Pressure: Your Best Friend

The 1990s were one long party for the IT industry.

The 1990s were one long party for the IT industry. Like most great parties, the aftermath is an unpleasant mess. Much is still left to clean up. The confidence that management once had in IT as the key to solving problems is gone, as are the large backlogs of priority projects. Rebuilding that confidence is critical, since technology-based improvement projects have become an important source of economic growth.

IT projects rarely follow the orderly process envisioned during the planning stages. Too many take longer than planned, cost more than budgeted or fail to deliver the benefits used to justify them. After a number of disappointing experiences, it is no wonder that the management of many organizations has lost faith.

At the same time, some IT projects enjoy great success. What is different about them? By examining a large number of projects that have been successful, it has been possible to come to a profoundly simple conclusion: The way in which IT projects are approached is the main cause of their success or failure.

Circumstances may force project teams to make do with less resources than the ideal, compress time schedules and attack only the most critical elements of the problem. Surprisingly, it is actually a blessing when this happens. Our analysis has shown that constraints on time, resources and scope dramatically increase the odds of success—the opposite of what classical project management theory suggests.

The classic approach to projects involves analyzing the problem in great depth and then developing an ideal solution. Time, resources and scope are determined by the elegance of the answer. This approach, which appears safe and defensible, usually ensures disappointment.

The secret to success is simple: Impose constraints when events dont do so. Limit the number of people involved, target an aggressive end date before formulating a plan and focus on first attacking only the most urgent aspects of the problem. The key to taking this approach is to start by asking a different set of questions. Dont ask, What is the ideal solution to this problem? Instead ask, What can be done quickly by a small team of people that attacks the most important element? The answer will be very different and will lead to a plan that is far more likely to succeed.

Smaller, faster, simpler projects are more likely to succeed. They are also much easier to get approved. Projects that deliver a rapid payback can help make changes happen.

Investment in new projects has dropped dramatically since the flurry of Y2K activity ended. IT pros need to motivate managers to start investing in IT-based improvements again. Doing so will require convincing them that this time the payback will arrive rapidly. A fresh approach to projects based on constraining their scope will surely help.

The ideas in this essay come from "Revolutionizing IT: The Art of Using Information Technology Effectively" by David Andrews and Kenneth Johnson (John Wiley & Sons, October 2002). Also see