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When delivering large IT projects, don’t set off into the wilderness – make your own map

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Large projects are full of complexity and uncertainty, and this is particularly true for large IT projects. They have a less tangible product than, say, construction projects, and the specialist skills and processes deployed are alien to most of us. Disconcertingly for project sponsors, the facts show that IT project failure is all too common – fewer than 40% are successful.

Embarking on a large IT project is like going on a long hike. You need a map to ensure you are setting out in the right direction – otherwise you could find yourself half way up the wrong mountain. As most projects, by definition, are uncharted territory, leaders must use the information available to them to create their own maps before they start work. But how do you decide which direction to go in?

To select the right route, first of all you should test to check that all stakeholders are aligned to the same objective; secondly, you must understand the terrain you are seeking to navigate; and finally, you need to confirm you've chosen the right direction though innovation. Only then can you confidently sketch out a map that is accurate and allows you to add detail as you travel.

Confirm alignment to the objective

There is no point starting your project unless leaders and stakeholders are absolutely aligned on the project outcome. Agreement needs to go beyond lip service and you must ask some searching questions, such as:

  • What do stakeholders believe the overriding project imperative is? How does this influence the strategy and pace of execution?
  • How is the project outcome matched to individuals' own objectives and priorities?
  • How does the project figure in personal ambitions and career trajectories? Are key leaders in positions where they do not wish to take risks?
  • Do the actions match the rhetoric? Have the best resources been assigned?
  • Is the outline business case robust enough to withstand changes in assumptions?
  • Can stakeholders explain what the project is aiming to do, in a concise and compelling way?

Understand the terrain

You may be in uncharted territory, but the chances are that someone else has been there before – either in your own organisation or sector, or possibly in a completely different industry. By comparing project characteristics (such as size, drivers, content, environment, risk and urgency) you can find and learn from an –apparently unrelated - analogue elsewhere.

That analogue may be another project that you have done or has been done by another organisation, so you can ask what worked and why (and what didn't work as well). This will also help to define and communicate what is unique and requires special attention – for example supplier management or stakeholder engagement.

Test your ideas through innovation

There are likely to be many different approaches to your project, which can be difficult to differentiate at first look. At the foot of a mountain, the best route may be obscured by smaller hills in the near distance. In this instance, the mountaineer would first explore different options, and be prepared to abandon the less promising ones before deciding on the best approach.

The same is true of IT projects. Exploration can take the form of looking at different architectures, integrating different products, experimenting with agile methods and developing prototypes to prove the approach. Innovation helps test the approach, but only as long as you follow the first rule of innovation – find out quickly what doesn't work, retreat and learn.

Create your map and set out with confidence

With the information you have now gathered, you can begin to develop the initial version of your map and start to plot your route. As your map is unlikely to be complete, the early stages of your project must be short, allowing you the opportunity to stop, look up and confirm you are on the right track. Early versions of your map must also:

  • provide the basis for a reliable estimation of delivery time
  • enable the next stage to become clear and be planned in detail
  • confirm your ambition is realistic within the environment
  • check that all stakeholders are aligned.

Experienced mountaineers take time to analyse, reflect, and test their equipment and approach before setting out into the unknown. Large IT projects benefit from the same careful preparation in the early stages of the project, it is more important to focus your efforts on preparing an accurate, thoroughly researched map than making a fast – but possibly false – start.

Armed with your map, you can then make the critical decisions and set out with confidence – with a much higher likelihood of reaching your goal.

To find out more about how IT assurance can help your organisation, please contact us now.

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