I know, I know -- annual project planning can be painful, but it’s a much needed tool in order to run IT effectively. Most likely, you’re already well under way and have spent considerable time brainstorming and deciding what work the IT department needs to get done in 2014. Of course, every project will deliver amazing value to the company by delivering incredible results -- but in a world of finite resources, how do we make the right choices?
When thinking about how IT will be measured at the end of 2014, think about it this way: Irrespective of your company size, if you could only do five projects throughout the year, what would they be? Seriously - not six projects, only five. Now, let’s forget about the IT work you need to do anyway to keep the lights on. I’m talking about the five projects the business needs you to do. Most likely revenue generation is first on the list. Remember, every project needs to have a business sponsor who wants it done. If someone won’t sign up for that role, then it comes off the list. The old rule still applies - focus on a few things and do them flawlessly instead of trying to make everyone happy with a lot of work at a lower quality.
Equally important, identify the least important projects and get rid of them. What is the best way to tell which ones are the least important? Be honest with yourself, ask around, find the projects no one cares about (there are always plenty). Please, please don't say you're still doing stuff no one cares about. If you are, stop reading this blog now, go back and stop doing that work. Work the top and the bottom of the list until you get to something reasonable, that everyone would agree with, and that can be funded and resourced properly.
Some additional advice in case you're still struggling to get to a final list: Stop using marketing buzz phrases to justify the work such as "business alignment," "value creation," "IT innovation," etc. If you've been in IT more than a couple of years, you've most likely used these very words to classify projects. We all need to be aligned and creating value, all the time, and not just during a project -- right? Instead, make sure you have good business cases for each project, with real returns and measurable benefits for ROI. In other words, make sure the work you are doing is really work the company needs.
Here at Covanta Energy, we prioritize projects our Energy-from-Waste (EfW) facilities need to operate effectively, improve efficiencies and/or contribute to keeping costs low. If the IT projects aren't in alignment with these goals, we don't do them, pure and simple.
When it comes to improved project planning, here is an approach I have found to be tremendously effective: Make three categories of projects -- things the business needs to improve and grow; things IT wants to do that will reduce costs and/or improve productivity; and of course, the evergreen work IT needs to do in order to keep the lights on. Keep it simple. If a project doesn't fit into one of these categories, question really hard why it should it be done and if you don’t get a clear and compelling answer, eliminate it.
Project planning is a delicate balance of the three categories above. IT of course needs to keep the lights on, to maintain our systems, to lower costs of operation, and to make sure no company executive is obsessing over IT operational issues. We look at this as table stakes. We want every discussion concerning technology to be centered on new capabilities that drive the company forward, not why email had an outage. Never lose sight of achieving operational excellence, as it is the foundation of everything that follows.
Next, there are things that IT should do to drive the business forward: incorporating new collaboration tools, social networking, ERP/CRM enhancements, cloud computing, mobile computing, etc. These projects will ensure the company’s IT capabilities don’t become stagnant and out of tune with industry trends.
Finally, and most important, identify the projects the business wants and needs IT to do. Make sure you know this list cold. Convene a group of business unit leaders to collaboratively prioritize the list and ensure that it reflects the priorities of all major business areas. No department should feel that its needs aren't as important as another department's (this requires good communication). However, a big warning - don't assume the role of order taker. Think really hard about business needs and spend time with your team brainstorming on turning those needs into real and significant solutions that work.
Remember, always bring value! IT has a lot of knowledge about the business, so don't waste it. Use your insight, awareness and expertise to help influence priorities. Don't just implement something under the false notion that it is a "requirement."