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Poor Project Management Dooms Many IT Projects (Opinion)

Organizations need practical application of fundamental project management principles.

Recently after quoting statistics about the high rate of IT project failures, a government leader asked: "Why bother since the failure rate is so high?" As a technology leader, I said that when done correctly, IT systems do add value. I explained that surveys find that IT projects mostly fail due to poor project management (which seems odd when you consider the pervasiveness of project management training, certifications and best practices).

So why are IT projects delivering less-than-stellar results, even in the public sector, where policies and procedures are common and following best practices has become a near obsession? While other factors impact IT project implementation, my experience supports that the quality of project management profoundly affects the outcome. Often, organizations get stymied by the complicated nature of project management, the time and cost involved in developing project management professionals, and a lack of understanding the need to develop internal skills.

(Almost) Everything Is a Project

First, it's important to define what a project is and adopt the right approach for handling it. One of my early mentors, Roger Dean, IT director of Hillsborough County, Fla., taught me that project management is necessary for any work efforts outside of daily operations. Since one-size-fits-all isn't the best approach, the larger or more complex the project, the more in-depth and formal the process.

Why DIY?

I believe having project management skills within the organization is important for government agencies. Who else has your organization's best interest at heart? Some people may argue that small organizations or those that heavily outsource services don't need internal project management skills. However, I believe these organizations need them just as much or maybe even more to ensure that they get the most from their efforts or contracts. Developing internal skills doesn't have to be costly or time-consuming.

When faced with an IT organization that lacked much in the way of formal project management skills and limited financial resources, Dean initiated an effort to train nearly everyone in our department. We found a firm to offer on-site project management training. It wasn't to the certification level, but it worked well. This approach was also extremely cost-effective and it ensured that the entire department adopted the right project management attitude. Besides the training, formal processes and procedures were developed and employees were educated regarding their use.

As a consultant, I perform project management services, and my approach reflects the belief that organizations need internal skills. In addition to providing best practices-based services, my partner and I train our client's staff and share our processes and procedures with them so they can do the job. I believe that project management engagements should be fixed-priced and deliverable-based. That's also what we do. Otherwise, what's the motivation to finish on time or early if compensation is hourly based?

It's not Academic

Finally, I've seen organizations become bogged down in complex processes believing that they must follow the best practices as taught, although the organization wasn't mature enough to handle all the requirements. Instead, organizations that deploy best practices understand that the theoretical processes work best when applied practically, corresponding to the level of complexity the organization can handle. That doesn't mean dumbing down or simplifying the process, but starting with the fundamentals and building on them as the organization becomes more comfortable with the process.

Project management isn't just for the elite few who become certified professionals. Instead, pervasive adoption of sound fundamentals in a practical manner will help improve the chances of IT project success.


Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas