Start Well, Finish Fast
“It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.” — J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)
How you start a project can predict how you finish it—if you finish it at all. In fact, most IT projects end badly. More than a decade ago, The Standish Group released its now famous Chaos Report, claiming that more than 30 percent of all IT projects were cancelled before they were completed.
But there’s hope. The right planning and project design can stave off failure. It can even help you work faster, if you plan your work with a modicum of skill.
Measure Twice, Cut Once
We all know that you have to spend money to make money. But did you know that you have to spend time to make time? The time you spend planning a project—often ignored, because it takes so long—is time that pays for itself in the long run.
Start with a written plan and make it thorough. Don’t be afraid to draw on the standard tools in the project manager’s toolkit. These include a project definition or charter, timelines with beachheads, a detailed scope statement, a budget, a list of assumptions and sub-plans for risk management, resource management and communications.
It’s not the plan that’s important, but the process of planning itself. It’s what you have to predict, account for, cut out, emphasize and come to grips with that gives you clarity.
Trim the Fat
There’s a funny thing about projects: They tend to grow once you get started. It’s called scope creep, the way that little features, details, tasks and functions get added to projects once they’re under way. And small as they are, they have seismic effects as a whole: They bog you down, chew up your time and make you blow deadlines.
What you need is a way to crush scope creep, and the best way is to include two statements in your project plan. The first is the “scope statement,” which says what you’ll produce for this project and defines the work in exact—even exacting—terms. The second is the “out-of-scope statement,” which explicitly states what features, functions or work you won’t do. It names all the options that are nice to have but won’t be done for reasons of time, money or both.
Each statement is vital, but it’s the out-of-scope statement that keeps clients, colleagues and even your boss from adding too much frosting to the cake.
Share & Share Alike
Now that you have a plan—and a good one—don’t let it languish in a drawer. Give it to each team member, manager or anyone else who has dominion over your work. And make them read it.
In fact, ask them to make comments—even tough ones. You’re not looking for bleached and sanitized feedback. You want people to shoot holes in your timeline, find problems in your specs or challenge your assumptions. It might be a bitter pill to swallow, but that critique will help you find problems before they metastasize.
When you’re done, ask your team to sign or at least initial the plan. That way you know they’ve read it, and they’re bound to it as closely as you are.
The Right Tools
If you build a house with nothing but hammer and nails, it falls down in the first strong wind. Imagine if you had to build a palace: With today’s high-end CRM and ERP apps, SANs and Web sites that span thousands of pages, the average IT project can be a palace indeed.
You need the right tools. First up is Microsoft Project, which can help you with task lists, work breakdown structures, resource assignments, timelines, Gantt charts and more. (If Project is out of your budget, just Google “project management software” for dozens of alternatives.)
Other good tools include GreenArray (www. greenarray.com), a hosted tool that combines Six Sigma and Balanced Scorecard methods, and ProjectDox (www.projectdox.com) for document sharing. And don’t forget some of the lesser-known lights of the software world, such as MindJet’s Mind Manager (www.mindjet.com). Its mind-mapping and brainstorming features, not to mention its integration with Project and Outlook, can speed up just about any project.
So what are you waiting for? There’s a plan to write (and share). Tools to find (and put to use). And work to be done. It’s time to get started.
David Garrett is the former director of Information Technology for GMP Companies Inc., a biotech company with global operations, and the director of new media for Run With It, a site design firm. You can e-mail David at firstname.lastname@example.org.