What does good look like in IT project management?

When I was asked “What does good look like in IT project management?", here’s why I answered, "Probably failure."

Excellence vs Mediocrity
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It was a brilliant IT project management question from a client.

"What does good look like?"

I breathed in ready to answer, "Ability to adapt to different stakeholder environments seamlessly ... deliver on promises ... good communications ..."

BUT then I paused and, after a few seconds of reflection, responded, "Probably failure."

You see those things are important but a lot of good project managers do these things as a matter of routine and still rates of project failure remain consistently too high.

The painful truth is that "good" probably results in failure because, well, "good" is not good enough.

I like to think there are a set of values that a project manager should live by, and in my experience these will lead to success or turn good into great:

  • Do what you say you are going to do,
  • Always, always try to do the right thing,
  • Communicate the good, the bad and the ugly.

By consistently applying these three pillars of great project management, you will increase your chance of successful delivery.

1. Do what you say you are going to do.

For me, this goes beyond delivering on promises. I suppose it's specific, measurable and timely delivery of very clear promises.

Doing what I say I'm going to do is a matter of integrity. I'd feel bad about myself if I failed to keep my word — it's my most precious currency. My word means a lot to me — I never take commitments I have made lightly.

If you're finding it hard to keep your word, there could be a number of reasons.

Deadlines and targets, a constantly changing environment, can cause project teams to suffer from “commitment drift.” Sometimes it is caused by organizational problems but more often than not it is down to over commitment.

Some project managers tell me that often saying "yes" is the only way to end a meeting!

This can result in a backlog of "yesses" circling like aircraft in a holding pattern above a busy airport waiting for permission to land. Just like the airport you only have capacity to land a certain number of "yesses."

In IT project management, good is vaguely delivering on vague promises, great is doing specifically what you said you would, when you said you'd do it. To get there:

  • Track commitments. Those aircraft circling that busy airport — do you think traffic control is tracking them? You bet they are! There's constant communications between the tower and the cockpit, attention to wind speeds and weather conditions and awareness of fuel levels. When you start to track commitments in this way two things happen. You make fewer commitments and you deliver on the ones you have made.
  • Have processes. I've lost count of projects that fail because of either poor processes or no process at all. It leads to inefficiency and waste, causes delay, and breeds negativity. Repeatable processes free up project team members to deliver promises.
  • Fewer but better "yesses." No can end a meeting as quickly as yes.

And with that last point in mind:

2. Always, always try to do the right thing

Good project managers do things right.

Great project managers do the right things.

There is a difference.

Stephen Covey, in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, uses a brilliant jungle metaphor. Given the task of slashing through the jungle brush, good (project) managers would have their team cut through the undergrowth regardless of any problems that faced them. Good managers accomplish the task, as they see it, but sometimes without regard for the bigger strategic picture.

Great (project) leaders, on the other hand, have a handle on that bigger picture. They ensure that not only is the task at hand delivered but they are aware of how it fits holistically. Leaders are the ones who climb the highest tree and shout, "Wrong jungle!”

Nailing the difference between "doing things right" and "doing the right things" cuts a swathe through project management work backlogs and gives you a total focus on strategy centered direction of travel.

3. Communicate the good, the bad and the ugly

When I was asked the question "What does 'good' look like?", good comms — communication — sprang to mind. The trouble is that I've known projects to fail that are led by great project teams with good comms.

I recall an early business trip to the States and my colleague recounting the reaction had got when he went into a stationery store and asked to buy a notepad, pencils and a rubber. In the UK, a rubber is an eraser. In the States, er, it isn't.

The point is that "good comms" is also subjective and open to interpretation depending upon your understanding of the term.

For me, great communication is open, honest, timely and never just what you think your client wants to hear. Don't hide bad news in the hope that it will "go away" — in my experience, bad news just gets worse.

If things go wrong, the first person with a right to know is your sponsor.

As you communicate "the good, the bad and the ugly," you will find that your influence grows and your sponsor will develop trust in you that literally cannot be replicated by any other means.

Think of trust like a joint bank account. Nothing makes deposits like uncompromisingly honest communication. It's a great investment, for example, when you communicate transparently you buy the benefit of the doubt in future 50/50 decisions your client or sponsor may have to make. 

Plus, the energy used to conceal a problem is all consuming. Your team's energy should be focused on delivering the project: doing "what you said you were going to do." Any time spent trying to hoodwink your client or sponsor that everything is going well, when it isn't, is cheating both you and them of vital resource. Honesty is liberating.

Furthermore, think back to that first pillar.

What greater opportunity is there to demonstrate that you "do what you say you are going to do"?

When you make that call to your sponsor to communicate an unexpected challenge, have an actionable solution ready to share. Tell them what you're going to do and when to solve the issue and then do it. In project management, I've never been a subscriber to the idiom "a problem shared is a problem halved" — without a solution a problem shared is more of a "problem two people now have." However, when you call and communicate (a) a problem and (b) what you're going to do to fix it, your sponsor gets to go about their business safe in the knowledge that you are going about yours.

The takeaway from all this is that if you've ever had an IT project fail, it probably wasn't that you were a bad project manager, it was more likely that you were being a good one and that good just got in the way of great. These days there’s no excuse, with so much of the project management function now available to be bought in "as a service," even if you find yourself lacking gaps can be quickly and inexpensively filled. Great has been commoditized! It can be bought!

That you're reading the repository of best practice that CIO.com is, tells me that you are great. Applying these three pillars of project management will help make sure that good never gets in the way of great again.

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