Turning Fuzzy Ideas Into Reality

Government managers need the discipline, skills, tools and techniques of project management to successfully develop and deploy today's large, complex information systems.

by / February 29, 1996 0
He spoke softly, but his message was blunt. "State and local government senior managers," observed Gopal K. Kapur, "wouldn't know the process for managing information systems projects if it wrapped itself around them in broad daylight."

Kapur lives and breathes information technology project management. A teacher, writer and consultant on the subject, the former engineer from India is also president of his own company, the Center for Project Management, which offers seminars and training for public- and private-sector project management leaders and teams.

What Kapur has seen of project management in government concerns him. He is quick to say, however, that states and localities are earnestly trying to adapt project management techniques for system development, "but they need to become very good at project management and accelerate its training at a high speed."

Why the big hurry to adopt a management technique that was just a specialty of engineers and builders a few short years ago? According to Fortune magazine, today's flat organizations are increasingly focusing on projects as the way to do business. With automation and empowered workers taking over more and more of the day-to-day operations, many organizations are turning to projects and project managers as a way to manage change and get things done. With the business of government emulating the private sector, it follows that project management will become increasingly important in the public sector. But that's not the only reason.

Government is investing in more information systems today, and they are larger and more complex than ever, pointed out Martin Cole, a managing partner for Andersen Consulting.

"As the states have gotten into large, statewide programs with new technologies, it is extremely important that there is a discipline in place to keep together the disparate components of technology, people, distributed networks and the like," he said.

And if today's large systems are any indication of what's to come, government executives and senior managers will have their hands full developing and deploying tomorrow's systems. With the federal government about to give states a freer rein on how they deliver social as well as other types of services, agency executives will find themselves in the position of not just deploying large-scale projects, but also creating them as well. To succeed will require a heavy dose of project management skills.

That's what concerns Kapur. "States will have to be ready to take an idea from scratch, analyze it, look for a solution, develop it and then deploy it," he pointed out. "Project management is the necessary skill for taking an idea and bringing it to closure."

Projects are temporary jobs undertaken to create a unique product or service. They can involve any number of people and are led by project managers who must balance demands of scope, time, cost and quality in order to meet a client's requirements and expectations.

For decades, project management has been a discipline in engineering, construction and other industries where a key management skill has always been the ability to complete a job on time and on budget. Yet it's only been in recent years that the discipline has moved from a niche role to its current status as one of the leading reasons for success in some of the country's best companies, according to research in the Harvard Business Review.

As a result, project management has been touted as a new and better way to run a business. "Projects and project management are the wave of the future in global business," stated an article in Business Horizons (March-April 1995). "Increasingly, technically complex products and processes, vastly shortened time-to-market windows, and the need for cross-functional expertise make project management an important and powerful tool in the hands of organizations that understand its use."

With the success some companies have had using project management, interest has also increased in project management as a profession. The Project Management Institute (PMI), a nonprofit association of project management professionals, has seen its membership skyrocket in the past three years, according to Karen Condos-Alfonsi, PMI's membership and marketing manager. In 1995 alone, enrollment increased 40 percent to over 16,000.

Like other business trends, the practice of project management in government has taken hold somewhat slower than in the private sector. Out of PMI's entire membership, only 327 are listed as government professionals, with most of those saying they worked for the U.S. Department of Defense or the Army Corps of Engineers.

One reason state and local governments haven't practiced much project management has to do with the policy-driven approach to projects. According to Kapur, ideas for government projects are usually launched top-down by policymakers in state legislatures and city councils. Lacking any understanding of project management, policymakers simply pass their ideas down to agency heads, who then turn them over to middle managers for delivery. "By that time, the ideas have been so fuzzed up and poorly translated," said Kapur, "that whatever they end up developing is entirely different from the original need."

Government managers are also encumbered by the contract process and procurement cycle, both of which don't take into consideration such key elements of project management as user expectations and the process for completing the project. "I don't think state and local governments have come far enough in terms of recognizing that user expectations and how the project will be completed -- not just what needs to be done -- must be agreed to by vendor and agency before a project can proceed," said Cole.

Project management also has had trouble catching on in the field of information technology, according to Kapur. "Software and systems development has always been very frontier, cowboy stuff, working well with innovation," he said. Thanks to the early success computers have had, IS departments believe they can continue to achieve success without the discipline of project management.

Government isn't the only sector experiencing difficulty with project management. According to a recent study conducted by the Standish Group, a Boston-based research firm, more than $250 billion is spent each year in the United States on IT application development, involving more than 175,000 projects. More than 30 percent of these projects will be canceled before they are completed, and nearly 53 percent will overrun their initial cost estimates by 189 percent.

1. Mistaking every half-baked idea for a viable project.

2. Overlooking the stakeholders, forgetting the champions and ignoring the nemesis.

3. Not assessing project complexity.

4. Not developing a comprehensive project charter.

5. Not developing a comprehensive project plan.

6. Not designing a functional project organization.

7. Accepting or developing unrealistic and unachievable estimates.

8. Accepting status reports that contain mostly "noise" and not enough "signal."

9. Looking back and not ahead.

10. Not following a robust project management process.

Project teams tend to take an executive's idea, such as "we should have a data warehouse," and quickly begin working to produce concrete results as soon as possible. By skimming over what Kapur calls the pre-launch and launch stage, project teams are setting themselves up for certain failure.

