Ed Toner

Project Success Factors



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In the IT community, we follow trade magazines to keep in touch with industry news and shifting trends. Some of us even go as far as to dig up the research leading to the claims in those publications. For years, I have subscribed to the CHAOS Report from the Standish Group. Standish focuses on software projects, successes, and failures, applying the objective analysis of thousands of projects worldwide. The CHAOS report is the largest and longest-running project research study to my knowledge, for years cited by industry magazines as the standard of research. Over time, I have seen little change in the report’s top factors for success except for one recent addition, “emotional maturity”. The other top success factors are executive sponsorship, user involvement, and optimization.

Taking a little artistic license here, I am going to interpret this portion of the report from my point of view as a State CIO. In the past, my liberal interpretation of standards and reports had my direct reports referring to ITIL standards as ED-TIL. Apologies ahead of time to the Standish Group if my interpretation misses the mark.

Executive sponsorship has always been the primary project success factor in the CHAOS report, and it is certainly not limited to project success. Executive support is a major factor in team morale and engagement in general work and culture. Any initiative important to an organization’s success will be executive-backed, with clearly defined objectives and a compelling vision of what the initiative is and why it is important.

The State of Nebraska’s IT consolidation could never have been successful without the active support we received from the Governor and other State Agencies. All organizations should have an executive who cannot only name the projects they are sponsoring but have detailed knowledge of the projects along with current issues and obstacles. Attendance at critical meetings by the executive is vital. Delegating this responsibility does not send the message required. This is where the essential elements of project controls begin, with one visionary responsible for keeping the diverse parties involved on task, focused and cross-functional alignment in place. This is how to eliminate finger-pointing during the inevitable frustrating times, a missed deadline or going over budget.

I feel that too often the Executive sponsor does not understand their role as the glue that holds the interacting teams together. Sometimes the project manager and the sponsor interact so infrequently that the real issues and project obstacles overpower the project’s success. The likelihood of failure begins to increase as soon as the executive becomes blind to the issues and obstacles. Gartner reinforces this finding in the publication, Where the Buck Really Stops for Government IT Project Failure, recommending:

“Before a government organization undertakes a mission-critical project with an IT component, the CIO should assess the aptitude, willingness, and readiness of the organization's executive leadership to do what's necessary to make the project succeed.”

User Involvement is essential to the successful delivery of the final product. It is comprised of a clear definition of project requirements as defined by the customer's needs. The frequency and tone of the communication used within the project team is equally as important as the messaging to external customers. Encouraging the participation of the customer in the decision-making process results in a more positive attitude portrayed by the project team and has a direct effect on all customers’ acceptance of the product.

Emotional Maturity, which I was pleased to see added in the last report, is extremely important. It represents the ability to handle issues as they come without unnecessarily escalating. This occurs often in the project realm. More often than not, I find in my investigation of an escalated issue, the appropriate teammate has already addressed the issue and no further action is necessary. Emotionally mature individuals want to fix the issue that is in front of them and seek help at the appropriate levels, only resorting to escalation when it is necessary and warranted. These individuals accept full responsibility and avoid blame as a means of deflection. Emotional maturity means addressing the issue at hand and rallying those resources needed to fix the issue.

Optimization I interpret as using Lean principles to “optimize” or eliminate business processes that are no longer necessary, also known as “non-value added” processes. In my experience, the reuse of existing technology (where it is possible to do so) factors into optimization. I pair this with the understanding that it is necessary to modernize the existing technology to fit the needs of the customer. I recently wrote about Incremental Innovation, a series of small improvements much like Lean’s continuous improvement model.

It is clear to me that the four primary investments: executive sponsorship skills, emotionally mature environment, user involvement, and service optimization are critical and were a major factor in our recent Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) project. The project had a high level of attention across the State, and the OCIO had the Executive Sponsorship necessary from the Department of Administrative Services. Issues were handled at the appropriate level and were properly escalated. User involvement across the State enterprise and the University system was in place. To optimize our systems, we eliminated the previous customized code that was no longer necessary. The result was an on budget and on schedule project.

The lasting result of this successful project was a sense of teamwork and comradery between the OCIO and DAS groups, which I hope will continue to deliver benefits long after the project.

Thanks to all that contributed to the ERP project, and thanks to everyone for what you do each day for the citizens of Nebraska.


Ed Toner