The Right Stuff For IT Projects

Twelve years ago I was interviewed for an article on the right stuff for leading successful IT projects [1] that focused on three questions:

  • What skills and competencies really matter most for the people who lead and deliver successful IT projects?
  • Are these different from the ones that were regarded as most important five or ten years ago?
  • How can some of the most important “soft skills” be acquired and honed, especially when for many in IT, they may not come very easily?

As I review the interview today, my responses seem as relevant now as they were in 2003:

“Soft skills are becoming more important than ever before. Most projects tend to fail because of a failure to communicate, especially between IT and business. The whole [Year 2000] issue really prompted IT and businesses to start conversing like never before, and we really need to make those intense and frequent communications the norm, and not the exception.

“Projects have such a high failure rate because business people have traditionally not been consulted before major IT projects are launched. The frequent result: distrust and skepticism, causing a rift to develop between IT and business. Good communication skills can go a long way toward healing that rift.”

What are the capabilities and skills that I viewed as more vital than any others?

“Excellent communication skills, both oral and written. Great listening skills, especially if what you need to hear is bad news. And experience in planning projects, particularly in the areas of risk assessment and contingency planning. Many people don’t want to spend time on contingency planning.  After all, everything will go perfectly, or so we hope. In fact, I would say that over- optimism, or failure to accurately assess how long things will actually take, is a reason that contingency planning for projects as a disciplined process is not as well developed as it needs to be.”

We still try to imbue these skills in IT professionals today.

“Project managers can set an example by establishing frequent two-way communications activities between IT and business communities.  This is especially important when the news is not good, such as a schedule slip. Show your team that the more information they share openly, the greater the collaboration can be between IT and business. Welcome input from a variety of stakeholders, and hold peer reviews frequently. We all learn a lot when we take the time (and have the courage) to ask.”

Collaboration is the key to success when managing IT projects.  So is mentoring project members.

“Universities and colleges can be great sources of needed training, as are national associations such as the American Management Association and Toastmasters International.  Unfortunately, many of the best project managers just don’t have the luxury of spending time formally mentoring new folks. For many competencies, such as contingency planning, experience is still the best (and sometimes only) teacher.

What about selecting an IT project manager?

“When deciding who will run an important project, consider several factors … Questions I would ask include: Can you demonstrate a portfolio of projects you have managed? What’s your track record in meeting client expectations?  How satisfied would your customers say they’ve been? How successful have you been in meeting budgets and timelines?   Certification may be important, but it’s no substitute for relevant experience.”

So the bottom line is that a successful IT project manager has experience leading projects and excellent communications skills.
[1] Nancy Settle-Murphy.  The right stuff for leading successful projects. Information Strategy: The Executives Journal 19(1):21-25 (Fall 2003).