BY LAURA FRANK, PMP
TO COMPETE WITH THE BIG PLAYERS, SYNAPSE GROUP DEVELOPED A SYSTEM ALLOWING BUSINESS OWNERS TO RANK PROJECTS STRATEGICALLY AND BETTER ALLOCATE RESOURCES.
In 2002, Synapse Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., USA, was experiencing growing pains. After Time Warner Inc. acquired the firm, this leading service provider for consumer magazine publishers needed to segue from a small entrepreneurial organization to a large corporation. There were communication challenges—the information technology (IT) department failed to provide timely information to business partners.
Utilizing a group consensus approach, an executive vice president (EVP) steering committee met every six weeks to prioritize all strategic projects. Leaders knew the IT development department delivered great strategic systems, but were business owners consistently supporting the business when dealing with smaller, tactical projects?
Leaders wondered how to best manage the growing demand for technology resources using existing bandwidth, while equitably supporting the fast-paced, market-focused company. Nonstrategic development projects often were prioritized using the “buddy” or “who can shout the loudest” system.
Although back-end allocation and development processes were mature and working effectively, front-end demand and prioritization processes needed to be optimized. To manage business demand efficiently, executives had to approve projects that provided the best return for the company as a whole, rather than for individual departments, and project information had to be efficiently communicated to the business community.
- Synapse Group Inc. needed a better system to prioritize its small IT projects.
- A newly developed Synapse tracking all requests system (STARS) was enhanced for capturing, monitoring and maintaining project status information.
- An IT review committee ranks all eligible projects in the STARS development queue.
- An analyst with the business integration group (BIG) works with each business subcommittee to analyze, understand and help set and communicate project priorities.
- Today, business owners support the overall rankings established by the IT review committee.
Business owners wanted to establish a model similar to the EVP steering committee for prioritizing smaller, predominately tactical projects. This setup would allow the business owners to assess their projects in relation to other corporate areas. In November 2002, the Synapse Group's chief information officer set up an IT task force to:
- Optimize front-end activities performed on small projects and add consistency to the process
- Ensure, through the use of better tools and procedures, a balance of resources
- Better communicate information regarding project status, capture/identification, routing, prioritization and allocation of resources.
Because project business development requests originate from 12 demand channels in eight prioritization queues, the team needed to streamline the system. Namely, once leaders determined where the internal demand originated, they could link the demands with the queues—and collapse some of the channels. This would allow the task force to rank demand for small projects and better manage expectations at the front end.
A common repository for all IT projects was sorely needed, so a newly developed system (STARS) was enhanced for capturing, monitoring and maintaining project status information.
Although many projects were documented and captured in a small-project request system, several were maintained informally—in desk drawers, individual or departmental ranking queues, or in an analyst's head.
A common repository for all IT projects was sorely needed, so a newly developed Synapse tracking all requests system (STARS) was enhanced for capturing, monitoring and maintaining project status information.
To promote the use of STARS, IT management introduced a demand-chain precedent: Only projects entered in STARS would be eligible for ranking and prioritization. Now, all projects in the pipeline must be entered into STARS as either a project request (minor projects) or via a business concept document (more significant projects).
Initially, it seemed overwhelming to gather all projects and enter them into STARS. However, the team reviewed various options and chose to convert existing project requests with the automated updates supported by internal IT liaisons on a part-time basis. The conversion and update effort took more than two months, close to double the anticipated time.
In addition, the task force encountered three major hurdles in the entry process: depth of available information, uncertain return on investment (ROI) and workforce. More than 1,000 of the converted project requests were missing information, requiring research to determine the business owner and relevance to business strategy.
STARS requires a cost justification for each project, and because the team was still developing a uniform ROI methodology, this information was not consistently available. Therefore, the task force “relaxed” the data edits so that projects without a defined dollar benefit could be entered.
In addition, because a dedicated group was not allocated to enter the project requests, the entry was done as an adjunct to standard project work rather than as a totally committed endeavor—which impacted schedule.
Synapse staff now efficiently routes projects entered into STARS. Based on the request type, projects are distributed to a ranking review committee. For instance, projects that require quick resolution and bug fixes go to the application support group and major projects are sent to the EVP steering committee.
Business subcommittees discuss individual department project positioning as a prerequisite for the IT Review Committee. An analyst with the business integration group (BIG) works with each business subcommittee to analyze, understand and help set and communicate project priorities. Constant feedback with the business is critical to managing the demand chain.
The task force also established an IT project ranking body to prioritize projects using BIG representatives as the voice for each business area. This forum, dubbed the IT review committee, includes representatives from all departments within the IT organization. Headed by the senior director of BIG, the group meets weekly and operates in concert with Synapse's project management office.
The IT review committee determines the relative ranking of all eligible projects in the STARS development queue. To continually reset and manage expectations, the team needed to communicate information to the business subcommittees rapidly and regularly. The team decided that making the information available to the business units outweighed precise rankings, because stake-holders are provided continuous feedback and priorities can be reset. Relative rankings balance business justification and efficiency variables.
Rank and File
Projects are ranked in ascending order. Each week, more than 100 projects are prioritized with an additional 10 percent in the to-be-ranked queue. When new projects are added or priorities change for existing efforts, STARS logically reranks the queue. Reports generated from STARS information provide the foundation for project prioritization reviews. Relative rankings are based on a combination of the project's ROI, the requestor's estimated priority and the business justification. The senior director of BIG and the vice president of development resolve disputes.
BIG project managers and analysts facilitate the flow of information between the business owners or stakeholders, the business subcommittees and IT staff. Business units were introduced to the prioritization process in stages from September 2003 through December 2003. Each team now meets regularly, depending upon the demand volume and urgency.
A STARS master project list frames discussions with all business owners. Relative project rankings for each business subcommittee are highlighted and reviewed to confirm the department's projects are ranked correctly, discuss open questions on specific projects and provide clarification of the department's priorities relative to the overall business priorities.
Using the STARS project ranking lists, the IT development staff meets weekly to allocate development resources based upon a project's ranking/priority, resource availability, development platform and project synergies/efficiencies.
Synapse's new prioritization process has proven successful for both IT and the overall internal business units. Weekly IT review committee meetings have dropped from six hours to one hour. The eight priority queues have been eliminated and replaced with STARS.
Feedback has been positive. Business owners generally support the overall rankings established by the IT review committee. Many business owners encountered some confusion when they first started reviewing their project queue, both relating to projects under their domain and projects in other departments. They initially needed to be educated before they could determine which efforts would have the most benefit for the organization as a whole. Today, IT staff and the business owners ensure that they are in sync on which requests should be promoted and which should be eliminated or placed on hold.
Even when business owners' projects are not in the “Top 10,” they now know why. When warranted, they can challenge the ranking. Allocation decisions also have improved because IT now can use STARS to identify the most critical projects.
Synapse's new demand chain prioritization system reinforced the critical need to keep the business owners engaged and informed in all phases of the project's life cycle, even before development begins.
Based on these successes, future phases of STARS will provide an online tool for the business to directly access information about their projects as well as other departments' projects. Business units also will be able to enter project requests online. PM
Laura Frank, PMP, is a business integration project manager with Synapse Group Inc., Stamford, Conn., USA. She has helped strategically manage projects for Cendant, Tredegar Industries and Time Warner.
PM NETWORK | APRIL 2004 | WWW.PMI.ORG
APRIL 2004 | PM NETWORK