IT Projects: to kill or not to kill?

IT projects are just one of the inherent casualties of an economic slump – fewer staff plus smaller revenue equals the critical decision of choosing which projects to keep and which to put out of their misery.

Arlington, Mass.-based Cutter Consortium senior consultant Johanna Rothman recently wrote an executive update for Cutter’s Business-IT Strategies Practice that offers tips to project managers on how to decide. Rothman said that the recipe for project management success hinges on defining what is strategically important to the customer base.

“Are (you) trying to attract new customers or trying to keep the old ones? You cannot have both sets of customers equally important at the same time,” Rothman said.

“If you can’t decide, flip a coin – but somehow make a decision because somebody, somewhere is going to be more important to you and that’s the market you are going to want to go after.”

Don’t finish projects just because you started them – once project managers define customer needs, they can then prioritize and drop less important projects, Rothman said. Another tip Rothman mentions in the report is to simplify over-scheduled, over-budget or over-featured projects.

“Not all projects should be done. Look at projects strategically and align the business goals with the projects you have to complete,” Rothman said, noting if the cost of the work is higher than the value, project managers should stop doing the work.

Principle Kenneth Robertson at Vancouver-based KLR Consulting Inc. agreed, adding that while project managers may not be directly responsible for killing a project, their role is to advise executives on whether completing the project is still worthwhile.

“As the project progresses, sometimes it changes in scope and in assumptions and the business value statement that originally was designed may no longer be valid,” Robertson said.

“It’s about defining the business value – what does the business get out of the project. So if the business value statement of the project is to reduce cost in a certain operational area and thereby increase profitability, then you should be questioning if you still can do that…the cost compared to the savings may not produce the same positive impact on the bottom line,” Robertson said.

It was Napoleon who said that “planning is everything; the plan is nothing” – and this holds true in the IT world, noted Michael Byrne, computing and network services director at the University of Alberta.

“It’s not just a question of developing a plan and then working from that until the end of the fiscal year and then starting again, ” Byrne said. He suggested that changing priorities mean the adoption of a “think big, start small” approach.

“If you are working on a project about which there are significant doubts, you can pretty well identify that by the end of the second stage,” Byrne said.

“There’s been several projects that we’ve started that we killed because it’s quite obvious the ROI calculation was wrong, things have changed, the level of commitment is not there – you have a far more constructive discussion with the executive when you’ve spent $50,000, than when you’ve spent $5 million.”

Companies need to manage projects like an investment portfolio, said Kenneth Fung, project manager/consultant at Calgary-based Compleat Business Solutions Inc.

“You want take a look at whether it meets the corporate strategy, whether it generates a good rate of return, (and) whether it meets implicit business objectives. More importantly, you want to periodically evaluate the need for the project as things in the IT world things change very rapidly,” Fung said.

“The key thing is, the mission statement of the company drives your IT strategy.”