The success of an IT project in Higher Ed relies heavily on the strength and organization of the team responsible for its completion. That being said, building a dream team of department employees and contractors will not necessarily guarantee that your project runs smoothly. In fact, there are more subtle, and often overlooked, ways to improve the chances that your project meets its deadline, stays on budget, and exceeds stakeholder expectations. Here are a few of the best tips to keep in mind during your next Higher Ed technology project.
Start with the End in Mind
Proper project documentation can be easily overlooked but will significantly improve your chances of project success.
It may sound obvious, but stepping back and properly defining, agreeing upon, and documenting the desired end state for your project is essential. Proper project documentation can be easily overlooked but will significantly improve your chances of project success. How can success be achieved or measured if the criteria for measurement has not been defined? Norbert Kubilus, president and CEO at Coleman University, proposes that the improper definition and documentation of requirements is a primary reason why technology projects fail.To rectify this issue, he suggests that a document be created at the project’s outset to record its objectives. This document, often called a charter, should include “the institutional, functional, and/or programmatic outcomes” that the project aims to achieve. Once the goals of the project are established and effectively documented, project team members will have a resource to refer back to throughout planning, development, and implementation to ensure that they’re working in the right direction. However, this is not the only document that you need at the beginning of your project. It is also essential to have a more detailed requirements document exactly describing the features of the new product, whether it’s a vendor product evaluation, a cloud implementation, or the development of a new application.
Avoid the Us Vs Them Approach
Establishing a culture of collaboration within your IT department is paramount to empowering project team members and ensuring that everything runs smoothly. Effective communication shouldn’t stop with those working within your IT department, however. We had the chance to ask Joanna Young, digital advisor and senior managing director at BlueLine Associates and former CIO at Michigan State University, for her insight.
“Simply put, there are basic ingredients to increasing chances of project success. First, a ‘one team’ approach where sponsors and stakeholders participate and buy into the business objectives and how the project will be stewarded and executed. Second, I advise ‘hyper collaboration’ where all participants can contribute, chat, and suggest in a variety of in-person and digital ways.”
-Joanna Young (@jcycio)
Nuno Couto, founder and CEO of Optimal Partners and senior project management consultant, shares a similar sentiment.
“There is collaboration and there is Collaboration. In the ideal scenario, collaboration is not just the monthly Steering Committee meetings. As Joanna Young mentioned, there is a place for electronic communications. However, there are also much more informal conversations with stakeholders, situations when they can provide honest, unencumbered feedback on a one-on-one basis. The question to ask is “How can I go out of my way to make sure that the right people feel truly involved and have input into the decisions made?”
-Nuno Couto (@nunomcouto)
Be Prepared For Change
Although Higher Ed may be slow to evolve in general, IT projects need to buck that trend to survive. It’s key to ensure that your team is well equipped to deal with anything that gets thrown at them, from major bugs to budget constraints and delays. Not all change is necessarily bad, but nevertheless, your team should be prepared to react accordingly without compromising the project’s original vision. When asked on Twitter to provide a tip for project success, Ganesan “Ravi” Ravishanker, CIO at Wellesley College, proposed bringing “partners along to believe that all projects are forever beta.” Having everyone on the same page and creating a “formal change-control process to handle implementation realities and stakeholder requests,” as Kubilus puts it, is essential to keeping the project on track while providing the flexibility to adjust when necessary.
Mitigate Risk Throughout
There’s a lot that goes into starting an IT project in Higher Ed, so it can be easy to overlook processes that may not seem worth your time. Let’s be clear. The task of creating a risk mitigation plan for your project should not be dismissed. Something as simple as a spreadsheet with a well-defined list of risks with associated probability of occurring, level of impact scores, mitigation approaches, and responses can be a huge asset. At the very least, going through this effort will ensure that stakeholders are aware of the risks. At best, your team will have a thorough plan for how to react to potential problems before they run into them.
Remember, the risk mitigation plan is not complete until the project is. It must be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to ensure that any changes in the project status are reflected in the risk mitigation plan. When presenting potential risks to the project leadership and sponsor, it’s incredibly valuable to be able to show that there is a thoughtful risk mitigation approach in place.
Allocate the Proper Non-Monetary Resources
For a project to succeed, team members and stakeholders must be given the time needed to work on it.
Higher Ed IT project teams are often expected to work magic, providing value to stakeholders without the budget to support them effectively. A well-managed budget may be an obvious requirement for project success, but Kubilus explains that while “providing team members with the resources they will need to undertake the project” is key, not all resources are necessarily monetary. For a project to succeed, team members and stakeholders must be given the time needed to work on it. “This is extremely important for faculty and staff stakeholders, who will find it difficult to juggle project duties with everyday teaching or office responsibilities,” Kubilus writes. Ensuring everyone commits time to the project isn’t always enough, however; managing everyone’s time properly and providing team leadership enough time with stakeholders is also vital.
Finishing your project on schedule may be daunting, but there are strategies to prepare for potential conflicts. Set a realistic deadline from the get-go and ensure that everyone is on the same page about when the project is expected to be completed. Allocating a significant buffer time to the project deadline upfront will ensure that your team has the wiggle room to deal with inevitable bumps in the road. If the project runs into trouble and has a non-negotiable deadline, then management must be willing to either decrease the scope or increase the staff on the project.
Clearly Define Roles & Processes
One of the most overlooked portions of project planning is the documentation of team roles and processes. This should be part of the project management plan. “Project management plan?” you may ask. “Isn’t that the same as the project plan?” No, it isn’t. The project plan is a schedule with tasks, assignments, and durations, while the project management plan is just that. It’s a description of the agreed responsibilities that each team member has and what project management processes will be put in place. For example, will you have daily stand-up meetings? What issue tracking tool will be used? How and who will communicate to team leadership and how often? Who is responsible for the final technical decisions? As Couto explains, “almost every time that a project manager of a project of significant size does not create a project management plan, they regret it.” Require your project managers to document roles and processes at the outset of the project and you will save yourself a lot of headaches.
The real defining qualities between a successful project and a failure is not how many bumps there are in the road, but rather how a project team prepares for and responds to issues as they come up. Keeping these often overlooked tips in mind is a great way to increase your chances of project success.