Great project management expectations

Like other IT managers, Dom Gugliotti knows how tough it can be to properly set business executives’ expectations for big IT projects.

So four years ago, when Gugliotti’s employer, Northeast Utilities, embarked on a massive effort to consolidate three customer information systems into one and six call centres into two facilities, one of the first things that he and other project leaders did was to collocate 20 business managers with 40 IT workers to help them stay in sync on the project’s products and timetables.

“The closer you can get [business leaders] tied into the decision-making, the better,” says Gugliotti, IT project manager for the customer service integration project in Berlin, Conn.

Gugliotti meets daily with his business peers to discuss the status of systems testing and any changes that need to be made in the project specs. “IT and business live together on this,” Gugliotti says of the US$80 million-plus effort, which is slated to be completed in phases over the course of the year. Meeting deadlines and staying within budgets are the most obvious challenges in any IT project, but the biggest test of all may be managing the expectations of your business clients. “It’s a huge challenge for IT organizations to stay aligned with the business on projects,” notes Barry Cohen, vice-president of applications management at Wells Real Estate Funds in Norcross, Ga.

That’s partly because business leaders and IT project managers often have different ideas from the start about the benefits a project will deliver. For example, Cohen says, business managers sometimes fail to grasp what effect IT projects will have on their operations and how much their internal business processes may have to be amended to work with new systems.

To set expectations when Wells outsourced support of its Oracle financial software beginning last May, Cohen tried to ensure that there were no communication gaps between the IT team and business leaders. He talked to business managers and staffers in formal and informal meetings, explaining that any changes made to the functionality of the software would take longer under the outsourced arrangement than when support was in-house. “It’s part of our normal procedure to let the business know how the changes would affect them,” says Cohen.

Getting aligned

In December, Freddie Mac’s CIO, Jim Hughes, began making changes to the way the company’s IT organization is aligned with its businesses. Before then, each of the business units at the McLean, Va.-based mortgage purchaser had dedicated IT staffers who served as liaisons working on strategy, planning, project initiation and development.

But the focus on project development overtook the other activities, says Hughes. So when he reorganized, he separated the other client-facing activities from development. That has helped Freddie Mac’s IT group to maintain a more consistent focus on areas such as strategy and planning with business unit leaders, he says. “The level of collaboration is significantly higher,” and that leads to better alignment, says Hughes.

“We’re directly influencing the definition of those expectations, [not] just responding to expectations.” By focusing on this activity, IT staffers who work on the client services side aren’t distracted by implementation, he says.

On the development side, aligning expectations early is also key. “Eighty-five per cent of the success occurs in the first 15 per cent of a project,” says Hughes. That’s when a successful project manager defines the scope, explains the nature of the effort being addressed, and makes sure that it’s well understood and that the expectations of all stakeholders are realistic, he explains.

More help comes from Joseph Smialowski, Freddie Mac’s executive vice-president of operations and technology. About a year ago, he created a communications program known as “Month in a Box.” A cardboard package is given to each of Freddie Mac’s operations and technology leaders. It contains a detailed message with steps on how to communicate with end users and business sponsors in a consistent way to help ensure aligned expectations.

The program encourages IT leaders to share information about Freddie Mac’s operations and technology strategies with IT staffers and business managers and to explain how these fit into the company’s overall goals. One recent Month in a Box clarified Freddie Mac’s new approach for developing systems, explaining what a systems development life cycle is and why it’s needed. It also helped IT leaders create a dialogue with their teams.

But even when business and IT begin in sync, their expectations can diverge as a project progresses, particularly when difficult changes are required. Since the scope of a project can change midcourse, says Hughes, “it’s best to recognize this up front” and prepare business leaders for it.

Staying aligned

That kind of understanding needs to be reinforced over time. “Assumptions have to be monitored and communicated often” as changes occur, says Jack Duggal, a principal at Projectize Group LLC, an Avon, Conn.-based project management consulting firm.

At Wachovia Corp., that monitoring and communication take place during biweekly meetings between project and business leaders, says Tony Bishop, senior vice-president and director of architecture and engineering at the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank. The project review includes a single dashboard summary of tasks, milestones, deliverables, accomplishments, open issues and project components that require tweaking, says Bishop.

Working together this way enables business and IT to stay on the same page when changes in plans are required. For instance, Wachovia recently needed to introduce new trading indices more quickly than a project plan had initially called for. The project leader arranged a meeting with the bank’s head of research to collaborate on a scope adjustment that allowed the project timelines to be accelerated “and still deliver what the business needed overall,” says Bishop.

At Northeast Utilities, Gugliotti’s IT group works on alignment continually through daily interactions.

By working side by side, business and IT staffers can weigh the impact of proposed project decisions against the difficulty of carrying out those decisions, he says. For instance, the project team recently discussed a possible design change in a project that was under way, including the risks and challenges of trying to execute such a change so deep into the project. The team members decided on using a work-around instead.

It’s amazing what co-ownership of the schedule and budget and sitting side by side can do to your expectations,” says Gugliotti.

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