The simplification complex
By cutting inefficiencies, IT project professionals can save time and money—and take average teams to the next level.
BY MEREDITH LANDRY
“If you are going to run into problems, having less to wade through means you'll run into them earlier.”
—Bob Tarne, PMP, IBM Software Group, Shawnee, Kansas, USA
streamlined processes and cutting-edge tools would be the norm for IT projects. Unfortunately, that's not the reality for many organizations, where teams are often forced to straddle the line between new technologies and old equipment, or battle with redundant tasks and unnecessary complexities.
And for all of their efforts, teams working with these constraints often have longer production times, increased costs and slower responses to new market opportunities. Trimming inefficiencies and complexities can be done within traditional waterfall processes, without adopting agile techniques. Organizations that do so can not only speed up delivery on IT efforts—they can help keep risks from turning into potentially project-killing issues.
Best-in-class organizations launch products seven months faster than average ones, according to the Boston Consulting Group's Speed to Win study, adding as much as 60 percent to first-year innovation sales. These organizations often know of several red flags that may pop up in day-to-day project work, revealing opportunities for simplifying, from an overcrowded server room to a sneaking feeling of déjà vu.
“If you are going to run into problems, having less to wade through means you'll run into them earlier,” says Bob Tarne, PMP, engagement manager for IBM Software Group in Shawnee, Kansas, USA.
“When people are saying, ‘We've already worked on something just like this,’ or ‘This approach is far too complex,’ it's a major sign to start simplifying your IT projects,” says Leeroy Chaplin, PMP, head of group IT strategy and business engagements for telecom Kapsch Group, Vienna, Austria.
How leading IT organizations handle inefficiencies separates them from the rest of the pack, according to the 2012 IT Book of Numbers report by The Hackett Group, a Miami, Florida, USA-based research firm.
The report found that complexity reduction is a key strategy that pushes world-class IT organizations—defined as those with IT groups in the top 25 percent for both efficiency and effectiveness—ahead of their inefficient and less effective counterparts. In addition to 12 percent lower overall IT costs compared to typical companies, those IT leaders operate with:
- 84 percent fewer customer databases
- 63 percent fewer data centers
- 47 percent fewer applications
- 75 percent fewer hardware and software suppliers
Companies around the world are de-cluttering their IT processes. Last year General Electric, headquartered in Schenectady, New York, USA, opened three IT-dedicated facilities across the United States where employees focus strictly on enterprise architecture, data management and networking. Australian banking firm Suncorp, based in Brisbane, Queensland, announced plans last May to allocate AUD275 million to a technology-simplification program that will rid the organization of 14 legacy platforms and save AUD200 million annually beginning in 2016.
Despite the potential cost and time savings that come from trimming complex IT processes, many organizations and project professionals hesitate to simplify because of what Mr. Chaplin calls the “we've always done it this way” syndrome. Investing time, money and energy in such a disruptive change can be intimidating.
Project managers may also be slow to simplify their IT project process because of the illusion that more work means a higher payoff.
“Unfortunately, project stakeholders, including clients and sponsors, sometimes judge the effectiveness of a project by the number of tasks in a project schedule, meetings per week, pages in the statement of work or reports being generated, without considering if these numbers really matter,” says Juan Carlos Fierro, PMP, global transition and transformation finance and administration project management office (PMO) project manager in the PMO at HP in Guadalajara, Mexico.
While the sheer volume of tasks and reports may make team members feel more productive, those positive feelings don't translate to the bottom line. Organizations with low IT complexity see 33 percent lower technology costs than those with high complexity, according to the Hackett Group.
LESS IS MORE
The first step to simplifying IT projects is addressing the redundancies in teams and being cognizant of the teams’ time.
For example, as projects progress, certain daily or weekly processes can be streamlined or eliminated. Depending on the state of the projects, some team meetings may no longer be as necessary, status updates may no longer be relevant for some audiences and certain quality checks may no longer be needed once a certain level of quality has been reached, Mr. Fierro says.
