No IT project can be 100 percent successful from the outset, but there are many ways a project can head for failure almost as soon as it starts. Without proper discipline from all team members, clear direction from leadership, and effective inter- and intra-team communication, a project can derail and become unmanageable or even chaotic before anybody realizes what happened.
A few simple but effective guidelines can help project managers of any experience level keep their project headed toward success.
First, prioritizing core and auxiliary features is paramount to success. Properly balancing the customer’s wants and the project’s needs is rarely an easy task, especially considering the lenses through which business and IT view an application.
Initial feature planning starts with brainstorming and adding any ideas to a master wish list. With time and effort, the wish list will materialize as usable features added to a functional application. Anything on the list should be considered fair game for development, but not everything can be accomplished at once. Develop core features before tackling ancillary ones. By attempting to achieve everything too soon, you will achieve nothing. That lesson is often forgotten.
Second, having a controlled, disciplined development cycle is crucial. It is imperative to avoid the temptation to release an application that features every item on a wish list or fixes every known bug.
Adding more features and improvements can quickly increase the length of a development cycle. A “big bang” approach to software development, wherein a more ambitious set of goals is attempted over a longer period of time, has a higher chance of failure. It is better to develop, thoroughly test and deploy one or two new features in two months than to have three or four features still in development in the same time frame.
By keeping on task with more short-term goals instead of attempting a larger and more grandiose release, teams can achieve a sense of satisfaction through regular releases and easy wins. End-users will also feel that with a regular release schedule that their needs are being addressed, they are not using dead or unsupported software, and that there are even better features coming in the future.
Third, once a project plan has been agreed upon, assigning tasks or entire tracks of work with a clear owner will force team members to remain accountable. This requires strong leadership. Each team member—developers, team leads, business users, the project manager—must have a set of defined and realistic goals within a development cycle. Having to answer for one’s actions and decisions can force more effective communication between groups and can facilitate problem solving within the team. Without realistic and relatively static goals, efforts can seem futile, which can lead to lower team morale and productivity. As a consequence, trust erodes between team members, and problem solving becomes fingerpointing.
Some of these points may seem obvious, and therefore, they can be taken for granted. Don’t assume anything. A successful project-management strategy must include a conscious effort to prevent potentially problematic behaviors and practices while sticking to proven success factors.
Matt Flores is an architect with X by 2, a consulting firm in Farmington Hills, Mich., specializing in enterprise and application architecture for the insurance industry.
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