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IT Project Portfolio Management. Less is more. Now isn't that ironic. Don't you think?


My friend tells the story of a 4x4 SSV he used to own. Famous marque, I won't name them, but not a cheap car AT ALL! The vehicle developed a fault, the reverse light wasn't working and there was a considerable delay between changing gear and the dashboard display registering the gear you were in.

He called the garage that he used to take the car to for MOTs and servicing and asked if they could help. As it was an electrical issue they advised they would have to call in an auto-electrics expert at a cost of £50 then £50 per hour plus parts and labour from the garage - and they couldn't guarantee that ‘Mr £50 call out’ would be able to diagnose the problem.

My friend then tried the main dealer. They said that they WOULD be able to diagnose the issue, in fact just from the call they were certain that they knew what the problem was. They wouldn't have to call in a guy as all the diagnostic tools were on site, so it would be parts and labour. The estimate was £500.

In the meantime, my friend had been given the number of a local 4x4 specialist, in fact, these guys were specialists on this brand, both having trained at the main dealer before setting up on their own. They also were certain that they could diagnose the issue and while they were happy for my friend to bring his vehicle in, there was something that they wanted him to try.

"Put the car in reverse and drive for as long as it takes for the 'R' to register on the dashboard. Then, put the car into first and drive, changing through the gears as each registers on the dash and when you get to sixth gear, pull over, turn off the ignition get out of the car and turn on the alarm. Then unlock the car and call us back to tell us what happens".

Well, my friend thought these guys were having a laugh but did as they said. Guess what? Within ten minutes the reverse light was working and the gears registering as they should. He called the garage and was told that this is probably what the main dealer would have tried first (and charged £500 for). It was the car’s equivalent of a hard reboot.

The relevance of this story to IT Project Management is that sometimes the fix you need is a really quick one, sometimes you don't need to embark on an expensive voyage of discovery, sometimes you just need someone who won't rip you off to point you in the right direction.

The above story came to mind when I was asked to help with an IT Project recently and having taken a look I turned down the work. The reason was that this project, that the in-house team had been struggling with, wasn't a project at all - it was a software purchase. I'm not even joking, the thing that they had been trying to build was available as a ready to run a bit of accounting software.

BUT ...

They had received quotes from a software firm to build the desired package from scratch.

They had also sourced a proposal from a project management services firm complete with costings for 'as a Service' resources that would complement the in-house team's efforts to deliver the existing project.

Then there was me, suggesting that they do the equivalent of sticking their project in reverse, drive up the street and flick on the alarm.   

One of the common characteristics of firms with high rates of project failure is that they have too many projects on the go at once. There's nothing wrong, in principle, with having a HUGE portfolio of projects if you have the resources to deliver or you have a great Project Delivery and Project Management as a Service partner - but I urge you to do the "Is this even a Project" test.  

Over my career, I have found that the word project is as misused and misunderstood as the word "Ironic" is in the Alanis Morissette song of the same name. If it rains on your wedding day, that’s a meteorological coincidence, not ironic. If you win the lottery and drop dead the next that's just remarkable good luck followed by bad luck. If you meet the man of your dreams and then meet his beautiful wife, that's not irony, that's just sickening. Maybe the irony is that the song called “Ironic” contains no irony.

Anyway, I digress.

The thing is, that a lot of what gets called an IT Project really isn't a project at all; but because it has been labelled thus and allocated to the IT Project team it will devour resources, water down the potency and distract the attention of the Project Management Office and delay actual IT projects within the wider portfolio that were destined to deliver real business value.

Now that, Alanis, IS ironic. Probably.

I used to think that this was mainly an issue in the public sector where pressure on budgets may not be as much a matter of life and death but recently I am increasingly seeing ‘non-projects’ draining the resources of private sector organisations as well.

The PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge defines a project as "a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Furthermore, it is "temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources" and "unique in that it is not a routine operation, but a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal".

That's pretty neat definition.

In his article for, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez writes "Set some clear and objective criteria of what is a project (changing-the-business), and what should be considered as day-to-day activities (or what I call, running-the-business)."

I would also consider the size of the project's budget, impact on the business (how many departments will be affected or benefit from the 'project', the duration allocated and expected delivery schedule (is anything less than six months really a project?) and how aligned with the strategic goals of the business the project is.

The project that I recommended was instead a software purchase had been allocated a three-month lifecycle, a few thousand pounds budget and it would impact one (maybe two) business units. They'd taken it on because it seemed like an easy deliver. Get in, get the gold, get the credit for another project delivered. In reality, it was over time, over budget and all the while diverting resources away from the rest of the project portfolio and projects that would affect real business change.

To conclude, budgets are not blank cheques these days. The pressure on IT Projects to deliver return on investment is greater than ever and failure rates are as high as they have always been. It's time for us all to act more selfishly and for the good of strategic business, delivery focus on the projects that matter. If you struggle to identify the difference between these sometimes an independent pair of eyes, taking a fresh look can see things that you can’t – and it’s OK to ask for that help!

The deliverables of 'non-projects' can still be attained but with simple purchases or simply, as Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez says, running the business.

So, Let's stick to only calling them projects when they are projects. Otherwise, it's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife … isn't that right Alanis?

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