Addressing The Challenges Of Large IT Projects

Addressing The Challenges Of Large IT Projects 19/11/2018

Regardless of the project methodology adopted for your project, there are numerous challenges faced whenever an organisation takes on a large IT project or program. In the case of business transformation projects, these challenges can be magnified to the point it seems like your whole organisation is being crippled by the one project. While some of these can be successfully managed with the right Program or Project Manager, others require more specialised solutions and a focused approach.

Here I discuss 6 of the most common challenges (and solutions) to successful delivery of large-scale projects that I have experienced in over 25 years of delivering IT projects and programs.

Monitor & Control

Without doubt, as more organisations move from in-house business systems to Cloud and other externally provided solutions, projects are becoming more complex, riskier and can potentially de-rail without warning or without giving you the time to recover it. There are any number of reasons for this, from complex technology, limited skilled resources, conflicting stakeholder drivers, etc. to a higher perceived project impact on Business-As-Usual (BAU) activities and performance.

No matter the cause, large-scale projects require a higher degree of visibility and control so that any problems can be identified and resolved, before they become too big and cause damage beyond repair to the success of the project.

There are 3 key techniques to consider for the monitoring and control of your projects:

  1. Project Plan Monitoring
  2. Project Budget Monitoring
  3. Status and/or Stage Reporting

Additional monitoring can also be carried out at different levels by the project team.

Project Plan Monitoring requires monitoring of project milestones and involves identifying the critical path activities and other major decision points and measuring progress against these. You can also use preset limits or tolerances to determine the level of corrective action required when an activity or deliverable deviates from the plan. Tolerances can also be used to trigger escalations and can be set against time, cost, scope and quality.

Project Budget Monitoring using the ‘S Curve’ method allows you to compare the budget, the actual and the predicted spend at a given point in time to determine whether the project’s ‘burn rate’ is on-track. Another method for monitoring the project budget is Earned Value Analysis (EVA) which looks at whether the project is delivering value for money. The EVA method uses a number of equations to provide an overall picture of the project’s spend-to-date and whether sufficient budget remains to complete the project. 

Status and/or Stage Reporting by the project team, including suppliers and any specialist teams, will often give a good indication of problem areas, provided the reports give quality data and there is a culture of openness and honesty about project progress.  Additionally, by monitoring the level of project risk and the success of any risk mitigation, the Project Manager can pick up on problematic areas in advance. Issues that may affect the business case and/or the critical success factors of the project can also be identified by monitoring the level of project change requests submitted.

Stakeholder Buy-In

It is normal to expect that the bigger the project, the more stakeholders it will have. More stakeholders simply mean that getting agreement on project decisions will be drawn out and take longer. It is important however to get stakeholder buy-in and have agreement on a minimum viable product (MVP) as early as possible. Listening, talking and understanding the success criteria and expectations from each stakeholder will help arrive at the MVP. This in turn will help in getting stakeholder investment in the project’s success early on.

In organisations that follow a hierarchical structure with a low level of collaboration among teams and departments, it may prove to be an impossible task to arrive at a common agreement. Project Managers need to be ready to have many meetings with various stakeholders in order to reconcile any differences.

There are four key steps the Project Manager or your PMO can take to improve stakeholder buy-in:

  1. Get at least one person on your side who is an influencer for stakeholders, who knows the internal workings of the organisation and understands change management, communication and large-scale program management.
  2. Interact with stakeholders with an open mind. Try and understand their concerns and expectations.
  3. Identify and engage with the leaders of the organisation at all levels.
  4. Stay open to fine tuning your project team’s processes based on project performance.

Communication

One certain recipe for disaster in any project is broken or ineffective communication between project team members, including stakeholders. Wherever possible, online collaboration tools and effective communication methods (verbal as well as written) should be used. The effectiveness of communication methods should be checked and adjusted to suit your particular team and organisation on a regular basis.

Effective communication requires:

Regular Meetings preferably face-to-face. Meeting regularly with the entire team creates a sense of team, and an importance around the project. It gives all team members a level playing field and a chance to voice their ideas and concerns. The ability to make sure that your message was received and understood is highest and easiest with face-to-face communication.

Transparency. Transparency promotes responsibility by making it clear to every team member what needs to be accomplished as a team. If anyone in the team doesn’t have a clear understanding of the project or a problem, they won’t be able to contribute to the best of their ability.

Respect. A respectful work environment reduces conflict and makes teams more productive and effective. A conducive work environment promotes team work, better collaboration and higher levels of trust.

Collaboration Tools. Tools such as Skype For Business, Google Hangouts and other messaging options, as well as SharePoint, Google Docs and others promote collaboration between team members and will help in making sure there is effective communication in place.

Technology & Domain Skills

Projects involving niche technology or requiring complex domain knowledge need the right experts from Day 1. In projects of smaller size or complexity, it may be practical for the Project Manager to act as an expert in the project too, however in larger projects, it is essential to have a dedicated expert(s) in all the key make-or-break skills and knowledge areas.

If you cannot spare anyone with the required domain knowledge for your project, consider hiring a contractor to replace the BAU activities of your best performing staff member and free them up to work on the project. The value your project gets will be immeasurable and you will have developed a change champion at the same time.

For more technical or project related skills, there are many places to hire contract or part-time resources. Just make sure you have clear and measurable deliverables in place.

Change Management

By definition, the purpose of a project is to introduce change and depending on the size and complexity of the project, your team will experience changes to one or more of the following resources that they use in their daily role:

  • Software Application(s)
  • Hardware Environment
  • Business Processes
  • Documentation

In case of a major transformation project, all of the above will most likely be impacted and so just as important as the technology changes being made, is the need to have early agreement on the organisational or people change management that your project will introduce. This agreement needs to take into account the processes that are going to be changed, the teams that will be impacted and importantly, it needs to nominate at least one change champion from each impacted team.

Successful change management doesn’t hide from the fact that your business is changing, it should embrace the change and determine how to:

  • identify key supporters throughout the organisation and use them to deliver positive messages
  • create a sense of urgency around the change
  • develop and share the project vision with all levels of the business
  • empower employees to be actively involved in the change
  • identify any obstacles early and prepare necessary mitigation
  • establish a sense of camaraderie and coalition about the change
  • generate small wins throughout the project life-cycle to ensure continued support
  • drive change messages from top-down through frequent communications

Governance Structure

“If only problems and issues had been addressed earlier, the project would not have gone-off track and failed.”

As a Project Sponsor, how often have you heard these words? How often has the issue of governance, or lack of, been listed as one of the main reasons your project failed?

Setting up formal governance structures and escalation paths is critical and this should be done at the start of your project, not when problems arise. Formal governance is how you can enable faster problem resolution, but it is not a trivial task. Your PMO should put together a project governance model that is the right fit based on the project complexity, the individual’s roles and responsibilities, communications plan, project scope, timeline and all stakeholders themselves. A governance model helps in setting accountability, role clarity, responsibility, effective issue management and communication. Project governance also helps the Project Manager understand what to do when risks present themselves and how to deal with issues and their impacts.

Don’t forget there are other areas that can provide challenges to successfully delivering your project. These include Solution Quality, Scope Management, and Team Skills and these challenges need to be identified early and addressed by your project team during the planning of their project.

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