IT Project Leadership #1: How to stop corridor conversations becoming business expectations - Stoneseed
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IT Project Leadership #1: How to stop corridor conversations becoming business expectations

Image of two people talking in a corridor

IT Project Leadership has never been more challenging and complex.

In this, the first of a short series, I'm going to look at some of the issues that you and I face and share some solutions. If nothing, else let's acknowledge that the challenges are universal and take solace from the fact that it's not just YOU!

The inspiration for this series came from a conversation with a CIO friend this week, I'm paraphrasing here but he said that IT Project Management for business is "like running a restaurant, the restaurant is full, every table is taken so we're also building an extension to increase capacity. All the customers are ordering à la carte. We're revising the menu constantly and upgrading the kitchen so that we can deliver better. Meanwhile, all the customers are asking why we're not serving at as fast as a McDonalds."

It is a high-pressure environment. Business needs innovation. I.T. is no longer a back office support function, I.T. is now a front and centre driver of business change and growth. This is GREAT and it comes at a cost.

The CIO I was talking with above has a busy IT Project portfolio, it is "scheduled to within an inch of its life" and although there is capacity for 'the unexpected', these margins for manoeuvre are slender. The wider business does not always see this and quite often members of his team are being approached by senior business managers with something that is "needed yesterday".

On a number of occasions, questions asked in passing in the corridor, at the water cooler or even in the bathroom (!), have become business expectations that the exec asking has requested a status update on a few weeks later.

The toilet one is actually the best example. The CEO asked a project manager a "would this be possible" type of question - in the gents!!! Like you do! The project manager said that the thing would be possible and both men went away with different perceptions of the conversation: The Project Manager thinking that he'd answered a question about what could be achieved; the CEO thinking he had set in motion the start of a project to achieve it! When the CEO asked the CIO for a progress report at a board meeting a month later the latter didn't have a clue what he was talking about!

This happens a lot, I mean not usually in the lavatories, but many IT Project teams talk of business "priorities" overwhelming schedules from out of nowhere. So, what can you do about it? Here are five thoughts:  

1 - Have a procedure (And share the procedure with everyone)

One project team I work with have what they call the "smoking break rule". In short, if the request can be satisfied in the time it would take to pop outside for a cigarette then they just go ahead and do it. After all, team members do this across the day, and it doesn't affect overall productivity and outcomes. So, things like ad hoc status updates, help with a project that has been delivered into service, an enquiry about whether it would be possible to do something, this kind of thing falls into this category.

Anything that might take longer or that could disrupt the schedule must be requested in a more formal manner, so the CEO's perception of that bathroom conversation would land on this side.

Slowly, business units are wising up to the fact that they can't just ask IT for something without it having an impact elsewhere.

2 - Communicate

Following on from the last point, we could probably all work on our communication when it comes to 'left field' requests. It's just a bit awkward, isn't it! Especially if it's the CEO in the bathroom!

There isn't a single IT project team I work with who likes to say 'no' but, with a healthy reframe, many have learned how to. I always think, by saying 'yes' to a request that comes from "out of the blue", what will you say no to that's "in black and white"? In other words, what might by agreeing to an undocumented request today, jeopardise on your schedule that is due for delivery in the future. Everything on that schedule is business case filtered - IT Projects don't get a green light without clear ROI (return on investment). The new request should at least have the same level of scrutiny.

One Project Leader has a great way of dealing with extra requests. No matter how senior the asker is, he takes them to his whiteboard and shows them his team’s workload. He highlights the projects that would have to be delayed to accommodate the request and asks the exec to make the call about what to put back. Amazingly, almost all decline and agree to put in their request through the proper channels. 

3 - Collaboration (think beyond YOUR team)

Think of the Project Management Services Universe as a huge catalogue from which you can now buy a solution to just about any challenge and you instantly start to feel the pressure reduce. It really is that simple. Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) can now provide everything from end to end Project Management Office to individual team members to fill a capability gap.

I.T. is now the centre of most business operations and it is a position that comes with some responsibility. Rather than saying 'no' to requests it is worth considering external solutions. I know of at least two IT project teams who have delivered market disrupting outcomes that would have been way beyond their capacity had they tried to accommodate them in house. They sourced quotations for end to end project management services to present to the board, which were accepted and ran alongside their existing portfolio.

No-one in the wider business knows (or cares) about any of these arrangements and just thinks that the IT department are "amazing" for delivering such great work. Who wouldn't want that kind of adulation?

4 - Honesty around capacity

IT used to try to keep capacity challenges a secret. We didn't want to appear vulnerable. We were like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain! We didn't want to shout that we were lacking because this would somehow reflect badly on us as a department and our ability to plan. This needs a reframe. When the Transport Director doesn't have enough vans, he doesn't start loading up his BMW, he calls the van rental firm.

I don't know why IT feels insecure about doing this but it IS a story that I see repeated time and again. Maybe, it's because of the metrics by which we are judged. We are a results-based sector and have probably become eager to please because that's how we get our bonus or the green light on that next project. If there were rewards for the creativity with which we manager capacity we'd ALL be millionaires.

We need to be more transparent about our capacity challenges. Our capacity delivers business change and growth - limit that capacity and you limit your firm's potential in these areas.

AND Something really exciting happens when you're transparent about capacity. Other parts of the business become advocates for IT!

If your sales department needs a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to manage and close deals more quickly and you're honest about your capacity to deliver, what do you think the Sales Director does? At the next board meeting she is saying, "Hey, IT needs this person or this extra resource!"

The business will still love you after you admit gaps!

5 - Educate

Many other business units don't understand what we do, not really. I mean they know when the network is down or when the Wi-Fi isn't working but what we do the rest of the time isn't on their radar. They see the component of what we do that impacts them but not the overall complexity. As Blackadder once said, explaining the “The Ravelling Nancy” cotton ‘raveller’ to the Prince Regent, "I am one of these people who are quite happy to wear cotton but have no idea how it works." Most in HR, Sales, Distribution, etc are similarly happy to use their H.R., Sales and Distribution software blissfully unaware of how it works.

If we're being honest, we've used this to our advantage - there is safety in anonymity! These days though this comes at a cost. Perception is powerful and although IT Project teams always look busy it is only when we deliver a project every six months that this is really noticed by the wider business - whereas everyone sees the fruits of the other departments, the new hire, the orders flying in, the vans trucking out – on a regular basis.

This is why the perception exists that you can ask someone from the IT Project team a question on a Monday and have it delivered by the Friday.

My CIO friend Kev sends out a weekly bulletin email, another has a HUGE whiteboard visible from the corridor showing tasks completed and their business impact - you will find your own way but it is time to educate your business colleagues about just how busy you are on their behalf!

In conclusion, I'm not sure that there was ever a time when undocumented requests were an acceptable way to get IT Projects initiated but now, more than ever, the complexity of the projects does not allow much room for those "can you just", "when you have a minute" requests.

I've just shared five, there are infinite ways we can address this but it's a conversation that we need to start having. Right after we've all agreed that the toilets is no place to conduct business.

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