Friday, April 9, 2010

Getting it Done: Managing the Transformation

There are all kinds of books dealing with IT management techniques and the many methodologies that have evolved since the start of modern day computing. However, at its core, IT management is still an art; not a science. In fact, while the use of structured methodologies can be helpful in the context of specific project tracking, it should not be relied upon as the panacea that ensures the success of the project. Fact is that, oftentimes, processes and methods are applied only to satisfy the control instincts of bureaucracies and, applied dogmatically, can do more harm than good by getting in the way of the actual project execution.  
But if strictly following “management” methodologies (mythologies would be a more proper name!) is not particularly useful, then what?  Well, it’s not that techniques should not be applied. It’s that the techniques that should be applied are those that result from intuitive management assessments adjusted to the specific conditions of a given project. That is, IT projects tend to have so many variables that effective management of the project should be tailored specifically to that project. There’s a reason why project management is not done by robots. You can’t run projects, especially major projects, with fixed “how-to” type instructions written by a management consultant guru in a book intended for the masses and expect success. The name of the game is intuitive flexibility and best practices. It’s about guidelines; not law. It’s about common sense[1]; not blindly following administrative dictums.
Project success is also about focus. A common belief is that Magellan was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world.  Fact is that, while Ferdinand Magellan was indeed the captain of the expedition launched to go around the world in 1519, he never made it around the world. Instead of keeping his eyes on the goal of reaching the Moluccan Islands (Indonesia) by going west and then returning via the east, he allowed himself to get distracted and became embroiled in local native politics. He was killed in a battle between Philippine tribes. Leaderless, only 18 severely ill and famished men out of the 237 men who set sail in five ships to circumnavigate the globe, made it back alive to Spain.
The typical transformation project takes longer than 24 months to complete (a shorter project time span would suggest you are not actually undertaking a transformation but rather a renovation; a quick-fix). Now, the average stay time for a CIO is 24 months.  Do the math. No matter in what space-time continuum you happen to live, the expected project length vis-à-vis the average CIO tenure presents an inescapable conundrum: typically, the management team completing the project (if the project is completed at all!) will be different from the team who began it.
Indeed, the single most important cause of project failure is the fact that the sponsorship team is no longer around when the project finally gets going. Once the new team is handed the reins, they often feel obliged to pooh-pooh the work done by their predecessors. Anything that occurred prior to their arrival must be wrong. Otherwise, why would they be taking over except to fix the mess?  
It doesn’t matter; you could either spend the time of your tenure as an IT executive twiddling your thumbs or start planning for some sensible deliverables. Choose the latter. In the end, even if you don’t complete the project yourself, having a successor complete the project successfully is something you can proudly note in your résumé.  Similarly, if you are part of the new team, it is still in your best interest to leverage all prior “rights” and to “right” all prior “wrongs”.  
Next I’ll cover the management approaches that are pragmatically helpful, whether you are starting a transformation project or are in the process of fixing “other people’s” messes.   
And so, we will now shift away from the technical aspects of IT Transformation and move into the equally complex management issues of transformation. Beginning with governance and organization . . .

[1] “Common sense is not a single thing. Instead, it is an immense society of hard-earned practical ideas—of multitudes of life-learned rules and exceptions, dispositions and tendencies, balances and checks.”—Marvin Minsky