland Security Department's Customs Border Protection modernization office, also touts the importance of identifying project risks, especially in the early strategic planning stages. In other words, build a fallback scenario and ask a lot of specific questions: What if money runs out? What if a key employee on the project leaves abruptly? What if a technological breakthrough alters the IT landscape in some way? It's impossible to prepare for everything, but know your pitfalls in advance, Marchetti says.

Staying the Course

Five tips for seeing long-term IT projects through to execution:

Segment large projects into manageable components.
Closely monitor projects as you progress — developing a balanced scorecard can help with oversight.
Communicate progress to stakeholders and IT teams on a regular basis and use many formats for these communications.
Define a project well in advance of any actual work.
Obvious but often overlooked: Have a clear understanding of the problem you're solving before you start and hold onto that focus.

Unlike their counterparts in the private sector, government IT managers often work with contractors on long-term projects. Marchetti suggests building flexibility into the incentives offered to contractors as IT initiatives move forward. Agencies should reward contractors based on performance, for example, but should define the incentives broadly. IT managers should put money aside in what Marchetti calls an "awards fee pot," and then pay out all, some or none of that money based on how well a contractor's work fits the project's parameters and technological usability or how well the contractor stays within budget, for example.

Understanding a project's requirements is critical in the early stages, Marchetti says. At the beginning of a project, ask yourself who your customers are. What do they expect? And how are you going to measure it? Long-term projects often run into the problem of not being well-defined, which can cause an initiative to falter from the get-go.

"You can't have a solution in search of a problem," says the BEA's Lorish. "If a project's going to go long term, it's going to have to have a strong level of commitment." That strength is built ahead of time by understanding a project's mission and goals upfront.

Keeping Score

Putting a lot of emphasis on the initial strategy, however, won't see a project through to its end. Projects have to be tracked as they advance. For that job, experts advise turning to a balanced scorecard to track strategic objectives and the individual initiatives that will bring about those objectives. Scorecards can help keep a project on track because they allow an IT team to compile metrics and measure performance explicitly against a project's goals.

Mary Ann Spilman, executive director for external relations at the University of Maryland University College and a project management guru, says a balanced scorecard should be maintained by every part of an IT organization. There are applications designed for the job or an

IT team can simply set up a Web interface to a spreadsheet-like application. Regardless of their format, scorecards can provide IT managers with continuous data about where projects stand, which means those managers can tackle problems as they crop up, not after they've brought a project to its knees.

"If you launch a project and you just plan to go until it's done, and you don't have any way to reconsider your execution as you go, then you're going to be significantly challenged," Forrester's Cameron says. "Life doesn't stand still for you to take a five-year photograph."