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29 March 2005

Avoid impossible unstoppable projects

By Andrew Clifford

We often define IT projects before we really understand what benefit they will bring. This makes projects both impossible and unstoppable. To avoid this, you have to fully understand business benefits and change before you think about IT.

We typically run IT projects something like this:

  • Devise an innovative use for IT and plan how it could be delivered.
  • Gather requirements to understand exactly what the business would want from such a system.
  • Understand the business impact of the new system.
  • Investigate the business case and if this is positive propose that the project proceeds.

When we run projects like this, we run into a series of familiar problems:

  • We can not plan the system before it has been designed.
  • We find it impossible to define and stick to statements of requirements. Often all we have is a collection of wish-lists. We have to implement stringent change control to make sure that all these requirements do not jeopardize the project.
  • We can not predict what impact the new system will have on the business. We initiate a change management programme to help manage the impacts. In the end, there are so many impacts that we can not achieve the full benefits of the system.
  • We can not quantify the benefits. Most of the benefits are intangible.
  • From the start, the project will have collected specialists in IT and project management who can not question the purpose of the IT without undermining their own position. Similarly, the business and IT changes become so intertwined that the sponsor can not question the IT without undermining his or her own position. The IT project becomes a political must-have. It becomes unstoppable.

If you want to avoid these impossible unstoppable projects, you have to turn this approach on its head:

  • Investigate and understand business opportunities and quantify their benefits. Decide which are the most promising opportunities to pursue.
  • Understand what changes in business practices and organisational structure would be required, and plan to make these changes.
  • Consider what is required to support the changes, including changes to the IT systems.
  • If required, define an appropriate IT solution to support the changes.

When you follow this approach, you avoid impossible unstoppable projects:

  • You understand and agree both tangible and strategic benefits before the project is started.
  • You understand what changes will be made to business practices and organisational structure before you start to define IT solutions. Non-IT departments can and will manage these changes because they have a direct connection to the benefits.
  • You derive requirements for IT systems directly from an understanding of the required business changes. You don't have to gather wish-lists, or continuously juggle conflicting requirements.
  • You might not need an IT solution at all. If you do, it is likely to be small, low risk, and easy to plan.

In this approach, you know exactly what the IT must do before you start. You don't use IT to lead business change, you just use it to provide efficiency and capability to support business change. If you run your projects this way around, they will be feasible and controllable, not impossible and unstoppable.

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