10 ways to improve IT project management

In advance of OMB’s upcoming big announcement, blogger Alan Balutis offers up some last minute suggestions on how to improve IT management.

The Obama administration is almost ready to reveal its information technology review plans.

On Nov. 19, Jeffrey Zients, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, and Vivek Kundra, the federal CIO, are slated to announce the plans and also report the fate of several projects that were halted previously for review. Zients, speaking at a Nov. 1 Excellence in Government conference, provided some hints at what we might expect.

“We’re rolling out a range of policies and implementation plans including increased budget flexibility, simplified and strengthened project management practices and specialized IT career paths,” Zients said. He also hinted at the possibility of creating a career track for program managers and other IT workers, such as contract officers.

Kundra, at the same gathering, praised a project that had been broken down into smaller increments so that functionality could be deployed more quickly, often in the first 12 to 18 months. All these would be welcome changes; I look forward to the 19th.

But there is another deeper concern and issue that needs to be addressed at the same time. Large information technology projects rarely fail due to IT problems alone. In fact, most projects that struggle are part of major business transformations; smaller, more routine IT projects are more likely to complete their project life-cycle without issue.

Major business transformations in the federal government are often treated merely as an IT initiative, as opposed to the complex organizational change management challenge they actually are. Large IT projects invariably involve significant changes to business processes, yet agencies often fail to appreciate the magnitude of change involved and consequently fail to manage accordingly. As a result, these projects lack organizational resolve, dedicated political-level sponsorship or adequate project oversight, all of which are fundamental to improving the overall success of large IT projects.

So at the eleventh hour, let me offer up one more set of recommendations for Zients and Kundra to consider. Call it 10 tips for better project management.

  1.  The Deputy Secretary’s group (hereafter referred to as the President’s Management Council or PMC) should determine the government’s capacity for large IT-driven business transformations and strictly limit the number and size of concurrent projects accordingly.
  2. The sponsoring organization should commit and hold accountable senior executive leaders for the duration of the project. This requires solid political support at the highest level and project leadership at the Deputy Secretary level.
  3. Shorten project approval cycle times for incremental and low-risk projects.
  4. The office of the CIO should continue to strengthen overall project reporting processes to provide the PMC with an effective means to quickly assess the progress, timeframe, and risk profile of ongoing projects.
  5. The PMC and the CIO should ensure project post-mortems are a regular part of project oversight.
  6. The PMC should establish an independent advisory committee for IT to provide expert and independent advice on the issue of large IT transformations.
  7. The PMC should take a portfolio management approach to IT investment and management.
  8. Project sponsors should invest a greater percentage of the project budget than they now do in up-front planning to ensure more robust business and project plans.
  9. Contracts should contain “off-ramps,” giving the government the option of terminating the relationship with an underperforming or unsuitable vendor and replacing the vendor with a new one, or stopping the project.
  10. The PMC should create a forum, outside the regular procurement process, for ongoing dialogue between the IT industry and government senior civil servants.
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