Sunday, 15 May 2011 00:00

The Progressive CIO's Model for Project Success

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Information Technology organizations continually struggle to build systems that meet their customer's needs. They work tirelessly developing solutions that are delivered late, difficult to use, or deficient in key features and functions. This is nothing specific to the last couple decades; it stretches back to the first systems developed. Fredrick Brookes eloquently underscores this in his recount of the 1960's software engineering project to develop the IBM 360 in his book The Mythical Man-Month (1975) and is required reading for all IT executives. For the Chief Information Officer to solve this problem takes a new approach, one, nearly opposite from today's direction.

A Different Approach

As with many solutions, the answer is not found in experimentation but in observation. End-user computing, the oft considered anathema of IT professionals, provides the hint. This is the group of business geeks who construct what IT appears incapable of building. Using tools like the Excel and Access they create applications that automate and streamline their business's flow. Unfortunately, these systems are frequently deficient in the robustness required by the enterprise. End users lack the tools, training, and experience to detect those flaws until they have need integration with other applications, multiuser access, or restoration of lost data. The common answer—moving the application to IT and rewriting it to handle the enterprise requirements—is accompanied with huge capital expenditure, frustration from languishing in the development queue, and significant ongoing maintenance expense. This scenario is repeated time and again in organizations around the world, achieving identical results—a dissatisfied customer. This answer needs to be rethought. If the user is better at creating useful applications and IT builds better infrastructure, then create an organization to mimic that model.

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The mantra of the past is to run IT like "a" business. However, the unintended consequence distances IT even further from the customer. IT should not be run like "a" business, but, rather like "the" business, aligning to their goals, understanding their pain, and rapidly responding to their needs. To achieve this, IT's business analysts, developers, quality assurance, and project managers must be placed in the business unit.

Architecture and infrastructure should remain collocated and used as shared resources. This ensures IT's foundation is solid and it can respond to the business. This core IT group needs to focus on providing a robust backend that will accommodate the customer's strategic plans. They provide the adhesive glue and support for the business's initiatives.

In a recent chat with Jim Highsmith at It's About Coffee, he explained how he approaches the problem using the agile principles. Covered it in a recent article, he points to the solution of how quality and value relate to the traditional triple constraints. I am calling the combination of the triple constraints, value, and quality the business constraints. The project constraints are just a subset of these overall business constraints (see inset). Applied to the model above, the business is responsible for the IT supplied project teams. Project success is measured by balancing value, quality, and the triple constraints.

The concept of the IT project has vanished, there are just projects using IT resources. The business owns ensuring the value, the architect owns the quality (robustness, reliability, technical debt, extensibility, etc.), and the project manager must tune the triple constraints to meet the quality and value needs. This creates a new paradigm for managing project where the focus is not a tactical scope-schedule-budget, but includes the strategic components of value and extensibility/quality.

Since most IT organizations service numerous business objectives, it needs to maintain the optimal architecture to achieve all the business's strategic goals. This is accomplished by providing the means to complete the project, including the technical resources and the architecture.

Project teams, resident with the business, have a much clearer picture of the needs; hence, they focus their efforts on tuning the triple constraints to provide value. Accountability resides with the business, where it should, all team members are responsible for designing and building an application addressing the problem, and IT provides the tools and resources to create those applications in an enterprise worthy manner.


The challenge is maintaining a common direction for the IT resources and ensuring an adequate pool of resources to match the company's strategic goals. This requires frequent training in the skills and tools that are required for proceeding down business's strategic roadmap, strong IT governance, and a unique combination of confidence and leadership to guide a distributed IT organization. This starts with a CIO who is indifferent to the number of floors his or her staff occupies or the latest shiny-ball technology. Modern CIOs need to foster superlative communications throughout their ranks, wherever they may be located.

By divesting the project teams to the business, the modern CIO helps inculcate business operations knowledge into the IT staff, resulting in IT becoming a well-respected and valuable organization within the company. Leveraging this added strength bolsters the position of the CIO to one that is critical in running the company—one deserving of a seat at the C-Suite table.

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