Waterloo prof – How to get stakeholders on side

Watch video of interview with Prof Peter Carr

Length: 8 minutes. Type of file: Windows Media Video

Hi, I’m Joaquim Menezes, Web Editor of IT World Canada. Welcome to this episode in our IT Executive Development Series, which focuses on the topic of ‘Project Management.’ To better understand the key principles of effective project management, we’ll be talking to Professor Peter Carr, director of the Masters in Management Science program at the University of Waterloo. We’ll draw on professor Carr’s insights and his many years of experience in this area.

Prof. Carr, prior to any major IT rollout, what steps should a company take to ensure that the deployment is a success and its goals are achieved?

I think that one of the most important things a company needs to do when its planning its projects, and getting the things in place [to ensure] that project is successful are first of all around the stakeholders: ensuring that the right stakeholders have been identified, particularly in an IT project – the user community, and that there’s a mechanism for them to be involved in the project design and monitoring the progress of the project as it proceeds.

Some experts say in big projects multi-stage deployment is a good idea, because lessons learned in one phase about what works and what doesn’t can be applied to subsequent phases, and you also avoid repeating the same mistakes. Would you agree with this perspective?

I would completely agree that as projects become larger and larger (and I think this is a major issue now for organizations…the scale of the projects they are dealing with are becoming so huge) to be able to break those projects up to their constituent parts, learn from their different phases as the project proceeds is absolutely the correct thing to do.

Quite often IT managers complain that despite several meetings with vendors to discuss the scope of a project, the final result didn’t conform to what was promised and expected. How may communications between enterprise IT teams and vendors be improved so that there’s a greater congruence between expectations and what the vendor actually delivers?

I think the problem of the project not being delivered in the way that the receiver of the project expects is, of course a very serious one. And what there’s a need to do is at the beginning of the project to be absolutely clear about what the expectations are – to define those very carefully.

But then as the project proceeds to have very close communications between the vendors and buyers of the project so that changes can be made at an earlier stage rather that just receiving the results from the vendor and those not being what we expected them to be.

In doing that today, the technologies that are increasingly becoming available that enable collaboration between organizations, their suppliers and their customers, are going to be critical to improving that.

IT managers are understandably reluctant to talk about failed projects. But is there a way IT teams can turn failure into something positive and actually benefit from it?

I do think that one of the most important things we can do is to learn from the failures that we make in our projects and, of course, the statistics tell us that many, many IT projects fail.

As much as we should learn from and look at those projects that are successful, I think looking at the projects that fail probably teaches us much more about the things that we have to look out for and things that may cause us problems, as we complete our own projects.

I think the other thing though, about the failure of projects is that it’s much less about the techniques we are using to monitor the progress of projects and control costs and that type of thing – but it’s more about the people side of projects; it’s about being able to coordinate a very diverse group of people often without the authority that we need to be able to do that…where people are doing different jobs at the same time, or other people in the organization have their own views on the project.

So the people side of projects is absolutely critical to their success, and on which there is often not enough focus.

Some experts say failure to benchmark and carefully measure a project’s progress at various phases is one of the commonest reasons why IT projects often go off track. What are your views?

I think measurement of projects is often a difficult thing to do…to define what the parameters are that we should be measuring in order to track the progress of the project itself. But I don’t think that should put us off doing it. Measuring the progress we are making, being able to understand when a problem is likely to arise is absolutely important.

But I think it goes beyond measuring merely statistics or metrics around the progress. It’s also about being able to take a broader view, and monitor very carefully things like: how relationships between people in the project team are proceeding, what the buy in is of the stakeholders that we have – in addition to simply measuring how costs or timelines are proceeding.

It’s also important to have your finger on the pulse, as far as the relationships between people inside the project are concerned.

I understand that the University of Waterloo is involved in an initiative called Net Hope. From the looks of it the goal seems to be to study IT project management practices, with a view to improving them. Can you tell us more about Net Hope?

Net Hope brings together a number of different aid organizations including Plan International (formerly Foster Plan), Save the Children, Oxfam and others (17 such organizations) with some of the technology companies, including Microsoft, Cisco and others to work on technology-oriented projects that support Third World development. What we’re particularly excited about is that our students will work together on these projects, supporting Third World development.

In big IT projects you hear about how important it is to get complete executive buy-in before actually launching. What’s your take on this?

I think that it’s very rare for a project to be successful that doesn’t have the level of executive commitment and buy in that’s needed for that success to be able to happen. And this is something I think senior managers need to probably understand better – the extent to which their opinion and their authority matters in the success of the project.

When I talk to project managers often one of the biggest frustrations that I see is, that often the success just isn’t there from senior management to make the project successful. So no matter what they do – that project is dead from the start. And that’s obviously a very frustrating thing for a project manager. But it’s also very wasteful for the organization that has committed resources to it, but isn’t willing to put the muscle behind it to make it really happen.

Professor Carr thank you for sharing your ideas and insights on IT Project Management with us.

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