Online Extra: Leading change in projects

Author and consultant Randy Englund

David S. Spence

One of the biggest reasons IT reform falters, experts say, is because leadership is lacking. Their advice: Strong managers

In a scathing report published earlier this month, the General Accounting Office took to task the Interior Department's slow progress on IT reforms.

It wasn't the first time the watchdog office has taken aim at an agency's IT programs, and it won't be the last. The common thread of concern unearthed by GAO is stated succinctly in the report's title: Department Leadership Crucial to Success of Information Reforms.

The need for leadership on IT programs and projects, regardless of size, is essential'and too often given limited attention, analysts and program management consultants and executives say.

'More and more, project workers need to be focused on results,' said Randy Englund, a former Hewlett-Packard Co. program management executive who is now a consultant, author and lecturer living near San Francisco. 'That is going to be a cultural change that is going to be difficult. ' You need to be able to set up systems that show results.'

Tight budgets, as well as government mandates, are forcing more IT shops to establish program management offices. Estimates show that 65 percent to 77 percent of all organizations, private and public, now have formal project or program management offices, up from about 55 percent from a year earlier.

Government IT projects face unique challenges, including special levels of security for databases, privacy concerns and working with contractors.

Managers often find themselves hobbled by paperwork, despite the wide availability of project management software tools, and are losing track of broader objectives, causing delays, according to surveys.

'Be careful what you measure,' said Lou Russell, president of Russell Martin & Associates, an Indianapolis consulting firm, who spoke last month at the Enterprise Project Management Conference and Showcase in Manhattan. Her keynote address title: 'Robbing Peter to Pay Paul'Chaos in PM.'

'Metrics can be busy work'and feared,' she said. 'A fool with a tool is still a fool.'

'People are so overwhelmed now,' said Russell, a popular speaker and corporate trainer. 'Their first response is often 'no, and let me figure out why [we can't do a project]', rather than 'yes, and let's figure out how.' '

Surveys on project management completed this summer, one by Forrester Research and a second from the Center for Business Practices, found that IT project delays of one to three months is commonplace. One study shows that often there's too much report writing and not enough roll-up-the-sleeves work in project management offices.

'Without a little TLC ' a project will wither and die,' said Martin E. Morrow, CEO of Quovix, an Indianapolis software company, who spoke at the New York conference. 'You need to keep the team engaged.'

As more projects are done by virtual teams'workers in remote locations collaborating by Internet or intranets on the same tasks'Morrow said communications is a critical component in managing projects.

'The people side is probably the hardest and most important thing to do,' he said.

'People have a tendency to put a virtual project on the back burner,' Morrow said. 'We have to tell people there are milestones, and there will be consequences if you don't meet those milestones.'

Morrow suggests breaking work into smaller chunks and setting regular deadlines, as brief as two days, depending on the scope of the work.

But it's important to build a little bit of padding into a delivery schedule. 'Never put a plan into place without a little wiggle room,' Morrow said.

One of the greatest frustrations noted by project managers cited in the Center for Business survey was a lack of broad organizational support.

That means project and program managers must have the blessing of top executives and not be viewed as a threat by workers who might fear for their jobs in any streamlining.

'People in the project management office need to have access to all people'from the CEO to the rank-and-file,' Englund said. 'A project office can take the leadership role. Managers can't manage change unless they change themselves. You need to be a change agent.'

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