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14 Common Project Management Mistakes

It's no wonder only 29 percent of IT projects are completed successfully, according to The Standish Group. Project management consultants and software providers say they see IT departments making the same project management mistakes over and over: IT groups don't follow standard project management processes. They don't have the right staff working on projects. They don't assess the risks that could imperil their projects or determine ways to mitigate those risks. The list of mistakes unrolls like a ball of yarn.

Most of the project management mistakes IT departments make boil down to either a lack of adequate planning or breakdowns in communication (either among the project team or between the project team and the project sponsors). These mistakes can be fatal. They can also be avoided. And who better to point out the most common project management mistakes than project management vendors and consultants. (They also suggest ways to avoid them.)

The following list of the 14 most common project management mistakes ought to help you pinpoint where your projects are going wrong and measures you can take to improve them. The upside of avoiding these most common project management pitfalls is tremendous. Not only will your project success rate increase, you'll also improve satisfaction among internal customers, IT's stock inside the organization will increase in value, and the business will benefit from systems that make them more competitive that get delivered on time and on budget.

Staffing Mistakes

Mistake No. 1: Projects Lack the Right Resources with the Right Skills.

Impact: Proper project staffing is critical, yet improperly allocating resources tops the list of most common project management mistakes. Not having the right people on a project can kill it. "The key to getting a project successfully accomplished is getting the right people with the right skills," says Joel Koppelman, CEO of project management software vendor Primavera. "All the planning in the world won't overcome an insufficiency of talent."

Solution: IT and project managers need full visibility into the skills and workloads of all of their resources, including consultants, contractors and outsourcers, who often get left out of skills assessments even though they're doing a "huge" proportion of work, says Koppelman. Project management software can provide such visibility into everyone's skills and workloads.

Once IT and project managers know who's doing what, they have to figure out how to allocate resources across myriad projects and day-to-day work.

"There are all kinds of organizational models," says Richard Scannell, co-founder of IT infrastructure consultancy GlassHouse Technologies. "I've never seen anything that works well. There's no easy answer [to the resource allocation question]."

You just have to try synchronizing people and projects as best you can, says Koppelman, adding that one potential solution is to appoint a resource manager who's responsible for figuring out who will be assigned to each project and for ensuring there's a fair allocation of talent across projects.

Scannell suggests setting up "tiger teams" where people get taken out of their traditional job responsibility for a year or more to work on a specific project. Ken Cheney, director of HP Software's PPM Center, recommends assigning resources at a project level as opposed to a specific task level, which he says is much more arduous.

If you're still hard-pressed to adequately staff projects, you may be able to free up resources by cancelling a "discretionary" project (e.g. one that isn't tightly tied to the business strategy), says Cheney. He suggests looking at your entire portfolio of projects your IT staff is working on to identify ones that aren't mission-critical. "By stopping those projects and reallocating resources to projects that will have the biggest impact, the organization as a whole can be much more successful," he says.

Mistake No. 2: Projects Lack Experienced Project Managers.

Impact: Projects can quickly grow out of control without a savvy project manager at the helm.

Solution: Hire project managers with certifications and the finesse required to manage stakeholders. Matthew Strazza, vice president of services (North America) for CA, says good project managers have to have strong soft skills. They need to know how to facilitate meetings, manage risk and handle a variety of different stakeholders-the business people who are looking for functionality, the IT people who care about security, and the financial people who are worried about the budget.

"If you're not addressing the financials, managing the budget on a week-to-week basis and notifying the client of any change, you can get into trouble pretty quickly," says Strazza.

Good project managers also need to possess technical expertise in whatever technology is being deployed, he adds.

Process Mistakes

Mistake No. 3: IT Doesn't Follow a Standard, Repeatable Project Management Process.

Impact: This is the second of the most common project management mistakes. Lack of methodology increases the risk that tasks related to the project will fall through the cracks, that projects will have to be re-worked, and ultimately that a project won't be completed on time or on budget.

Solution: A project management methodology helps you tackle projects efficiently and makes you aware of all the activities involved in the execution of a project.

"Having in place a baseline of standards and methodologies will remove a lot of the risk associated with IT projects," says HP's Cheney.

Douglas Clark, CEO of Métier, a provider of project portfolio management solutions, recommends establishing repeatable processes for scoping, scheduling, allocating resources and communicating with stakeholders. "Those are the things you want to get a handle on first because they would probably give you the biggest payoff," he says.

Mistake No. 4: IT Gets Hamstrung by Too Much Process.

Impact: Too much process makes the project team inflexible, and their inflexibility frustrates stakeholders.

Fumi Kondo, managing director of NYC-based consultancy Intellilink Solutions, once observed an exchange between a software developer and a project manager where the developer told the project manager that he could add extra features to an application with no additional effort. The project manager told the developer not to add the extra features because users hadn't asked for them. "My response would have been,'Go to the users and see if those features are useful,'" says Kondo. "I see nothing wrong with over-delivering if it doesn't impact the budget or the schedule."

Solution: Be flexible and communicate with project sponsors and stakeholders.

Mistake No. 5: They Don't Track Changes to the Scope of the Project.

Implication: The budget for the project explodes. So does the timeline.

Solution: CA's Strazza recommends following a formal change request process: The individual requesting the change in scope (e.g. additional features or functionality) needs to explain the specific changes on a change-in-scope document, and the project manager needs to determine how that request will impact the budget and timeline. The project sponsor has to sign off on the change-in-scope request.

Mistake No. 6: They Lack Up-to-Date Data About the Status of Projects.

