Monday, January 14, 2008

Managing IT Projects

I'm often asked how we manage IT projects. Do we have an Enterprise Project Management Office? A tracking Gantt chart for every project?

The answer is that we do not use a one size fits all approach to project management, we use a suite of tools and common principles that we apply as appropriate depending on the scope, risk, and complexity of the project.

Here's my guide to project management

1. Every project starts with a charter. A project charter clarifies the purpose and urgency of the project which is important for change management. The key leaders, stakeholders, milestones, and risks are clearly stated.

2. Every project gets a single accountable leader. That leader may be the project manager or may have project management staff reporting to him/her. Having a project manager is key to the success of a project. That project manager may use tools such as Gantt charts, workplans, and issue tracking logs. Although some projects are managed through sophisticated Microsoft Project diagrams, most are done on a far less sophisticated basis. Several years ago, we tried to introduce a program management software package and found it to be so burdensome that we dropped it. The main ingredients to our being able to successful, despite the lack of a PMO, are good managers and good communications.

Our managers are good at triaging and adapting when unforeseen demands interrupt work plans. They are also good at keeping others informed. There are a few things that I believe have promoted such good communications:

a. The tenure of our staff, especially at the managerial layer has been excellent. They are a well-oiled team and know when the left hand needs to learn what the right hand is doing.

b. Our office layout promotes communications. We have more conference room space per FTE than anyone in the medical center. This has proven not to be a luxury, but a necessity. It makes it easier to hold adhoc sessions and there are few delays because rooms are available for meetings.

c. We liberally use conference and bridge calls. Bringing people together periodically to make sure things are moving along is of great value.

d. We reach out to our vendor partners and other experts when we need assistance. These folks have helped crystallize our plans when complex problems have arisen.

e. We have a very active change management process that also serves to let the right and left hand communicating. The meetings and email announcements assure others get the word and are able to weigh in with their advice.

We also tend to select a small number of vendor partners, making technology life cycle planning predictable. We are not constantly shifting vendors which would drag on our efficiency.

3. Every project has a steering committee with minutes of each committee meeting. Each steering committee is comprised of key decision makers and stakeholders which build a guiding coalition for each project, a key ingredient for change management. We complete each meeting with a summary of who will be accountable for what, and when it will be done. This assures that the give and take, the digressions, and the range of topics discussed has not confused what has been agreed upon. Every meeting has an element negotiation and we repeat back what was agreed upon to get all parties to acknowledge it.

4. Every project has success metrics which are reviewed frequently. I believe that "the troops do well what their commander reviews". If my top level IT managers are skilled at asking the right questions about high visibility projects, but also pay attention to the basics of operations that keep the systems working, it carries down to the staff. They know they need to pay attention to the details, keep the project moving, and adhere to agreed upon deadlines.

Over the past decade we've had a few projects that were over budget or overtime. In every case, it was because one of the above steps was not followed. By using these general principles, project risk is minimized and all stakeholders are likely to have a better project experience.


John Sambrook said...


Thank you for an informative article and links to some great templates.

Could you blog or comment about how you and your staff manage the uncertainty inherent in your IT projects?

Let me explain by way of a small analogy.

My car has four shock absorbers on it. They were designed into the car because the manufacturer wanted me to have a smooth ride, and yet also knew that I would not always drive on roads that were perfectly smooth.

I think we have a similar situation in projects. We want our customers and staff members to have a "smooth ride" and yet we know that the road to a completed project is not always perfectly smooth.

We can try to take actions to ensure that the road we follow in executing a project will be a smooth one, but project plans are forecasts and forecasts are often wrong.

I'd welcome the benefit of your experience on this. In particular, are there "shock absorbers" in your project management processes, and if so, can you describe them for us?


John Sambrook
Common Sense Systems, Inc.

John Halamka said...

A very good point.

Here's the shock absorber. Although we set deadlines, I tell everyone at the project kickoff meeting

"If we go live before we are truly ready, no one will ever forget. If we go live a few weeks late but we're completely prepared, no one will ever remember."

