Posted by: kenwbudd | September 16, 2009

Project Management needs Good Relationships

The Trust Factor

Good relationships between IT and business partners, project managers and IT staff, and project managers and stakeholders keep IT projects on track, say IT leaders and project management experts. Bad relationships, however, are a leading cause of project failure. We’ve all seen projects that should have been successful fail purely because of relationship.

The impact good and bad relationships have on projects is clear: Negative relationships make people want to avoid each other or work against each other.

On the other hand, when mutual trust exists between IT project managers and stakeholders, IT project managers are more likely to discuss problems that could threaten the project as they arise. If bad blood exists between the two groups, project managers may not be inclined to point out those issues, or they may try to cover them up.

If you look at projects that fail, invariably someone on those projects knew things were going bad. If you don’t have relationships and trust, those things don’t surface and when you don’t do something about problems in a timely manner, those problems invariably get bigger.

In many cases, minor problems become more serious because they’re not addressed in a timely manner. A culture of openness is absolutely essential to good project performance. This should be part of your risk planning.

Furthermore, when something does go wrong with a project, business partners are less likely to place the blame solely on IT if they have some respect. In fact, they’re more likely to give IT some leeway with the project schedule.

It doesn’t matter what technology you’re using, how talented your technology staff is, and how knowledgeable the business partners are on process and business improvement: Every system initiative will have issues.

If you don’t have a relationship, you resort to pointing fingers as opposed to being transparent and admitting ‘we messed up’ or ‘we didn’t test that as well’. If you have a good relationship, you’ll sit down and find a way to make it work.

Decisions affecting the project also get made more promptly when everyone involved gets along. Fast and good decisions are crucial to keeping projects on track. The failure of senior people to make decisions means decisions are made at lower levels of the organisation.

If you have a software developer who’s waiting for input on a business requirement, there’s three things that can happen: He can guess what to do and guess right. He can wait for a decision and while he’s waiting he’s not as productive. Third, he can guess and guess wrong. If those are equal possibilities, two-thirds of the time it will be detrimental to the project. And if you stack enough of those decisions on top of each other, it will negatively impact the project.

Relationships are easily Overlooked
Despite the positive impact good relationships have on project management, IT project managers rely more heavily on software and methodologies than on building relations when they need to improve their delivery.

It’s no wonder: Compared to the time it takes to build relationships, software seems like a quick fix. IT project managers are also most comfortable with tools.

As IT professionals, we’re raised on technology. Almost all the training we get throughout the years is about tools and processes.

Consequently, IT professionals think process and technology is the answer to everything, including effective project management. While project management frameworks and tools certainly help, projects are fundamentally people-driven.

When things go wrong with a project, it’s people who have done something that didn’t work. Problems start and end with people.

Yet project management training and certification programs are only just beginning to address the people-side of projects and the importance of relationship management. Most still emphasise task management.

Thus, project management training and certification programs reinforce the idea that project management is glorified task management. That’s a big mistake.

A typical project manager follows the 80/20 rule: spending 80 percent of his time on task management and 20 percent of his time on relationship management, but he should be devoting more of his time to relationships.

I would suggest that the more visible, big-budget the project, the greater the percentage of the project manager’s time should be spent on relationship management.

Agile Development and Relationships Using Scrum, an agile software development practice, to improve relationships between IT and business partners and ensure project success is one good approach.

With Scrum, business partners meet with IT during a four- to eight-hour planning meeting to look at all the projects in the backlog and to jointly determine which one will bring the greatest value to the company.

IT then divides the project into sprint’s 30-day increments of work. When IT completes a sprint, business partners assess IT’s progress and suggest any necessary changes.

The agile development methodology, just by design, promotes better relationships. Scrum and Agile force interaction between IT and business partners on a more frequent basis. By doing so, IT delivers solutions on an incremental basis to the business, as opposed to the waterfall or cascade method, where it’s a year and a half before the business sees the fruits of an initiative.

It’s not necessary for IT and other business functions to get along swimmingly for Agile to work effectively. Agile can work even if there’s some initial tension between the groups.

We’ve all had groups with troubled relationships, and certainly most initial meetings are not always effective out of the gate. But at least we all can agree that we’re going to focus on 15 key items in the next 30 days, and at the end of the 30 days, we’ll get back to you.

The process forces IT and business partners to prioritize projects together and agree on the 15 items IT will complete in 30 days. Scrum also then drives IT’s behaviour. At the end of that 30 days, IT has to show something for its work. Scrum makes IT accountable to the business.

When business partners see IT making tangible progress every thirty days, their confidence in IT grows. If the business partner sees results more frequently than they used to, relationships can get better. Agile promotes better relationships just by forcing a process, forcing interaction.

Between the structure that Scrum imposes and the relationships that grow out of it, project delivery improves. Better collaboration results in better value for the business.


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