The next time you conduct an IT assessment for a company, consider the IT Project Hierarchy as you develop your recommendations. I developed this version of an IT Project Hierarchy as a CIO many years ago to help my management team understand that to accomplish our company goals, we had to take care of “first things first” and to position our company for success.

In this article, I’ll review the levels of the IT Project Hierarchy and show you how you can use it to gauge your client’s ability to set priorities and undertake IT projects.

Why follow an IT Project Hierarchy?
Companies are similar to children in that they must crawl, develop strength and agility, and learn to walk before they can run. Like small children, companies will stumble, trip over their own feet, and bump into things as they develop their walking skills. Companies will also often overestimate their abilities: They want to pursue high-profile strategic projects before pursuing more “nuts and bolts” tasks. To complicate matters, most senior managers lack a solid understanding of technology and their company’s dependencies on technology. They know they need technology but aren’t necessarily sure about how it all fits together.

The challenge is that when you pursue a strategic project in an environment that has a wobbly foundation, you set yourself and the company up for problems that make the project inevitably cost more, take longer to complete, and have a lower chance of success.

Your task as a consultant is to provide a path that defines how the company can reach its goal. By helping your client assess its technological foundation—using this IT Project Hierarchy—you lay the groundwork for success (see Figure A).

Figure A
IT Project Hierarchy

Notice that the strategic projects are at the top. Again, you’ll often find that senior management wants to immediately go after the “fruit” at the top of the hierarchy. However, the success of any strategic initiative is dependent on the foundation that exists in the lower levels.

Here’s an example. Assume that the company you’re working with wants to acquire another business. The challenge, which is significant even for a mature organization, is magnified if the company doesn’t have a stable infrastructure, a qualified staff to support the new business, or stable and scalable business applications to support the new addition.

In this example, placing more business needs and IT dependencies on a fragile IT environment ultimately leads to problems. While there may be times when a company cannot position every “layer” as well as you might like, knowing the company’s business objectives—and whether fundamental IT capabilities exist—allows you to help address your clients’ tactical initiatives and position yourself and your client for strategic opportunities later.

When I was a CIO, one of the very first concepts that I would discuss with senior managers, department managers, and the IT staff after conducting an IT assessment of the company was the strength of its lower hierarchical layers and whether the company was positioned to work on strategic initiatives. If it wasn’t, I “set the stage” for what was needed to get us where we could work on the strategic items.

In some cases, that will mean the company will make investments up front to prepare for opportunities later. For example, waiting to upgrade systems until a key strategic project initiative is started usually delays the strategic initiative opportunity and adds risk that the project’s outcome won’t be satisfactory.

Addressing each level of the Hierarchy
Here’s a look, from bottom to top, at the five levels in the IT Project Hierarchy and how consultants should approach each one:

  1. Issues and Support Assessment: Know which of the company’s objectives, challenges, and business issues have IT dependency before you start initiating new projects.
  2. Staffing, Support Desk, Change Management: Understand the IT department’s ability to handle current support needs and verify the existence of change management processes that are scaleable to support more users and business growth. These are required foundation elements.
  3. Systems Infrastructure Strategy: Companies are more dependent on their computer systems and networks than ever before. Every hour of downtime causes significant user frustration and loss of productivity, translating into lost income for the company. While your clients don’t have to have full capacity in place to handle certain “what if” growth scenarios, they should have a planned strategy with cost expectations to implement incremental capacity upgrades without threatening the stability of the business. To do this, proper planning is required, and certain components of the infrastructure must be in place to add capacity safely and predictably.
  4. Business Applications Strategy: Stable business applications are essential before adding large groups of users and to achieve the levels of productivity needed by the company to achieve optimum profitability. In some cases, the strategy may be to replace an existing legacy system. Getting new enhancements or new business applications in place is often a prerequisite to strategic projects. In fact, a business application replacement initiative might be considered a strategic project.
  5. Strategic Projects: I generally classify these into two groups: Acquisition projects and Strategic Initiative projects. Both types of IT efforts require positioning and planning to accomplish successful results in a predictable fashion.

An example
What can happen when you fail to follow an IT project prioritization hierarchy? Consider this, for example: How many companies have you seen that have been successful in acquiring multiple companies and ended up with multiple e-mail address schemes on multiple software platforms because they haven’t standardized their infrastructure capabilities? This is a small example and may not seem like a big deal, but the ramifications are significant. Consider the issues that exist in such an environment:

  • Higher support costs requiring multiple e-mail application expertise
  • Hampered communication throughout the company
  • Curtailed ability to operate as a single company, keeping the merged business from embracing a common culture with consistent values
  • Frustrated vendors and clients who view the company as separate entities
  • Upgraded services take longer to deploy across multiple platforms
  • Bringing newly acquired companies into the e-mail environment becomes more difficult

Bottom line
Working on strategic projects on top of a shaky lower level will ultimately cost your client time and money to complete the project. The company may get by early on, but sooner or later it’ll have to “pay its dues.”

My advice to consultants working with any company is to guide the client into stepping up to the base issues first so that when the company begins working on strategic initiatives, it’s positioned to run instead of crawl. The results of your efforts will be more significant and more predictable.

Mike Sisco is president of MDE Enterprises, an IT management training and consulting company based in Atlanta. Check out MDE’s IT Manager Development Series for more of Mike’s advice.

How do you prioritize projects?

Do you use a formula to prioritize IT projects? Share it with us or give us your strategies in the discussion below.