5 Insights to Success for your IT Project

“Congrats, you’re the project manager.” A phrase to strike fear into the life of any professional.

We’ve all read books on project management, some might have been on a training course and maybe you’ve even got a copy of Microsoft Project that’s gathering dust in the cupboard.

If you’re working in (or own) a small and medium sized businesses the odds are that you aren’t a full time project manager. If you have 15 other things to do today and have just been given an IT project to manage – this post is for you.

Having spent my working life designing, implementing and managing IT systems in small and mid-sized businesses I’d like to share 5 of my tips for project success.

Project management principles do apply and even structured approaches can be scaled down to our projects, so I’m just going to share my experience of real world SME IT projects and offer five insights.

So if you’ll let me park the PERT chart for a minute:

1. Expect the unexpected

Start with a plan based on things that you know but expect that the required outcome will change – it’s not because you’ve done a bad job or someone is trying to ambush you.
Often when you start an IT project it’s the first time an area of the business is really looked at, new aspects come to light, new opportunities are uncovered and you should be ready to change.
Business priorities change over time, so a project that takes 18 months will likely find it has to change or become irrelevant.
Change control is important and you would of course build it into your project management but a great way to handle this is to have a phased delivery wherever possible.
Plan for a Phase 1, 2 , 3 but expect to go live 1, 3, 2 or even drop 2 completely.
The other benefit of phased delivery is that the business sees benefits more quickly and in line with investment.

2. Get a clear and agreed Project Sponsor

If you’re the project manager, you should have accepted that you are the PM and everyone you work with on the project should know that you are PM – sounds obvious, but make sure it’s clear both ways. Stop if no-one is PM or ‘someone’ is PM.
Next – make sure you have a clear project sponsor, ideally a Director of the business and someone who can directly authorise spending money and allocating work to employees. They need to accept responsibility and make sure you have the resources you need. We ask them to sign a project agreement that is clear on their role and responsibility – it gets their attention.
If anyone would like it – I’ve posted below the responsibilities we define for a project sponsor.

3. Keep project documents simple

Don’t get hung up on what tool to use for project management documentation, you don’t want to have to learn a whole new package, and the worst thing to do is to start with a fabulous work breakdown structure, Gantt chart and critical path that is never updated.
Start with a project front sheet or summary. Clearly list the objective of the project, who is the PM, sponsor and list team members and roles. It’s useful to include everyone’s contact details and those of any third parties involved in your project.
Have a list of tasks (what, who, when) grouped together into phases, sub-phases with a few key milestones. Keep it simple enough that you can review it easily with everyone when you have a project meeting, update it quickly and get it circulated to the project team like clockwork.
Run an issues list (issue number, problem, impact, planned action, resolution) that captures and tracks resolution of problems and key questions as they come up. Giving each an issue number helps in communicating (easier to say ‘Issue 9’ than ‘the problem on the order entry screen, where it errors when you …’).

4. Find a busy person and ask them to help you

You can’t do everything and some people have a real knack of just getting things done, find them and make them your best friend.
A good project team has a mix of skills, strategic thinking, project planning and those that chew through tasks they are assigned.
You’ll find that it’s the person who always looks busy.
Get your project sponsor to buy you some of their time – respect them and value their efforts.

5. Keep calm and carry on

Your project means change, people need help handling change and carefully handling change in the organisation is vital to success.
Stay calm and remain consistent. As PM you should be the rock on which the project is built. It’s another reason to keep the documentation simple and be like a Swiss clock in all you do.
Confidence in you will become trust, that trust will help you to share the vision of the end goal you have, that shared vision keeps people together and working to the desired result.

If anyone would find it useful – I’ve posted below the responsibilities we define for a project sponsor.

Project Sponsor – Role and Responsibility
Commissions others to deliver the project and champions the cause throughout the project. Involved from the start of the project, including defining the project in conjunction with the Project Manager. Once the project has been launched ensures that it is actively reviewed and that once complete lessons are learned and applied.
• Acts as champion of the project
• Ensures resolution of issues escalated by the Project Manager
• Makes key organisation/commercial decisions for the project
• Assures availability of essential project resources
• Ultimate authority and responsibility for the project