When reports or updates are necessary, narrowing the focus can save valuable time and energy. Analyze each activity to determine the true business value of performing them, and find out what can be cut.
“A lot of work goes into creating good project communication artifacts for every possible audience,” he says. “So why not spend the project team's time on the ones that are really useful to the project stakeholders?”
Next, insist that team members only focus on one task at a time, Mr. Tarne says, rejecting the notion that multitasking improves productivity.
“Multitasking is a killer. When trying to do too much at once, people lose a lot of time in context switching between tasks,” he says, noting that after he instituted a “no multitasking” approach, his developers’ efficiency increased by 30 percent.
To facilitate that single-task focus, project leaders should break down large projects into smaller, more manageable projects.
If you have a large data conversion project, for instance, Mr. Tarne recommends splitting it by business unit or market. Reducing the scope of each project piece will also help team members move more seamlessly from one phase to the next.
“I had a recent project where the information solution architect got stuck in the design phase,” Mr. Tarne says. “He had ‘analysis paralysis.’ What we needed to do was just reduce the scope of that first release and only focus on the design for the first release.”
Mr. Fierro identifies redundancies in his projects by using imagery, such as process flow charts, architecture landscape maps and future mode of operations process maps.
“Not only is it helpful to have a visual representation of all the systems and their interactions in something you can quickly pull out and share with the team, including stakeholders and sponsors, but it's critical when discussing the project with people speaking different languages,” he says.
TIME TO GET TECHNICAL
Trimming the fat from hardware and software tools can help projects as much as simplifying the process side of projects.
Organizations with low IT complexity see
lower technology costs than those with high IT complexity.
Source: 2012 IT Book of Numbers, The Hackett Group
Mr. Tarne recommends implementing service-oriented architecture, which allows disparate systems to talk to each other through an intermediary device known as an enterprise service bus. Such architecture lets teams re-use services, rather than creating them each time systems need to interact.
Keeping master and working files in centralized project document storage, rather than on local disks, improves communication and alignment, says Mr. Chaplin. He also recommends using blogs and wikis to share information within—and outside—the project. Posting reusable project templates on these sites will allow team members to “fast-start” their activities, and eliminate the need to reinvent the wheel for each project.
Also, a regularly updated, comprehensive application landscape document tracks all the applications that each team and the entire organization uses, says Mr. Fierro, and this makes the necessary connections between systems. It also eliminates application redundancy.
“You can enter the data on this document into a database or website in order to keep track of everything and start making the connections between systems. Then you can tackle them one by one to decide if the functionality each application provides is unique to the business and needs to be maintained, or if it could be replaced by an existing one with the same functionality,” he says.
“A lot of work goes into creating good project communication artifacts for every possible audience, so why not spend the project team's time on the ones that are really useful to the project stakeholders?”
—Juan Carlos Fierro, PMP, HP, Guadalajara, Mexico
Security profiles provide another opportunity for simplifying, Mr. Fierro says. Instead of granting access to systems, databases or websites on an individual basis, project managers could establish predefined profiles based on a person's role or function—for example, system administrator, finance or human resources. Each role can access only the data or resources they need based on their profile.
CUT WITH CARE
Identifying and reducing inefficiencies may take away teams’ time that they could spend actually completing a project, but the payoff could be felt across the entire organization's bottom line.
In addition to spending more on IT functionalities, companies with high IT complexity see more costs in key back-office areas, such as finance and procurement, according to the Hackett Group report.
Still, project leaders seeking efficiency should keep in mind that just because a portion of a project is time-consuming or task-intensive doesn't necessarily mean it can be cut from the to-do list.
“Simplification of projects should not be at the expense of making the project team inefficient,” Mr. Chaplin says. “If, through simplification work, the team becomes inefficient, then you need to rethink your approach.” PM
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