All projects have a go/no go meeting a few weeks before the project deadline. All stakeholders involved in the governance process make the decision together. It's driven by the business owners and not just IT.

By having a sound governance process with great communication and transparency into the project, the business owners rarely focus on the bumps in the road.

Nick Matteucci said...


I really enjoyed your perspective on Healthcare IT project management and it was interesting to note you didn’t give credit to an EPM/PPM vendor.

I couldn’t help but wonder if your organization has tried in the past to implement one of these types of systems and if so, what was your experience with the solution provider?

Best Regards,

Nick Matteucci, Co-Founder
LinkedIn ID = nmatteucci | Email =
VPMi = Simple + Sensible + Supportable Web 2.0 Project Management Software

jessica lipnack said...

John, do you use anything like BaseCamp (or an equivalent) that allows collaborative project management and supports remote work on complex IT projects?

Amudha said...

Interesting one....I have been part of some large banking projects and communication betn IT and business was the most important factor for overall success...raising risks and informed delays at right time always helped create alternate strategies. The sound of GO decision from business is the best moment of any project!!

John Halamka said...

We use Microsoft Project without Project Server to manage those projects needed more complex workplans. BaseCamp looks very interesting and I'll check it out. I'm definitely a fan of Software as a Service.

Nick Matteucci said...

If you are open to simple, sensible, and supportable SaaS resource and project management, I would welcome you to try VPMi Professional.

The VPMi has projects, workplans, issues, timesheets, status reports and change requests. It is more functional then Basecamp (Basecamp doesn’t hide passwords, has no task end dates, no task dependencies, and you can’t download your data).

For more advanced users it additionally includes prioritization, capacity planning, templates, MS Project integration, and workflow - all for only $10/user/month (report viewer/timesheet user) or $30/user/month (PMs).

It is free for first 30 days and we have an extensive video training collection to help you get started.

This has been our life's work and we have 30,000 users around the world over the last 10 years (including many healthcare companies).

I wish you luck in whatever you land on and you can feel free to write us with any questions you might have.

Warm Regards,

Nick Matteucci
Partner and Co-Founder
VPMi = Simple + Sensible + Supportable Web 2.0 Project Management

CGH said...

A well described approach that rightly emphasises the importance of communiction and clarity of management intent John, IMHO.
I particularly note your preference for well briefed and relatively autonomous PM staff over software or other 'systems'.
Do you employ the soft systems methodology to help you cope with the uncetainty that JS referred to, and the emergent 'people' issues that I'm sure you must encounter in such a process orientated environment?

robbyhorst said...

John, how do you handle resource planning across multiple projects within IT? Do you have your IT staff track their time using Project so that you can get good details on where people are spending their time? We are always grappling with overutilizing several key members of our IT staff and it is difficult to manage. These resources are typically interface analysts, network engineers and DBAs. Any thoughts?

JSambrook said...

I don't think I'm the John you intended to have respond, but please let me offer the following.

When you say that you are "always grappling with overutilizing several key members of our IT staff" it suggests to me that these people are the people that determine the rate at which projects execute in your part of the organization.

In a sense, I would expect that projects often "queue up" (stall) waiting for these key people to do what only they can do.

If this is the case, then I'd suggest reviewing how you are planning and executing your projects.

In fact, there is a great deal that can be done to improve this kind of situation.


John Sambrook
Common Sense Systems, Inc.

Jackline said...

Hi Nice Blog .I think HR understands the importance of other people tracking time--IT, Lawyers, non-exempt employees, but struggles with the idea of web time clock.

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Project Management Software said...

The initiation processes determine the nature and scope of the project. If this stage is not performed well, it is unlikely that the project will be successful in meeting the business’ needs. The key project controls needed here are an understanding of the business environment and making sure that all necessary controls are incorporated into the project.

IT Support Sherman Oaks said...

The next step in the CPM is to determine the critical path (CP), which is the longest path for the project that has little or no float. To determine the critical path, you begin with the first activity in the network. Look at its successors, compare the successors' float values, and select the one with zero float. This is the second activity on the critical path.