"What ends up happening is that a lot of work is done, but very little progress is made," said Kapur. "This is because
IS people are not very good at measurements. They confuse effort with progress."

Pre-launch, according to Kapur, is where the half-baked ideas are turned into succinct project descriptions. He said that most of this work needs to be done by the client, not the IS staff.

The launch stage is where comprehensive plans and estimates are drawn up. "It's here that we see whether we can conceptually build the system," he said. It's also where the client finds out whether the project is worth the benefits they predicted in pre-launch.

The stage that project teams like to jump to is called "execute" by the Center for Project Management. Here, a project team spends 85 percent of its time scheduling and tracking the project's various deliverables.

Implementation -- the fourth stage -- requires the project team to stay with the project until the system has been smoothly transferred from the team to the client.

Cole believes that when an agency works with an integrator on an information systems project, three factors will contribute to its success:

* First, understand and agree on expectations. "You need to know what is it we're trying to do and how we want to do it," he said.

* Second, there has to be a commitment to success through executive sponsorship. This should include the executive's active involvement in periodic meetings to address issues. Commitment also requires that the client and vendor recognize the need to compromise in order to get to an end result.

* Third, recognize that the people on the project team are your most valuable commodity. Cole emphasized the need to assess carefully the quality and capability of each person assigned to work on the project team. "Years of experience and education don't necessarily matter," he said. "What's important is that they demonstrate that they can be successful in a large project management environment."

Finding the right person to lead a project is not an easy job. Some agencies will go through several leaders before they find the person who is capable of leading (see "Project Washington," p.1). Too often, the project manager is plucked from the junior managerial ranks and given a project to test his or her ability to manage.

Business Horizons refers to them as the accidental managers. "Senior managers in many companies readily acknowledge the ad hoc manner in which most project managers acquire their skills, but they are unsure how to better develop and provide for a supply of well-trained project leaders for the future." Kapur said that the mistake most companies and government agencies make is to give the manager's job to someone from IS. "Since project management isn't taught to business managers, they tend to turn to the technical experts to run a project. But IS people are only experts in technology," he said.

Kapur recommends that an agency first assess the project's complexity from both a business and technical point of view. Projects with a routine technical environment can be run by a manager with a business background, while those that are more technically challenging should be run by someone from IS. When the complexity is high at both ends, then it's wise to appoint experts from both areas to lead the team.

Is project management just another fad? Not likely, say the experts. All factors indicate a growing need for project management skills in business and government -- especially for information systems projects. With more state governments pressing for more freedom to create and manage programs and services their own way, and with the federal government concurring with this shift in responsibilities, the need for project management in state and local government is going to grow.

Kapur offered an analogy to demonstrate why project management will be vital in the years ahead. Back when AT&T was a monopoly, corporate headquarters and Bell Labs designed and developed all the telecommunications services and systems, which were then sent out to all the regional subsidiaries who were all great at deploying the systems and services to the public.

When AT&T broke up, the baby Bell companies suddenly had to design, develop and deploy their own systems and services. While accustomed to creating services on a small scale, they never had to create major systems and services on their own. Not surprisingly, the baby Bells didn't do very well for a number of years. Only now are they finally catching up, thanks in part to project management.

"I have no doubt that information system projects are going to grow in size and complexity for state governments," said Kapur. "They are no longer just going to deploy solutions but also create them as well on a major scale. All I can say is that states need to be well prepared for what is about to come."

For more information, contact Gopal Kapur, Center for Project Management, 510/275-8000; Karen Condos-Alfonsi, Project Management Institute, 610/734-3330.


As long as computers have been around, there has been project management software. In the old days, project management software ran on mainframes and only managed very large projects, such as NASA's Apollo space program. The software spewed out tabular reports with lists of tasks followed by the start and finish dates.

Today's project management software runs on PCs and not only runs task scheduling chores, it also gives the user a graphical view of
the relationships between tasks, something the old software couldn't do. Some of the leading project management software packages today include Microsoft's Project for Windows, Primavera Project Planner (P3) for Windows, Lucas Management Systems' Prestige for Windows, and AGS Management Systems' First Case. The leader is Microsoft Project, currently with more than 40 percent of the project management software market.

Any good project management software should have the following features: critical path calculation, cost management, resource management, multiproject management and chart generation.

How good are they? Published reports indicate that users can expect to save time and money in the right situations. "But they are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves," said Martin Cole, a managing partner for Andersen Consulting. "Using project management software won't get you to the end result, the other ingredients must be in place first."

Gopal Kapur, president of the Center for Project Management, believes project management software can be a distraction, giving users a false sense of security that they can manage more than is actually feasible. "Project management software is just scheduling software, a two-dimensional spreadsheet for tasks and calendars. It is not planning or estimating software and it's definitely not developing or proposal software." The best way to know whether you should use project management software, continued Kapur, is to first see whether the user is capable of manually calculating the critical path of a 30-task project. "If he can handle that," concluded Kapur, "then he will know what he can and cannot get out of the software."