How to manage IT projects successfully

Graeme Freeman, co-founder of Freeman Clarke, a team of fractional IT & part-time directors for SMEs, discusses how to manage IT projects successfully within a growth business.

According to Boston Consulting Group, around 20% of IT projects fail and only about one-third manage to be described as successful in terms of time, costs and meeting expectations.

Managing IT projects is clearly not for the faint-hearted, especially if you’re not an IT expert. Yet it is often tempting for SMEs to take on IT projects themselves, often with the proprietor or CEO personally in charge. Clearly, that’s a tall order when even highly experienced IT managers often struggle.

That said, IT projects are often made or broken by the way they are set up. We see four critical steps that should help SMEs manage IT projects more successfully.

Firstly, someone at the most senior level – whether it is the CEO or another board member – must personally own the project and be genuinely interested. They need to have time to understand it, nurture it and have the ultimate authority to make decisions. The day-to-day management should ideally be handled by someone who has adequate time and sees it as their priority, rather than something they do if they get any spare time.

Secondly, the desired business outcomes must be agreed, and the scope of the project defined against those objectives. Desired business outcomes might be to reduce administrative costs by 10% or to enable the company to publish a new product catalogue within four weeks, for example.

The new IT system should not be seen as a business outcome in its own right: it is a means to an end. If the proposed project cannot answer the question of its purpose, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

A clear, big-picture view will also help define requirements, ensure that all the right people are engaged, and guide the project roadmap to completion.

Thirdly, as the saying goes, “what gets reported, gets done”. Successful IT projects demand regular reports that are actually read and acted upon. It may seem a little counter-intuitive, but reports should not focus on work to date, but on the remaining tasks and timescales.

Finally, it is critical to have a control loop to track that progress is being made towards delivering the desired outcomes and that deadlines are met. Without tight control, focus is easily lost and the project scope can get diluted. Worse, people’s attention will be diverted as they lose sight of the promised benefits.

Historically, IT projects were run using a simple “waterfall” model, but some projects are well suited to “agile” project management. But care is needed, as “agile” can be a buzzword that some IT suppliers like to use to avoid difficult questions and keep going until funds run out. However, good agile project management can enable SMEs to retain control and focus expenditure on the things that will add most value.

However the project is managed, it’s always worth celebrating its completion as a team. It’s also a good time to learn from success and consider how to replicate the success next time around.

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