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Richard Eaton

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton, a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development. If you are interested in finding out how your organization can improve its effectiveness through continuous improvement, please contact Richard at 250 472-3767, email or visit
How to Lead Great Big IT Projects: 4 Tips for Project Champions
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”   Bill Gates 

The trail of broken IT projects is a long and painful one. 

As revealed in one landmark study, of 3,555 projects delivered between 2003 and 2012, only 6.4% were successful. So why such a dismal showing for such a critically important and all pervasive component of modern day business? It’s almost always for one, or a combination, of 4 main reasons: 

 -- Poor or ambiguous sponsorship 
 -- Confusing or changing business requirements 
 -- Inadequate skills or resources, and 
 -- Poor design or inappropriate use of new technology 

Of these four reasons for failure one, business requirements, is arguably the most important. What are business requirements? 

Just everything. Every value adding process and/ or activity undertaken by an organization, as a whole, can be described as the requirements for that business; the requirements to do a good job, that is. Business requirements encompass the end to end, top to bottom, step by step approach to delivering services and products of value to customers or clients, and each other. Unsurprisingly, as suggested by Gates in the above quote, organizations undertaking big IT projects invest heavily in the development of innovative, streamlined and efficient business requirements before they proceed to automation. 

These bold future visions of organizational processes can usually be gathered in one of two ways:  

1. The boring and disengaging way, or  
2. The exciting and fully interactive way  

Berlineaton has provided consulting support, usually in the form of the development of business requirements, for several big IT projects and we always prefer doing so in an exciting and interactive way. Why? Because we find it difficult to believe that normal people can be expected to deliver revolutionary new approaches to huge problems by sitting in a dark room gazing at never ending PowerPoint presentations.  

We recently supported the delivery of a large, 100 person, business requirements building session for a large scale IT project using a facilitative, engagement focused approach. We were surprised by some of the comments we received on the session survey. As opposed to the expected ‘tech-speak’, the majority of the many positive comments we received were focused mainly on the people stuff:  

 “I enjoyed the creativity and commitment of all the participants”  

“It was enjoyable because of the wide array of participants, and the ability for me to meet and understand the needs of the people in the outlying offices”  

 “The session moved along quickly with lots of interaction and engagement with other like-minded people, there were limited ‘talking heads’ and many great conversations and exchange of views” 

“It was truly a work shop where every participant seemed to be engaged and have a voice”  “There was excellent discussion, good networking and a great opportunity to get an understanding of the future vision”  

 Here are four things we’ve learned about how to increase engagement and ownership to ensure that you can champion a great, big IT project: 

1. Take Time  

Ironically, for an industry that is supposed to be the epitome of outside the box thinking and general ‘rule breaking’, big IT projects come with a lot of structure. No surprise, many IT projects are huge and expensive so wind up working within tight project management parameters. In the rush to meet tight timelines within this structure, it can be easy to forget about the need to let large groups of people, who work in the business, talk things through and to develop a deep, personalized understanding of a future vision and how to achieve it through an IT enabled approach. This takes time, of course, which must be hard wired in to activities like this unless you want the outputs, and people, to suffer. This means that you need to take the time to plan and deliver really good meetings for 100 people or more. Have a look here for some tips on how to deliver great, giant meetings 

2. Think locally, act globally  

 All the answers you need already exist. They live in the day to day activities of thousands of people doing a great job out there. Your challenge is to engage the voices of these business experts in a way that elicits the right decisions on behalf of the entire organization. A successful approach therefore engages deeply within the organization, as well as the organizations of its clients and customers, to draw out what works, and what doesn’t. Using this local to global methodology, you will usually develop a product that is far more relevant, has greater buy in, and is easier and faster to execute in the daily, crazy reality of today’s workplaces. To be really successful at this approach you need the right kind of continuous improvement minded leaders. Check here for some useful tips on leading a Continuous Improvement initiative using this approach. 

3. Don’t take yes for an answer  

 Building business requirements is hard work. It’s even harder when you’re on a tight timeline, the boss is on the phone and your budget is draining away. The easiest way to avoid the inevitable stress accruing from these various overarching and out-of-your-control imperatives is to say ‘yes’ in a defensive, knee jerk, make-the-pain-stop kind of way, such as: 

-- Do you think this is the right activity to be completed at this step? ........ Yes.  

-- Does this screen shot look good to you? ........ Yes.  

 -- Is this the right target time to assign to this phase? ........ Yes. 

‘Yes’ can be a dangerous word mainly because people who run IT projects like to hear it. It gives them permission to move on quickly and get to the next big fire burring under their feet. The end result, however, can be less than effective when it’s time to put it to work. So how do you avoid getting stuck in the ‘yes trap?’ Here’s a suggestion: following the first draft do a second, or even a third, pass over the business requirements. This iterative approach gives people a chance to think things over a bit, and maybe even check in with a few other people, before refining subsequent drafts. This may feel time intensive now, but it can pay huge dividends later in terms of developing a higher quality product, first time. 

4. Try it before you buy it  

Think of a big IT project as a really, really expensive piece of clothing. One that you can never return to the store after you’ve bought it. Would you want to try on that $20,000 suit before you bought it, especially if you knew that you couldn’t return it? 

You bet you would.  

Apply the same principle to the development of a big IT system. Once you’ve designed it in paper, sticky notes and spreadsheets, run a simulation to see how it works. Of course, when anyone says ‘simulation’, thoughts immediately turn to something complex, like a computerized flight simulator. However, it’s really easy to run simulations of new processes and systems using a little imagination during a ‘walk through’ exercise. Pick some people to act as customers and suppliers. Arrange a variety of others in a logical flow that represents your new system of processes. Then push the ‘start’ button and, literally, walk through the new system. Not only is this fun, it’s a great experiential learning tool that can reveal a wide range of benefits and opportunities to build into subsequent phases of development. 

So, the next time you have an opportunity to lead a big IT project, remember that you have a choice: engage deeply, or not. Our experience suggests that the former, though more time and resource intensive in the early stages of a project, will always pay dividends later through inciting transformational, collaborative efforts to get ahead of the curve before the curve gets you.  

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