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A clean bill of health

A health check can reveal the early warning signs of a floundering IT project and help you get it back on track, says Peter Osborne

IT-LED BUSINESS change programmes and projects continue to fail, yet many of the common pitfalls could easily be avoided by undertaking regular health checks and acting early on the intelligence provided. Performing a review of a project on a regular basis is a relatively simple and inexpensive exercise when compared with the multimillion pounds that are at stake.

A health check provides stakeholders, sponsors, those tasked with managing the delivery and impacted employees with peace of mind that the business benefits will be realised within the given time and resource constraints. Yet in the same way that most people only go to the doctor when they feel ill, the majority of organisations only perform a health check if they believe something is fundamentally wrong.

Projects can fail in any number of ways – not just in terms of being unable to deliver on what was originally configured once the investment has been made, but in terms of failing to achieve continually throughout the project lifecycle. A Dynamic Markets survey of 800 IT managers found that 62 per cent of IT projects fail to meet their schedules, with 49 per cent suffering budget overruns, 47 per cent having higher-than-expected maintenance costs and 41 per cent failing to deliver the expected business value and ROI.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that the numbers haven’t appreciably improved over the past decade. In some cases, they’ve gotten worse.

Even if the warning signs are visible, there is a tendency to carry on with a project in the belief that issues can be resolved by doubling efforts or throwing more resources at them. However, unless corrective actions that target the fundamental aspects of a delivery are implemented early, in most cases outcomes will not be realised, or a catastrophic failure will occur.

Fear of failure is often an overriding issue, coupled with the reticence of involved staff to flag problems when it reflects badly on themselves or their colleagues. “It is hard to change your eating habits when you only have, in your mind, a few pounds to lose!” Such political motivations mean that many staff put a positive spin on negative situations, while delivery teams focused on the programme outcomes can miss mitigating factors such as organisational change or external market developments.

Sponsorship and business logic
There are two major factors that influence the outcome of a project. First, it is essential to have the right sponsorship. Whether conceived to improve business processes, reduce enterprise costs or manage enterprise change initiatives, projects can be initiated by any function within an organisation, but without electing the right sponsor, the initiative is doomed.

Second, it is just as important to ensure that a project is grounded in business logic. All too often, organisations are unrealistic in their expectations, with the belief that technology provides a ‘reach-all cure’. Yet there are many other factors at play – such as organisation, management, process, people and environment. Technology is an enabler not a cure for organisational, process or management incompetence.

Health check fundamentals
A project health check examines a wide range of aspects. This includes objectives, scope, approach, plans and management, as well as quality of resource, programme governance and sponsor/stakeholder commitment. Essentially, it enables programme leaders to identify what is working well and why, what is not working well and why, and the actions necessary to resolve issues.

Ultimately, there are an infinite number of aspects, but there are five primary fundamentals core to an effective assessment – leadership, clarity of approach, effective governance, delivery approach and smart processes. The exact nature of a project health check will depend on the type of project being undertaken, the industry or sector the organisation operates in, and at what stage of the project it is conducted.

The questions asked and the actions required also change as the delivery progresses. At the design phase, for example, there is plenty of scope to adjust a configuration without materially impacting on the outcome, but once a build or delivery has commenced, alterations become increasingly prescriptive until a point of no return is reached.

Similarly, the further along the delivery lifecycle, the more pressing it becomes that the resources deployed are relevant for the specific phase and effectively swapped in and out as necessary. Individuals involved with design are often different to those that develop and those that build, and without ongoing organisational change these individuals can quickly become a hindrance when operating outside their area of expertise.

While it is hard to put a rigorous measure on this, as a guideline at least 60% of the resource should be able to perform the roles as configured within the original role descriptions.

If members of the delivery team are unable to articulate their contribution to the project success, or are unsure of their role, this is a sure sign that things are wrong. It is also important to ensure that lines of reporting are simple, logical and clearly defined, and that the organisational structure is kept succinct.

Reporting is fundamental to maintaining a credible and rigorous business case over the course of a delivery, and it is crucial that all those involved be able to demonstrate what the genuine status, assumptions, dependencies, risks and issues are at any given point. An active communications programme must be run in parallel to disseminate this information throughout the organisation. Inaccurate reporting and ‘positive spin’ encourages the wrong behaviours and inspires a false sense of security that can change the entire nature of a project. Regular project updates are a good sign of a well-functioning project.

You can lead a horse to water
Breaking down programme success into a small number of fundamentals is helpful in finding ways of assessing hugely complex programmes of IT and business change. But these fundamentals interact strongly and are mutually dependent, not exclusive. Clarity of purpose and effective governance, for example, play a vital role in ensuring a good fit with business context. Having smart process is much easier in a good delivery culture.

The latter hinges on bringing in key individuals for key roles and is achieved both through effective leadership and by active demonstration; in other words, the project manager is first into the office and the last to complain. It’s also achieved by a focus on quality. If team members see the project manager is targeting the things they view as being important, then it is possible to drive everyone towards a delivery outcome.

At a strategic level, the board must engage closely with programme content. Action-orientated boards will move on the intelligence they receive and ensure a programme is successful, whereas information-orientated boards report to stakeholders on progress but tend to take a back seat in terms of delivery.

Performing a health check provides a set of viable recommendations, but if sponsors and stakeholders fail to implement them, the exercise becomes almost futile. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water…

Performing health checks in an independent and structured manner – at the end of the design phase and during the build and implementation phases – and taking the right actions at the right time can be a cost-effective means of ensuring a successful outcome when compared with the cost of a system and the potential price of failure.

Peter Osborne, managing director, LOC Consulting

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