Operation Project Salvage: Engage, Disengage

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IT projects can go south for a number of reasons. From a project manager standpoint, the first step isn’t pinpointing the specific reasoning, just recognizing point-blank whether it’s failing or not. Even this in itself can be difficult, and the ability to do so often determines whether one is successful at managing IT projects. Much of this skill is just about evaluating performance: Is the IT professional doing his or her job quickly and correctly? Will he or she be able to meet the project deadline? If not, it’s time to replace that person, bring in someone to help them or shut it down completely and try again.

Kyle Gingrich, director of products and services for skills development at the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), has dealt with salvaging an IT project many times over her career and recently offered some advice for the incoming IT professional hired to help turn around a failing project.

“The first phase when coming into a new project is to get familiar with what the ultimate goal of the project is,” Gingrich said. “What were the timelines around it? What were the risks associated with it? What mitigation planning has been put there in place?” Gingrich said that a new, incoming IT person needs these questions answered so he can properly address the situation’s problems.

In all fairness to the previous IT person (who we are thoroughly lashing), more goes into an IT project’s failure than just the failure of that particular IT professional’s performance. Poor scheduling and unrealistic expectations can create an impossible goal. Couple that with a little professional hubris, and the entire project becomes a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.

“We’ve found communication to be the biggest obstacle and the biggest failure point for an IT project,” Gingrich said. “If good communication and planning aren’t put in place in this exact situation where you switch out your resource to come in and clean up a failing project, that’s where problems can lie. If they don’t have a clear path of finding the right information, then there’s a lot of opportunity for additional things to go wrong.”

Even if those additional things do go wrong (most likely they will), and it’s communicated to the project manager, the role of an IT professional doesn’t end there. Making sure it’s sent along with feasible ideas for them to move forward with is a key part of the communication. In other words, if you know it’s going to storm, at least give them an umbrella.

“Being a good IT person is being proactive,” Gingrich said. “If you know something’s going wrong, make sure you can list alternatives before you communicate it. Go to your stakeholders with [these alternatives] so they can make a quick decision. If the timeline was unrealistic from the beginning, that’s a big problem and may be the cause of the project failing. If that’s the case, again, good communication helps reset realistic expectations of what it’s going to take to get it done.”

As much as we want projects to live and die in the hands of IT professionals, it’s never that simple. Often they are the scapegoats for the mismanaged schedules of stressed project managers and other things out of their control. The path to avoid this is to communicate early and often to the powers that be any issues or concerns they have about the environment they’re working in.

“Unforeseen things are going to happen,” Gringrich said. “Corporations and companies can change their executive management and then all of a sudden might change your resources. You may have staff let go that was initially in your plan.”

This may require a project team to regroup. “You go back and look at what your overall goals were, get everyone together and really look at where you are right then and where you need to be.”

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