Now is the Time for Comfort IT

comfort-foodWhenever crisis strikes and people enter uncertain and frightening times they close up like a clam.  They do not take on new risks like new cars or houses, instead they find comfort in life’s little pleasures.  Macaroni-and-cheese, tomato soup, and meatloaf seem to sooth the troubled mind and are the perfect accompaniment to the theater of financial meltdown.  IT has it’s equivalent of comfort foods, short (less than one budget cycle)  projects with easily measurable gains.  Projects which enhance core business functionality and projects which increase visibility are usually easy wins.

Projects like “Let’s Outsource All IT”, “Let’s Go to the Cloud”, or “Let’s Move to Open Source, Oracle, Microsoft, etc. to Save Money” are not Comfort IT and elicit the image of someone running down the hallway with their hair on fire screaming (does not look comfortable to me, let’s skip this one).  These projects will have their time in the sun when the Great Wheel turns again and risk is the entree of the day.  It will be fun to see how fast the major vendors morph their tune to a new reality; they are already shifting from guppy sales representives to bonafide sharks via the layoff lever (I am ever thankful for Email, Voicemail, and Spam Filter Purgatories).

If your organization is light on legacy projects and issues, now is the time to start some (ha ha ha!).  All joking aside, this period is a breather in the steady march of technological leverage of the corporation.  Companies can leapfrog past the painful pioneering process inherent in most technical innovation, at a bargin price.  Just about every hardware, software, and services vendor will have capacity to sell.  It is a buyer’s market , which gives the most comfort of all. 

This is the perfect time to review projects.  Determine cost-to-complete, or can it be completed.  Will it enhance the business process and ultimately be welcomed by its users, or is it a statue to political personal vanity (or an ediface to technology).  Sacrificing projects on the altar of the crisis is considered a statesman-like action and a career-saver for both the guilty and innocent.  For the fearful, consultant priests are available to both identify and cleanse  corporate IT sins for a small fee in these times (put another project on the fire!).  Nothing like a second opinion to sooth the soul, a true IT comfort food.

Project Management Resolutions for 2009

new-yearFast away the old year passes. It’s time for New Year’s Resolutions. Even if you’re not a resolution-making sort of person, the additional challenges the economy imposes on the coming year make it absolutely essential to think through some changes in approach.

Budgets will be tighter, and in the grand tradition of good things that roll downhill, the people who will most feel the squeeze are the people in charge where the rubber meets the road, the project managers. You will be challenged to do more with less, to face multiple changes in strategy and scope, and to achieve success on tighter timelines.

Here are some suggestions for thinking outside the box in 2009:

Manage your team, not your project plan.  Your project plan file is merely a tool for planning and tracking. The key to success is your daily leadership of your team.  Meet frequently with each contributor to your plan to understand where their difficulties are and to suggest tactics for moving past bottlenecks. This is much more valuable to the project than reporting that task 345 is only 45% complete as of the end of the week. This leads to the next resolution, which is:

Embrace collaboration tools aggressively.New times and new challenges call for new tools.  Use project portals to the fullest. Get beyond Level 1 portal usage (shared documents) and fully exploit the discussion and alerts features. Build status dashboards for your executive sponsors, so that status communication becomes more than a once a week meeting or conference call. With widely dispersed teams becoming more the norm than the exception, twitter-like tools can help project managers to keep tabs on the current activities of all team members, and foster real-time assistance when team members tweet about a newly encountered difficulty.

Slim down that project plan!  You just knew there had to be a diet resolution in here somewhere…  Your plan needs only enough detail to quantify effort, predict duration, and define a critical path. More detail beyond that means more overhead in terms of status tracking and replanning, and if this is not in the project budget, it’s only going to come out of your personal time.

Build contingency plans into your approach from Day 1. All that stuff about completing projects on time and within budget as the measures of project success is very pie-in-the-sky.  There will be changes in scope. There may be changes in budget before you get to the build phase. The key milestone date may well be pushed up while you are still in the analysis phase. Have a clear idea of what’s essential for launch and what can be deferred from Day 1 and you will be in better shape to roll with the changes.

Align effort with risk.  Don’t spend 80% of the analysis effort on 20% of the business functional domain, unless that 20% is the most mission critical, the most regulated, or the most central to driving revenue. As the  project manager, you must rein in project team members who are focusing on areas that are not really central to the success of the effort. In this new tighter budget, compressed timeline world, there are going to be some bumps in the road. You need to make sure that mission critical requirements are safeguarded at the expense of those business requirements that are less crucial from a bottom line perspective.

Designed to Sell, Corporate Edition

When contemplating which business units or product lines to put up for sale in today’s challenging market, it might be wise to borrow some tactics from  the real estate market. It really comes down to three important guiding principles in planning a divestiture as part of your deleveraging strategy:

1. Know your market – cultivate target buyers to avoid a fire sale. Identify players looking for complementiarity in products, services or customer base.

2. Model the outcome on your going-forward financials – freeing up cash may be top of mind for everyone, but we all need to think past the current crisis and understand what the impact will be on sales and profitability going forward. If you don’t have a business intelligence toolset in place already, you may have difficulty in achieving the type of agile scenario modelling that is necessary here. Infoworld is reporting BI as a key spending area in the recession, specifically for determining profitability.

3. Know where to invest, or “design to sell.”basement – there may be secondary benefits, above and beyond a divestiture’s products, services, and customer base. Specifically in the technology architecture, especially if the business unit is on its own (instead of shared corporate) platforms. Ancient mainframe technology is like the walnut panelling and avocado shag carpeting lurking in the basement. Customized applications with their big in-house support teams are like the pink stucco patio and poolhouse a proud homeowner showcases, causing the buyer to race down the road to the next listing. Call in the design team, these could be good spots to begin a corporate makeover, as they are very likely to increase the value of the sale.

On the flip side, things like collaboration tools and  business process management suites are like the well-appointed master suites and media rooms that can help a buyer warm up to the sale. In addition to things like a lean operating architecture, these technologies help make a divestiture an attractive asset for buyers looking to build out a platform company.