Cliff DuPuy, who led the effort to migrate Mecklenburg County, N.C., IT operations from Microsoft Server 2003 to Office 365.

Sep 25 2013

Why Project Management in IT Is More Important Than Ever

Project management gains importance as IT organizations deal with increasing technology complexity and shorter time-to-delivery requirements.

Effective project management can be a perennial thorn in the side for workers of all types, but that hasn't been the case for Mecklenburg County, N.C. In fact, the county government's Information Services & Technology department managed to migrate 5,800 users from Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 to Office 365 — a rather significant undertaking — in just six weeks.

After building the cloud infrastructure with a systems integrator's help, IT leaders opted to handle the transition themselves. "The integrator migrated 15 users, but we felt like we needed to step it up," says Cliff DuPuy, director of the county's IT division. "We knew the culture better than they did, so we felt we could be more successful in doing the migration ourselves."

DuPuy attributes this project management success to several factors. A team of professionals with server, application, help desk and project management experience did the heavy lifting and engaged others in the organization, as needed. A daily war room meeting covered status updates and facilitated problem-solving, and a 10-person ground crew kept staffers and departments apprised of migration schedules and helped troubleshoot kinks in the process.

Adhering to traditional project management processes (without following a formal project methodology) and having the full support of senior leaders also made a difference.

"The fact that [they] gave us the opportunity to try something out of the box that was untested was the No. 1 reason why we were successful," DuPuy says. "They took a chance — and we delivered for them."

Unlike Mecklenburg County, too many state and local government IT departments are still under-delivering on project management, despite years of training and mountains of research on the discipline. An audience poll at NASCIO's 2013 midyear conference found that only 19 percent of respondents routinely developed projects with a uniform project process architecture, and only 8 percent said they routinely used a well-defined set of vital signs to monitor project status. Moreover, almost half (45 percent) of respondents said they didn't use well-documented processes to filter out half-baked ideas early in the process, and 59 percent said they don't identify or cancel troubled projects in a timely manner.

"Public-sector CIOs still don't know enough about project management, and there's very little time spent on learning and making it a part of their professional lives," notes Gopal Kapur, founder of the Center for Project Management, which helps organizations in the public and private sectors meet management challenges.

Yet, technology is morphing at a frenetic pace, and state and local IT departments continuously have to balance increasing demand with diminishing resources. A project's margin for error is much smaller today than in the past, Kapur says.

Consequently, Kapur advises IT organi­zations to focus on product portfolio management, which includes identifying and monitoring a project's key vital signs so the proper adjustments can be made if it falls into jeopardy. It also means defining shutdown conditions if projects go irreversibly off track. "No more than 10 percent of groups shut down or define runaway conditions for projects," he says, sometimes unnecessarily letting them go on for years.

Creating Oversight and Assurance

Thanks to a major overhaul of its project management practices years ago, the Georgia Technology Authority, which runs IT for the state of Georgia, doesn't let a project go off the rails without recourse. After a highly visible failure of a Medicaid information systems project in 2003, the governor's office put pressure on the state CIO at the time to revamp project management practices to avoid subsequent disasters.

“Public-sector CIOs still don't know enough about project management."

GTA instituted a variety of practices to ensure better project outcomes, according to Tom Fruman, GTA's director of enterprise governance and planning. As part of an emphasis on assurance, the group enlists third-party consultants or systems integration firms to do regular reviews of projects and to make recommendations (a process referred to as independent verification and validation, or IV&V). Also, the state's Critical Panel review committee reviews project details and their status each month to keep projects from veering off track, Fruman says.

"A lot of people do review boards or IV&V, but the fact that we do both is what's unique and what's required for a successful outcome," he says. "IV&V brings the facts to the table, and the review committee evaluates and makes recommendations. Without one or the other, it wouldn't work as well."

GTA also implemented an off-the-shelf software package last year to provide consistent reporting and project status visibility. Select IT employees also can attend a formal project management certification program, adds Teresa Reilly, director of GTA's enterprise portfolio management office.

Striking a Balance Between Expectations and Reality

Project management success requires a balance between strictly adhering to a methodology and modifying it to suit the realities of an individual IT environment and time-to-delivery demands, says Claire Bailey, director of the Arkansas Department of Information Systems and chief technology officer for the state of Arkansas.

"Balancing what you learn in books and knowledge of a specific methodology and then tailoring it to your environment and the reality of the situation is tough," she explains. "Some people get so regimented in project management disciplines that they need to do steps A, B and C before doing step D, but they miss the overall need to ensure that work gets done quickly."


of organizations don't have a well-structured project portfolio.

SOURCE: Center for Project Management

Bailey and the Arkansas IT team worked to guarantee that didn't happen to them. They adopted methodologies from the Project Management Institute, but only after first creating a cross-functional team that made the necessary adjustments to ensure the processes could work in their environment. "We had to figure out when we could apply it and when it might be overkill," Bailey says.

The state of Minnesota's MN.IT serv­ices group is trying to strike that same balance as it standardizes project management processes and methodologies — all part of a broader legislative mandate to consolidate IT across the state. "We're in the process of taking 80 ways of doing IT and rolling it under one roof and coming up with a more efficient way to deliver IT," says Carolyn Parnell, MN.IT's commissioner and CIO.

As the group inherited IT projects, it set up a state-level project management office to oversee the establishment of a universal project management standard. With different levels of project management maturity across the statewide agencies, the first order of business is to create a team to evaluate current methods against best practices and make a formal recommendation, explains Jesse Oman, the state's newly hired assistant commissioner of projects and initiatives.

Instead of standardizing on a single, rigid approach, however, Oman's goal is to develop common project management vocabulary, artifacts and methodologies and to continuously adapt those disciplines over time. "It doesn't behoove you to settle on one way to do every project," Oman says. "We want each of our project managers to have a varied, but defined, set of tools in their toolbox. Then we can empower them to pick the right one for their particular project. Nothing is set in stone."

Mecklenburg County's DuPuy agrees, noting that his organization benefited from formal project management methodologies such as the waterfall, a sequential design process named as such because progress flows steadily downward. But he chose not to rigorously adhere to any one method for the Office 365 migration project.

"It can be a struggle to adapt formal project management methodologies to some of these initiatives now hitting us in the IT world," DuPuy explains. "Sometimes, it's good to be formal and rigid. But with migration from on-premises to the cloud, it would have been very laborious and extended the migration out much longer than we wanted."

Seven Deadly Sins of Project Management

The Center for Project Management has been helping IT organizations formalize and implement effective project management for decades. Gopal Kapur, CPM's founder, says the firm came up with the seven deadly sins of project management nearly two decades ago — and little has changed since then.

Organizations pay lip service to the idea of project management but often fail to make it a top priority, he says. "No one makes the effort to educate clients and customers on the importance of project management and project success."

Here are the most common project management mistakes Kapur sees organizations commit:

  1. Failing to adhere to a project process architecture
  2. Treating half-baked ideas as projects
  3. Missing (or ineffective) leadership
  4. Employing underskilled project managers
  5. Inadequately tracking project vital signs
  6. Failing to conduct timely project triage
  7. Managing the project portfolio poorly
Charles Harris

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