Managing Successful IT Projects
Managing IT projects, small or large, can become a source of frustration and disappointment for everyone involved when things go wrong. Whether you are creating a new software product, modifying an existing one or simply installing and putting a commercial software package into operation, there are many different challenges for the project manager and the team along the way to the finish line. Let’s face it, if you haven’t traveled the road before and are exploring new territory, you must prepare yourself and your team to face the unexpected and quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Even if you are running a project that is similar to ones you’ve managed previously (a distinct advantage), it is very likely that the venue, extended team and goals are different.
My experience leads me to believe that IT project success requires developing high performance teams — not only focusing on the technical dimensions of project management. And every team is unique with its strengths and limitations, which makes it critically important to understand and build on the team strengths and to create a “fast learning environment”. When team members are assigned to a project work, they will naturally have varying levels of skills within the responsibilities they are assigned — for example, star performers in one area, such as implementing a design for a software module, may have a very limited ability to conceptualize and create the design. If you are fortunate enough to have a team member that is highly skilled in designing software, you can often pair that person up with other team members to mentor them and review their work. Understanding and applying this concept can provide a great deal of information for the estimation and risk management processes throughout the project while overall creating a greater probability of success.
To expand on this concept, here are a few ways that my approach for this leads to more high performance team projects by focusing on the following themes:
- Build trusting relationships within and around the team: When it comes to building a strong team, recognize that the peaks of one may be the valleys of the other, and that people generally avoid doing things they don’t do well. Openness and honesty within the team will create trust and are essential to accelerate learning because with trust, mistakes or limitations in individuals or the whole team can become learning instead of criticism. As a leader who has the trust of the team, you become a coach and a mentor of the team and individuals within the team can emulate this behavior, as you show them how. People are also much more likely to discuss problems and raise issues within the team at an earlier point if they trust that it will have a positive outcome, rather than a negative recoil.
Use “brainstorming” sessions during early team formation, especially with the entire extended team to accelerate your learning about the level of engagement and the strengths and limitations of individual team members. There is an especially useful approach to this called “Lateral Thinking” – a term first coined by Edward de Bono and then put into practice as “Six Thinking Hats”. This provides a framework to help people think clearly and thoroughly by directing their thinking attention in one direction at a time. As a facilitator of this activity you can learn an enormous amount about individuals and the entire team in a few sessions.
- Empower teams to explore their limits: Strong team members are great, but they can also create resentments or take on too much responsibility and this can slow the project down or create unnecessary critical paths. Recognizing and discussing this during team formation and throughout the project creates a way of exploring the current limits and risks of the team, and may lead to creative solutions such as of partnering less skilled and more skilled people and therefore, higher performance towards the project goals for the entire team.
Use estimation processes that engage the entire team for task effort and duration, and look at the variations in the estimations for earliest, likely and latest by individuals in the team. This allows you to apply a matrix of skills needed for tasks and to begin ask questions about the earliest and latest estimates of people who are the subject matter experts on the tasks.
- Focus on commitments, accountability and learning: Team commitment is reflected both in individual commitments to meet the scope, quality and time for project deliverables and in the overall team commitment to the project milestones. As project manager with this focus, you establish expectations for the entire team and create an environment of empowerment and trust. You also set the stage to “praise in public” and “negotiate privately” – so that team members know what to expect when commitments are not met. Missed commitments are often the greatest opportunity for individual and team learning, so use these instances as a chance to debrief, get insights and encourage people for the next time.
Clarity of what is expected from people is often aided by a RASCI chart and is generally essential at the start of the project. This type of chart identifies the roles of team members for task areas – roles of Responsible, Accountable, Supporting, Consulting or Informed. Of course, the Gantt, risk assessments and After Action Review are also essential for establishing a basis for commitments, accountability and learning for the entire team.
- Celebrate accomplishments of individuals and teams: Find the opportunities to publicly praise and celebrate team milestones, individual excellence and performance beyond the expected. Teams need encouragement and recognition to function at peak performance and everyone needs to know that his or her efforts are appreciated.
To imbue the team and it’s members with self-confidence and confidence in your leadership, it’s critical to consistently recognize and praise dependability and high performance. Doing this at regular meetings, casual encounters in the hall or on the phone, will set the model of recognition for the entire team. Getting your sponsors and extended team involved in this is also a really important step. You can even have other team members propose who should be voted MVP of the week! And of course, take time at each milestone review to celebrate and recognize team efforts.
While these four themes can be applied to any type of project to increase performance, I have found them to be essential for IT projects. Why? It’s simple: Engage the heart so the brain can function effectively. IT projects heavily involve intellectual, logical and creative processes that engage the analytical-logical area of the brain; and the brain has many defenses to protect itself. When we create a team environment that appeals to the heart, we create a raison d’être for people that motivates them to be there, step up and contribute – before starting time, while they are there and after hours. This isn’t about working extra hours, but rather about the mindset that is working when they are relaxed, playing or sleeping – when creative ideas and new solutions present themselves. That is the fuel for high performance.
– Doug Lowe, 2016