Characteristics of Successful Tech Projects

Bob Johnson, President and CEO

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The convenience and petroleum industries have spent a considerable sum of money investing in technology projects over the past several decades. Much of these investments were driven by the need to see to pressing business problems, such as reducing labor costs and pricing accuracy with scanning POS systems, along with addressing PCI and data security. Some projects are small in size, scope, benefit and cost, while others are significant on all fronts and can have major implications for the success or failure of your business.

In this column, I’m going to focus on some best practices that apply to the task after the decision has been made to do a project. We’ve seen many projects over the years and in many cases they could have gone smoother, reached better outcomes and achieved higher ROIs had certain concepts been adopted.

Commit to Change

To co-opt a well-turned phrase from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Successful projects are all alike; every unsuccessful project is unsuccessful in its own way.” There are many ways a project can fail, but there are certain characteristics that are shared among successful projects.

Let’s consider a measured response to managing and supervising. Not all projects are the same in terms of cost, risk and reward. Consider the level of effort you should expend on management of the project in this context. Successful projects have a well-balanced approach to project management. Perhaps the biggest error we see here is misjudging the effect of a project on the organization. Frequently, the president or a C-level decision maker views the project as a “relatively simple” one. I’ve certainly made that mistake a time or two! However, the more people who are affected and the lower in the organization your change goes, the more important it becomes to invest in project management.

It’s tempting for the C-level project sponsor to think that assigning a project manager to the task and letting the organization know what’s coming is the end of his or her role. Keeping in mind the concept of measured response, successful projects have strong ongoing commitment and communication from the C-level throughout the project. Organizations can become good at persisting the status quo. Even the most talented project manager will be ineffective if the commitment to change isn’t consistently demonstrated at the C-level.

A client of ours was an early adopter of item-level inventory and assisted reordering. As with all projects, this one had several bumps in the road. Had the chief executive not persevered with consistent support for the project, it would have been the easy path to abandon or significantly de-scope the project along the way. His approach was simple. In every conversation on the project when there was resistance, his answer was the same: “Not adopting these new processes is simply not an option”; he also implied, not so subtly, that other career choices were an option for folks who were not on board with his thinking on the subject.

The Buck Stops Here

Successful projects have a clearly assigned person with the overall responsibility for the project. This person will not carry the project workload alone; what is important is that to all parties within the organization, it’s clear that this person will assign tasks, monitor progress and report status and is, in the end, responsible for the successful completion of the project.

Outside help, from a consultant or management firm, can certainly benefit some projects. However, successful companies will recognize that there is considerable overhead and risk added when outsiders who don’t know your company or your new system/process take leadership roles in projects. I’ve seen considerable time and expense burned by well-meaning, articulate and commanding consultants when they are allowed to make critical decisions about policy and process changes vs. accepting a role of strictly implementing the C-level sponsor’s vision.

Finally, successful projects at the outset are committed to realistic, attainable goals, and they take into account an organization’s ability to make changes. They will also factor in historical performance of the organization and, ideally, other peer organizations on similar projects. Successful projects are frequently recrafted from one very large project into a series of smaller projects that build upon one another toward the goal of the original vision.

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