Some areas, like accounting, proceed in daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual cycles of work. But disciplines like IT are highly project oriented. IT's reputation lives and dies with its projects, which makes it essential to bulletproof your projects with strong checkpoints and practices that ensure their success. Here are 10 strategies that can help.
1: Manage by walking around
There's only so much you'll learn about a project's true health by reviewing project reports and memos. If you are the project manager, make it a point to spend time out in the trenches, visiting with staff. You'll pick up a lot about how a project is really going by reading faces and body language. Visiting with people in person at their workstations also keeps communications channels open.
2: Break projects into phases with checkpoints
It's much easier to manage a project -- especially a complex one -- if you break it into phases that can be incrementally tested and deployed. The project team gets to see some early results, as do end users. In addition, a multi-phase project with periodic checkpoints assures you of review time to confirm that the project remains on course and is on its way to delivering the value it's supposed to.
3: Use prototyping as an early-stage project technique
By engaging end users into early project prototypes so they can kick the tires on the project, you save yourself grief in later project stages. That early involvement reduces the risk of users being unpleasantly surprised because the project didn't turn out as they expected. Prototyping also encourages continuous collaboration between end users and project developers.
4: Identify your critical people as well as the project's critical path
Key project contributors may get sick or take maternity/paternity leave or leave for another job altogether, so it's important to identify early in the project who you can ill afford to lose -- and to have backup provisions in place just in case. Most project managers identify the critical path of project tasks that must absolutely be completed, but they fail to do the same thing with their staff.
5: Secure project backing
No matter how sound your project is, if upper and middle management -- and your immediate user-beneficiaries -- aren't sold on the project, it is likely to fail. Always secure project commitment before starting any work.
6: Use collaborative project management software
There are still companies that manage projects with spreadsheets. Some even use monolithic project management software that resides on a single workstation that a project administrator painstaking updates on a daily basis. But projects are never sequential in their communications or their workflows, so the software tracking projects shouldn't be, either. Today, projects can to be run in a collaborative environment with a project management solution that runs in the cloud. Each project staff member can update his/her task status in real time, giving visibility of current project work to others who are on the project team.
7: Develop a comprehensive QA and test plan... and don't go live until you're ready
Project managers get nervous when deadline begins to approach. Consequently, quality assurance and thorough check-out of projects may get skipped or cut short. This is a mistake. The last thing you want is a public relations nightmare on the first day a project goes live because end users and customers are calling in with their frustrations. If you're the project manager, a scene like this makes it likely that you'll be called in to someone's office as well -- something you definitely want to avoid!
It's a temptation to skimp on documentation when you're working a project and deadlines get tight. Resist temptation. If you include and QA the documentation of project modules, callable routines, etc., you make the project handoff easier for your project maintenance team. More than 60% of the average IT department's time is spent on systems maintenance today. Poorly documented projects are one reason why.
9: Conduct a post-project assessment
Even successful projects come with their share of road bumps along the way. Once the project completes, get the project team together to go over what went well and not so well. Then, take what you learn and apply it to the next project. Your project execution will improve.
Project work is hard and relentless. Once a major phase of a project completes -- or the entire project completes -- take time to celebrate the victory with your staff at lunch or dinner or with an office celebration. People need to celebrate their successes so they can be ready for the next project they're going to succeed at.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.