5 tips for keeping IT projects on track

What really works to keep IT projects from going off the rails

After more than 20 years managing IT projects at global enterprises, I have seen and experienced many situations. I’ve celebrated many successes and also faced many challenges. Some of these experiences have served as good examples of what works and what doesn’t in IT project management.

Now I am putting these lessons to work in my current role as chief technology risk officer at GE Capital. My job includes oversight of our IT investments, making sure our largest-scale IT projects stay on track and remain strategic to our business. Based on this broad set of experience, here are five key lessons that have proven particularly useful:

  1. Consistency is critical. The most useful project management advice you are ever going to get is also the most straightforward: Consistent results come from consistent execution. Half of you just got annoyed by how simple that piece of advice is, but let it sink in. Now think about the best project managers you know. They are always focused and busy, aren’t they? Consistent execution is hard work. Don’t underestimate that. In most of the cases where I see a project run into problems, the core issue can be traced back to fundamental mistakes. To use an American football analogy, blocking and tackling are often the difference between success and failure. Project management is a valuable skill set. Train it, nurture it and reward it.
  2. Frequent milestones keep things on track. We all manage our portfolio of IT investments (i.e., projects) using some form of a project management office (PMO). PMOs take various forms, and I won’t advocate one or another here. But I will suggest that you use your PMO to ensure that your project managers consistently set relatively frequent (based on risk) milestones and check in often to ensure that projects stay on track. If you only set long-term or high-level milestones, you won’t realize a project is in trouble until it’s too late. My team at GE Capital schedules multiple project benchmarks and iterative reviews to make sure the money being invested in an IT project is being used efficiently and that project goals are being addressed.
  3. Asking for help is not a weakness. One of the most difficult things to do in any profession (perhaps in life) is to ask for help. I have seen many successful projects that could have turned out quite differently if the manager hadn’t indicated (and I’m sure it felt to them like “admitted”) that the project needed help. The earlier those gaps come to light, the greater the opportunity to address them. My team “parachutes in” expert IT project managers with many years of experience to visit ailing projects and help get them back on track. In most cases, the collaborative, “I’m in the boat with you” help we strive to provide is welcomed by the project teams, who value the experience and proven ability of the “parachutist” to guide and execute these projects.
  4. There’s value to be taken from your failures. Sometimes it becomes apparent that a project is not going to meet expectations, and your smartest option is to stop investing in it. But a failed project can still deliver value. For example, finishing the first phase of a project (presumably the highest-priority deliverables) but withholding approval for a second phase is one way to exit a project that no longer makes sense, while minimizing waste. It may even be possible to salvage a struggling project by merging it with a related effort to accelerate delivery of a higher-value product set. Bottom line: Keep an open mind to alternatives but be willing to walk away.
  5. Conflicts between speedy innovation and governance must be governed with care. I think most of us can agree that speed and business agility are differentiators in our markets. GE Capital strives for speed-to-value to maximize customer benefits. New approaches and technologies like dev ops and arch ops will help us deliver value faster, but also present challenges from a governance perspective. From where I sit, appropriate IT governance is non-negotiable and it can’t be allowed to slow down innovation. If we can automate full-stack deployments, then we can integrate new forms of appropriate IT governance. I call this “full-stack governance,” and it is undoubtedly on its way. I haven’t figured out how to automate an attorney yet, but I am open to ideas.

Undoubtedly, technology will continue to evolve, and tomorrow’s IT projects will look different from the ones developers are working on today. While no one knows exactly what the future will hold, I know one thing is certain: An unwavering commitment to sound governance will always be critical to ensuring that the money your organization invests in IT development is well spent.

And while I’ve learned these lessons at large companies, they are fully scalable to any organization. You do not need to have operations on multiple continents to deploy these project governance tips. Whether you are investing thousands of dollars in IT development or billions, the importance of IT project governance and risk management is universal. Hard work and a consistent, rigorous approach to IT governance will help protect your company’s IT investments and make sure your IT group is prepared to innovate its way to success.

Patrick McGuinness is chief technology risk officer at GE Capital.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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