Impact: You can't manage what you can't measure, as Peter Drucker would say. Nor can you coordinate resources or react to changes in scope, says HP's Cheney.

Solution: Software.

Mistake No. 7: They Ignore Problems.

Impact: Problems don't solve themselves. They fester the longer you ignore them and ultimately compound the cost of the project.

Solution: "If you do something wrong, it's about how well you fix it," says GlassHouse Technologies' Scannell. "Most people batten down the hatches and look up in the month. Understanding when you're starting to fail and quickly being able to engage as many stakeholders as possible to fix it is critical."

Planning Mistakes

Mistake No. 8: They Don't Take the Time to Define the Scope of a Project.

Impact: If a project's scope isn't well-defined by the business and IT up front, the project can end up ballooning like Friends actor Matthew Perry in the sitcom's later seasons. What's more, IT lacks the clarity and direction it needs to complete the project on time and on budget and meet the business's expectations.

Solution: Ill-defined projects are best served by a business case and a scoping exercise, says Intellilink Solutions' Kondo.

Mistake No. 9: They Fail to See the Dependencies Between Projects.

Impact: Projects don't happen in isolation. They're often dependant on other projects going on at the same time. When project managers fail to see the dependencies between projects-such as staff assigned to one project are needed on another&mdashh;projects get held up. Such slowdowns can have a ripple effect on all projects.

Solution: Take dependencies into account during project planning, says Métier's Clark. Talking with stakeholders and diagramming the project can help uncover dependencies.

Mistake No. 10: They Don't Consider Murphy's Law.

Impact: Stuff happens, and IT gets surprised by it. Consequently, the project goes off-track while IT tries to clean up a mess it didn't anticipate.

GlassHouse Technologies' Scannell recalls a company in the U.K. that his firm acquired, that was moving its mainframe to a new data center. The IT group devoted an entire Saturday to taking down the mainframe so that they could move it to the new data center the next day, he says. While the IT staff were en route to the new data center with the mainframe on Sunday, they ran into a gay pride parade, and they couldn't reach their destination due to roads blocked off for the parade. They had to drive back to the original data center and put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The lack of planning caused the IT staffers to do more work than was necessary.

Solution: Perform a risk assessment as part of the project planning. With your team, brainstorm what could happen to slow or derail the project, to make it go over budget, or to prevent you from delivering the expected requirements. Then figure out ways you can mitigate those risks, says Primavera CEO Koppelman. "If they sit down and think about those risks, they'll come up with a pretty good list," he says. "This exercise doesn't take a long time, and it's enormously helpful in understanding the soft spots in a project before it even gets underway."

Mistake No. 11: They Give Short Shrift to Change Management.

Impact: All the time, money and hard work that went into delivering a new IT-enabled capability can be for naught if users don't adopt the new technology.

Solution: Spend time up front during the project planning phase to consider where resistance to a project will manifest itself and ways to address it, says Métier's Clark. Identify the stakeholders whose jobs will be impacted by the new capability, adds Intellilink Solutions' Kondo, and plan how you'll communicate changes to their processes and workflows with them. Not all of the changes will be negative.

Mistake No. 12: Project Schedules Are Incomplete.

Impact: Project team members don't know what is due when, which makes completing the project on time a challenge.

Solution: Clark says a quick way to come up with a schedule for a project is to determine all the activities involved in getting the project done (e.g. scoping, getting requirements, testing and implementing) and then attaching due dates to those activities based on the deadline for the project. Project management software can also help create schedules.

Communication Problems

Mistake No. 13: IT Doesn't Push Back on Unreasonable Deadlines.

Impact: IT sets itself up to fail and gets a reputation for not being able to deliver projects on time.

Clark says IT departments will scramble to accommodate project deadlines set by the CEO. But tampering with dependencies and with the plan only creates more problems that make delivering the project on time even more difficult, he says.

Solution: IT management has to explain to the CEO what it's going to take to meet that deadline in terms of cost and resources and has to get the CEO to choose between cost, scope and schedule, says Clark.

Mistake No. 14: They Don't Communicate Well with Project Sponsors and Stakeholders.

Impact: IT fails to deliver the expected requirements.

Solution: Project communications need to be catered to the audience, says Kondo. She sees misunderstandings about the scope of a project or a systems' requirements arise when IT departments hand over a spreadsheet to the business with thousands of lines describing the systems' functionality and specs. Because the business owners don't have time to look over such detailed technical documents, they ignore them.

"One side is communicating, but in a language the other side can't understand," says Kondo. "Then IT gets frustrated and they say,'We described this to them. How come this isn't what they want?'" ( Business analysts play a critical role as the liaisons between users and IT.)

Kondo recommends giving every stakeholder who will be impacted or involved in the project on the business side a high-level overview of the entire project, from design to rollout. The overview should highlight the activities that require interaction with the business and should explain why the business is needed, she says.

In general, IT needs to put more effort into educating the business about the steps involved in executing a project, says Kondo.

"If you have an open dialog about what's needed, what you're really delivering, and you have fluidity built into the process, the budget and scope becomes a dialog so if you go over budget, it's not necessarily a failure," she says.

Kondo's firm once worked with a client that was deploying a financial system and whose employees had never been involved in a large system implementation before. When design of the system was complete and Intellilink was beginning to plan for testing, Intellilink explained to the employees why testing was important.

"We told them about different kinds of testing and what they did and didn't need to be involved in. We talked about why we needed user input, what kind of input we'd need and how much time it required," says Kondo. "That gave people an idea of why it takes so long to test."

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