Depending upon where you live or who you read, there appears to be a flickering light at the end of the tunnel with restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic. At the very least, many firms have voluntary return-to-office policies in place, and there is a feeling that things might start to get back to some resemblance to normal. What the new normal will look like, no one knows, but we all can agree that we cannot just stand idle. You might not know this, but it is most likely that your firm’s IT department has been working harder than ever to keep your technology modern, secure, and operational. The dramatic shift to remote capabilities and support caught many of us off guard. Some were prepared better than others, but there is no doubt that project priorities drastically changed overnight.
Project Life Cycle
If you can first remember the basic life cycle of a project, you can better appreciate a trending problem that firms are dealing with as they try to get to the new normal. A project begins in the initiation phase. This is where the project owner, project sponsor, project manager, and other key stakeholders define the goals, business case, and value that taking on the project will have for the firm. The project then moves to the planning phase, where the scope is defined, a budget is baselined, resources are identified, and an overall plan is created. Once the plan is finalized, the project can move into the execution phase. The execution phase is the phase where resources are allocated, a product or process is built, tested, and any issues are remediated. Monitoring and control is the fourth phase. This phase is performed throughout the life cycle of a project, as the project manager is performing tasks like monitoring progress, tracking effort and cost, ensuring project governance is followed, and mitigating any chance of disruption to the firm. The last phase is closing, where the product or process is put into production and the project team validates that the objectives outlined during the initiation phase are met.
When projects have not started on time or are paused for an extended period, a common reaction is to forego the initiating and planning phases and jump straight into execution. This is the trending problem that we are seeing at some law firms. No phases are more important than the initiating and planning phases of an IT project. As mentioned, it is during the initiating phase that things like a project charter, a business case, goals, success factors, cost, return on investment, expected duration, and approval to proceed are considered by key stakeholders. It is very difficult to measure project success without performing the tasks in the initiation phase. The planning phase is as important, if not more so. This is this phase that will guide the project team through the life cycle of the project. The plan created during this phase will help your team manage, control, and report on critical success factors associated with cost, change, risk, schedule, and related issues. You cannot measure meaningful quantitative or qualitative success if you forego the planning phase.
Obvious negative impacts result when corners are cut, and these critical phases are skipped in a project. How can you tell if a project was successful if you have not documented how to measure success? How can a project manager report on things like schedule, budget, or other expectations if there are no metrics to guide them? Like the interest and reporting requirements that partners or a practice group director may have on a legal matter, requisite time should be allotted to properly set the business case, objectives, and goals of a project. A firm too would not move forward on a legal matter without having spent some time planning the best approach.
How did the lack of planning impact your users? Most likely, the lack of performing the initiating and planning phases will result in a poorly executed project. Consider the impact of a poorly executed Microsoft Exchange upgrade project, and the impact this may have on users to provide timely communication to their clients. Imagine a poorly executed move to a cloud-based software or cloud-based infrastructure, and the potential of users not being able to connect to critical office data or information. Think about how the lack of a properly created project or communication plan would impact users during an office move.
Perhaps the worst scenario would be the need to tell a client that your systems were compromised because you did not properly plan a security or data governance project. We all want to move projects faster and realize the value that they bring, but let’s try to appreciate the slogan “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” where slow can be replaced with planning. IT projects impacts everyone in the firm. You can be the most brilliant attorney in the firm, but if you cannot communicate effectively, create quality work, or ensure security to your clients, then your billable time will suffer, and your clients might just go elsewhere.
So, as we begin the new normal, reassess your expectations of your IT department and related projects and initiatives. Recognize that this team has not set idle, but rather has been working around the clock to keep you productive throughout the pandemic. Become a willing participant and contributor in IT initiatives and committees to learn what challenges a project is trying to solve. Most importantly, be a champion for giving your IT department the time to properly initiate and plan a project.
About the Author
Michael Walls is the project management practice group leader and a blog contributor for Kraft Kennedy, the technology consulting firm.