By Ken Pedersen, Chief Operating Officer
If you are the business person accountable for delivering a strategic IT project, it may not always be clear exactly what your role should be to help bring the project across the finish line successfully.
IT projects can differ from other initiatives by virtue of their complexity and the conceptual nature of transforming abstract software requirements to business benefit. A big strategic IT project can sometimes feel like a marathon, but one thing is clear: This is a team sport that requires business leadership. Getting every member of the IT project team across the starting line together with you, the head business person, is the key to winning the IT project race.
Take the Chicago Marathon, held every October in the Windy City. After months of training, runners of all skill levels from around the world descend on the Loop, lining up as much as hundreds of yards behind the starting line according to running pace, in the hopes of clocking their best times.
On the starting gun, the elite runners take off and pull away from the pack. Those runners bunched towards the middle and the back must wait and wait for the elite runners to clear out in front. Finally, there is room for those remaining to begin walking. Then jogging. And, at long last, running. Held last week, this year’s Chicago Marathon was a record field with runners still crossing the starting line as the leaders were finishing their eighth mile.
And even when they’ve started running, many runners are still hundreds of yards behind the starting line. Already, they must contend with collisions, pile-ups and distracted runners snapping photos of the Chicago’s skyline on their smart phones.
It’s a dangerous, inelegant mess in the moments after the starting gun goes off. The same holds true for IT project teams, which often face real obstacles once the go-ahead is given -- but before development begins. They need business-side leadership to show the way.
Here are some common mistakes to avoid in order to set up your next big IT ‘marathon’ initiative for success -- and make sure no one on your team gets trampled before the race even starts.
Mistake One: Pulling Away from the Pack Too Quickly
When that starting gun goes off on an IT (or any kind) of project, senior executives like yourself are the elite runners. Busy and in high demand, you quickly tear off to the front, lobbing rallying cries over your shoulder as you sprint ahead. Like an elite runner, you want – and have trained – to reach the finish line as quickly as possible. You’ve also internalized what success looks like and assume everyone else has too. Sometimes it can be frustrating to see the rest of the team starting so slowly.
But by running so far ahead, fleet-footed executives like you risk setting an overly ambitious, unrealistic pace. Here’s why: While executives disappear off into the distance, they often overlook the importance of making sure the rest of the field has a clear and vivid grasp of what success is. Executives, who are the elite pace setters, should convey a complete understanding of the project’s mission from the outset, communicate its charter and define success. More specifically, they should fully express their vision for the project’s important role in the company’s future and ensure there is complete clarity – from managers on down.
Mistake Two: Thinking the Race Has Started Before the Team Crosses the Starting Line
In a real sense, the race doesn’t truly start for the project unless the whole team crosses the starting line together. Projects routinely run late because they get off to a slow, disorganized start. For example, there are almost always unanticipated discoveries brought forward by those intimately involved with project implementation but not included in project planning.
For you as the executive, the gun may go off when the contract is signed. But it takes time to set up teams, get them working together and address alignment issues in a way that makes them reliably productive and able to deliver on the schedule the elite executives expect. Until those obstacles are removed, the timer may be running, but the project team has not yet crossed the starting line.
Mistake Three: Failing to Coach the Team Through the ‘The Wall’
Even when everyone does cross the starting line together, it remains crucial you serve as pace-setter for your team. How well you finish depends on it. Both athletes and project team members need clarity about the route and the exact location of the finish line if there is a turn in the road. They need coaching and support through the grueling course, especially in the last few miles when the home stretch becomes crowded with interested onlookers.
Like the marathon runners who ‘hit the wall’ at mile 20, exhausted project teams can become discouraged if the end seems too far to reach. Decision-making slows, clarity fades and the team itself may begin to disintegrate. Infighting begins, cohesiveness disappears and the work product undoubtedly suffers. It is at these moments that the team needs the ability to remove obstacles and the decision-making prowess that you, the elite executive, can bring. If you have already broken the finish-line ribbon and moved on to the next challenge without this in mind, all the investment and pain endured in pursuing the project benefits might have been made in vain.
For the best outcomes, you – the business sponsor and elite executive – need to stay involved and cheer the team on. To win the race, make sure the team crosses the starting line together when the gun goes off. Show them the roadmap and make sure they are running the same race as you. And give them the support and coaching throughout the race so they cross the finish line as a team with the same focus and sense of purpose as you did when the starting gun went off.
That’s how you win the race of IT project marathons.
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