Project Management: How IT and Business Relationships Shape Success

Inter-personal relationships between IT and business partners play a critical--yet often overlooked--role in the execution of projects. Agile development methodologies such as Scrum can bring IT and business partners together and help improve project success rates.

Earlier this year, managed care provider Centene finished deploying a new financial system. CIO Don Imholz says the project, which involved multiple PeopleSoft modules as well as financial planning and reporting software from Hyperion, was completed "very quickly"—in 12 months—and on budget.

Imholz believes the project was successful for a number of reasons, including that the company implemented proven technology and hired a systems integrator experienced with PeopleSoft to help. Most importantly, Imholz says the project was successful because of "good teaming between the IT organization, the finance organization and the systems integration resources."

In other words, much of the project's success came down to people skills.

The constructive relationship between IT and finance—and in particular, between Imholz and Centene's CFO, William Scheffel—ultimately kept the project on track when the going got tough. And it did get tough.

For example, at one point, the project team was having trouble setting up the technical environment needed to deploy a Hyperion module that a third-party was going to host. The difficulties that IT encountered put the project's schedule at risk, says Imholz. Had the relationship between IT and finance been acrimonious, the organizations would have pointed fingers at each other—a counterproductive move that would have further delayed the project. Instead, says Imholz, they worked together to recover the lost time and keep the implementation on schedule.

"We could have blamed each other and told each other we can't help," says the CIO. "But there's no value in doing that. It delays getting to the solution. If IT or finance tried to recover the schedule alone it wouldn't have happened. We had to do it together."

[ For more stories on project management see When Failure Is Not an Option and The 14 Most Common Project Management Mistakes IT Departments Make. ]

The Trust Factor

Good relationships—between IT and business partners, project managers and IT staff, and project managers and stakeholders—keep IT projects on track, say IT leaders and project management experts. Bad relationships, however, are a leading cause of project failure.

"I've seen projects that should have been successful fail purely because of relationship issues," says Greg Livingston, director of IS planning and system development at Shaw Industries, a flooring manufacturer.

The impact good and bad relationships have on projects is clear: "Negative relationships make people want to avoid each other or work against each other," says Bill Hagerup, a senior consultant with Ouellette & Associates, a IT leadership and project management consultancy.

On the other hand, when mutual trust exists between IT project managers and stakeholders, IT project managers are more likely to discuss problems that could threaten the project as they arise, says Imholz. If bad blood exists between the two groups, project managers may not be inclined to point out those issues, or they may try to cover them up.

"If you look at projects that fail, invariably someone on those projects knew things were going bad," says Imholz. "If you don't have relationships and trust, those things don't surface. And when you don't do something about problems in a timely manner, those problems invariably get bigger. In many cases, minor problems become more serious because they're not addressed in a timely manner. A culture of openness is absolutely essential to good project performance."

Furthermore, when something does go wrong with a project, business partners are less likely to place the sole blame for them on IT if they respect IT, says Shaw Industries' Livingston. In fact, they're more likely to give IT some leeway with the project schedule, he says.

"It doesn't matter what technology you're using, how talented your technology staff is, and how knowledgeable the business partners are on process and business improvement: Every system initiative will have issues," says Livingston. "If you don't have a relationship, you resort to pointing fingers as opposed to being transparent and admitting 'we messed up' or 'we didn't test that as well'. If you have a good relationship, you'll sit down and find a way to make it work."

Decisions affecting the project also get made more promptly when everyone involved gets along. "Fast and good decisions are crucial to keeping projects on track," says Imholz. "The failure of senior people to make decisions means decisions are made at lower levels of the organization. If you have a software developer who's waiting [for a decision] on a business requirement, there's three things that can happen: He can guess what to do and guess right. He can wait for a decision and while he's waiting he's not as productive. Third, he can guess and guess wrong. If those are equal possibilities, two-thirds of the time it will be detrimental to the project. And if you stack enough of those decisions on top of each other, it will negatively impact the project."

Relationships Get Overlooked

Despite the positive impact good relationships have on project management, IT project managers rely more heavily on software and methodologies than on building relations when they need to improve their delivery. It's no wonder: Compared to the time it takes to build relationships, software seems like a quick fix. IT project managers are also most comfortable with tools.

"As IT professionals, we're raised on technology," says Ouellette & Associates' Hagerup. "Almost all the training we get throughout the years is about tools and processes."

Consequently, he adds, IT professionals think process and technology is the answer to everything, including effective project management. While project management frameworks and tools certainly help, projects are fundamentally people-driven, he says.

"When things go wrong [with a project], it's people who have done something that didn't work," says Hagerup. "Problems start with people and they end with people."

Yet project management training and certification programs are only just beginning to address the people-side of projects and the importance of relationship management. Most emphasize task management, according to Hagerup.

Thus, project management training and certification programs reinforce the idea that project management is glorified task management. That's an erroneous idea.

Hagerup estimates that a typical project manager spends 80 percent of his time on task management and 20 percent of his time on relationship management, but should be devoting more time to relationships.

"I would suggest that the more visible, big-budget the project, the greater the percentage of the project manager's time should be spent on relationship management," he says.

Agile Development Improves Relationships

Shaw Industries' Livingston is using Scrum, an agile software development practice, to improve relationships between IT and business partners and ensure project success.

[ Related: Agile, Friend or Foe to Project Management? ]

With Scrum, says Livingston, business partners meet with IT during a four- to eight-hour planning meeting to look at all the projects in the backlog and to jointly determine which one will bring the greatest value to Shaw Industries. IT then divides the project into sprints—30-day increments of work. When IT completes a sprint, business partners assess IT's progress and suggest any necessary changes.

"The agile development methodology, just by design, promotes better relationships," says Livingston. "Scrum and Agile force interaction [between IT and business partners] on a more frequent basis. By doing so, IT delivers solutions on an incremental basis to the business, as opposed to the waterfall method, where it's a year and a half before the business sees the fruits of an initiative."

Livingston says it's not necessary for IT and other business functions to get along swimmingly for Agile to work effectively. Agile can work even if there's initial tension between the groups, he says.

"We've had groups with troubled relationships, and certainly initial meetings are not always effective out of the gate," he says. "But at least we can agree that we're going to focus on 15 key items in the next 30 days, and at the end of the 30 days, we'll get back to you."

The process forces IT and business partners to prioritize projects together and agree on the 15 items IT will complete in 30 days. Scrum also then drives IT's behavior. At the end of that 30 days, IT has to show something for its work. Scrum makes IT accountable to the business.

When business partners see IT making tangible progress every thirty days, their confidence in IT grows. Says Livingston, "If the business partner sees results more frequently than they used to, relationships can get better. Agile promotes better relationships just by forcing a process, forcing interaction."

Between the structure that Scrum imposes and the relationships that grow out of it, project delivery improves. Livingston says Shaw Industries is seeing this happen: "Better collaboration results in better value for the business," he says.

Follow me on Twitter @meridith.

Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies