Information technology project success

four stages of excellence using creative project management tools


An article published in PMI Network® magazine (2009, November), entitled “Rescue Plan,” outlines the “dismal failure rate of IT projects,” where only 32% of IT projects came in on time, within budget, and with the requested features, according to the Standish Group Chaos Summary 2009 released in April 2009. To improve information technology (IT) project success rates, this white paper outlines a practical, structured approach to IT project management that ties PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) best practices with an easy-to-use, icon-driven TotalFlow™ business process mapping technique and a “Four Stages of Excellence” methodology for project business analysis and planning.

TotalFlow™ business process mapping is an easy-to-use, icon-driven business process mapping technique that offers IT project teams the ability to quickly document key business process flows, creatively engage stakeholders (project sponsors, key stakeholders, subject matter experts, business analysts, administrators, end users, etc.), and identify business improvement opportunities to target for implementation. Business process mapping outputs can provide clear visibility of key business processes and serve as a blueprint to defining collective company best practices, project deliverables, and project business value.

The “Four Stages of Excellence” methodology provides a structured approach to IT project business analysis and planning that can be accomplished quickly. Each stage (current, target, transition, and future) can be leveraged to promote IT project success in meeting and/or exceeding stakeholder expectations. Before proceeding with a given project, the business process mapping outputs can be submitted for project management office portfolio analysis to confirm the project’s value relative to other project opportunities. Projects approved and targeted for implementation can use the “Four Stages of Excellence” outputs as inputs for developing detailed project plans in accordance with agile scrum and/or the PMBOK® Guide’s best practices.

The Big Picture – Business and IT Alignment

The value of an IT project is driven by the impact it can make on business processes. A quick way to complete business analysis and planning can be beneficial for identifying and measuring how an IT project delivers value in support of business needs. IT project value can then be assessed in the project management office to determine the value of the project relative to other project opportunities. Lower value IT projects can be stopped early in order to allocate resources to higher value projects.

Raw Code

Exhibit 1 – Raw Code

BPMN Tools

Exhibit 2 – BPMN Tools


Exhibit 3 – TotalFlow™

The importance of business and IT alignment is clear. For IT project business analysis and planning purposes, it can be beneficial to have “one view” of business processes superimposed with corresponding IT touch points. However, many organizations struggle with documenting and communicating the business values of IT projects. Clearly, raw code (Exhibit 1) programming language is not an effective tool to communicate IT and/or business alignment. Business process modeling notation (BPMN) offers certain tools such as events, activities, gateways, and connections to describe a business process (Exhibit 2). Often, BPMN tools are embedded within the integrated development environment (IDE) of a given software application. When developing and configuring software applications, BPMN tools can be beneficial in providing a graphic business process flow directly linked to underlying software code/services. BPMN tools, however, may not facilitate quick and effective business analysis and planning. TotalFlow™ (Exhibit 3) can illustrate how information flow is “synchronized” with business process flow to provide a common canvas for effective communication between IT and business professionals.

TotalFlow™ Business Process Mapping

TotalFlow™ business process mapping offers an icon-driven flowcharting technique using “flow elements” (inventory, documents, data inputs, key performance indicators) to view business processes superimposed with corresponding IT touch points. The “Four Stages of Excellence” methodology (current, target, transition, and future) provides an approach to applying TotalFlow™ for quick and effective IT project business analysis and planning.

Flow Elements

Flow elements are topics within a process that are deemed critical and need to be defined to illustrate key process steps in the flowchart. Example flow elements include:

  • Inventory: Item and status for each step in process
  • Documents: Electronic and manual
  • Data inputs: Data inputs at a given step in the business process
  • KPIs: Key performance indicators and report outputs. KPI reports can be linked to KPI icons on the flowchart to provide a clear understanding of what is being measured for each business process step.
  • Time: Time for each process step and cycle time for the entire process

Other flow elements can be added based on the specific needs of a given business process. During flowcharting, use of color (Exhibit 4) is recommended for highlighting the role of each flow element in each process step.

Flow Elements - Color

Exhibit 4 – Flow Elements - Color

Flow Tag

Exhibit 5 – Flow Tag

Flow Tags

Flow tags are icons used to concisely define the focus elements for each process step (e.g., a 2-digit code). For example, a document flow tag (Exhibit 5) includes the 2-digit document name code and 2-digit department code, which can be defined in the flow tag key (Exhibit 6). Flow tags facilitate a “bird’s eye” view to provide a concise “blueprint” of key business processes and information flows. Additionally, flow tags are used to quickly define accountability by department.

Flow Tag Key

Exhibit 6 – Flow Tag Key

Document Fields

Exhibit 7 – Document Fields

Document Fields

For each document (Exhibit 7), data content can be defined (e.g., form sections/fields) with associated “information flow” data entry mode (e.g., keyboard, bar code).

Map Levels

Map levels define the level of “drill down” to detailed sub-processes. (e.g., total supply chain → Work In Progress (WIP) → WIP processed detail). High-level “bird’s eye” flowchart views can be supported by “drill down” flowcharts to any level of detail necessary.


Exhibit 8 – TotalFlow™

Embellish with Graphics

Reusable graphic icons specific to your business process (e.g., trucks with your company logo, etc.) can make a flowchart more visually appealing and better understood (Exhibit 8).

The Advantages of TotalFlow™ Include:

  • Common canvas – Provides a “common canvas” for stakeholders to review and build on during project business analysis planning stages
  • Big picture – Enables mapping a “big picture,” including the necessary details to see the flow elements and flow tags that define the critical elements of the business process
  • Collective best practice – Documents collective best practice for key business processes based on input from multifunctional stakeholders
  • Accountability – Roles and responsibilities can be identified and linked directly to key business processes, including departments, names, and photos.

Four Stages of Excellence

A software project is also a business project—it’s one thing to get things done, it’s another to add value! Effective business analysis and planning can improve the probability success for large scope, complex projects. The “Four Stages of Excellence” methodology (Exhibit 9) provides a structured approach to IT project business analysis and planning that can be accomplished quickly and used to harness the collective knowledge and creativity of your team. Excellence in achieving IT project success and meeting and/or exceeding stakeholder expectations is directly related to the level of excellence accomplished at each of the four stages. In moving through each stage, you should be thorough but maintain a quick pace to avoid “analysis paralysis.” The “Four Stages of Excellence” process leads to better resource utilization by enabling the project management office to understand and evaluate the business merit of the project—to either move forward with project approval or “cut bait” sooner to avoid committing to a low value project. For approved projects, the output of the “Four Stages of Excellence” process can be used as the basis for developing detailed project plans in accordance with agile scrum and/or the PMBOK® Guide’s best practices.

“Four Stages of Excellence” in Project Business Analysis and Planning

Exhibit 9 – “Four Stages of Excellence” in Project Business Analysis and Planning

1. The Current Stage: Where Are We Now?

The Current Flowchart defines “where we are now.” The Current Flowchart accurately documents current process steps and flow elements to define how the process is currently being performed. The Current Flowchart provides the following advantages:

  • Documented “picture” of how the process is currently being performed
  • Resource and “common canvas” for stakeholders to critique the current process and initiate proposals for improvement

Creating a “Current” Flowchart

  • Develop a working knowledge of the process to be flowcharted:
    • Are there existing resources? There may be documented resources already available that will give you a running start (organizational charts, business process diagrams, enterprise architecture diagrams, etc).
  • Engage people:
    • Interview stakeholders knowledgeable about each step in the process (project sponsors, key stakeholders, subject matter experts, business analysts, administrators, end users). Early involvement often benefits project schedule, value, buy-in, change management, and overall project success. When possible, conduct one-on-one interviews to capture candid feedback and ideas, which may not be likely to surface during team meetings and focus groups.
    • How is it currently done? When asking several different people about how a given business process is currently done, it is common to get perspectives with significant differences (e.g., process steps, techniques). These differences could potentially yield advantages. First, do your best job to reach a consensus in defining the current process. Secondly, consolidate these differences to define a new best practice that can be considered for the “target” stage.
  • Complete the flowchart of how the process is currently being accomplished:
    • Identify the impact of each focus element in the process flow.
    • To confirm accuracy, have the Current Flowchart reviewed by stakeholders knowledgeable about current processes.
    • Maintain the Current Flowchart on file as a record of your starting point.

2. The Target Stage: Where Do We Want to Go? What is the Value of Going There?

The Target Flowchart defines “where we want to go.” The Target Flowchart documents how the process is targeted to be performed at “go live” and accurately defines targeted process steps and flow elements. Use the Target Flowchart to capture and document the collective knowledge and creativity of your team.

Creating a “Target” Flowchart

  • Engage People:
    • Encourage creativity by maintaining open communications with stakeholders and providing ongoing training for new technologies and processes
    • Give the stakeholders accountability for improving processes and defining the target states for their areas of responsibility
    • Harness external resources (benchmarking, suppliers, industry experts)
  • Complete the flowchart of how the process is targeted to be accomplished:
    • Define each focus element in the process flow
    • Define the best practice for each process
    • Maintain the Target Flowchart on file as a record of your target point for “go live”

Cornucopia of Opportunities

Each project you start may have a multitude of potential benefits for your organization. Such benefits may not be clear for all stakeholders; therefore, it is beneficial to capture these ideas in the “Cornucopia of Opportunities,” a listing of potential project deliverables that define “the value of going there (target).” Take advantage of the time you spend interacting with the people in your organization. When interviewing key stakeholders, take the opportunity to capture ideas for improvement in a simple spreadsheet matrix, which can later be used to estimate business value and prioritize projects and/or sub-projects. Such opportunities may come in different forms: recommendations, complaints, or other opportunities for improvement. The “Cornucopia of Opportunities” can capture ideas, including:

  • What is going well (so you can expand upon and further deploy best practices)? Are there opportunities to spread “best practice” to other parts of the business?
  • What could be improved? Listen to complaints and convert them to opportunities for improvement.
  • What is the business value? Provide quantitative estimates of how the ideas will impact the business.
  • What resources are required? Estimate the return on investment.

The cumulative problems and/or solutions identified in the “Cornucopia of Opportunities” can be used to estimate the overall value of the project and provide the basis to justify committing resources (relative to other project management office opportunities).

3. The Transition Stage: How Do We Get There?

Create a “Transition Plan” to define the actions necessary to transition from the as-is “current” state to the to-be “target” state. The Transition Plan should include:

  • Business processes impacted
  • Resources required
  • Timeframe
  • Transition roles and responsibilities
  • Business continuity measures (e.g., workarounds, parallel processes, etc.).

4. The Future Stage: What Do We Do After We Arrive?

Create a “Future Plan” to define the actions necessary to preserving the gains achieved in the “target” state. The Future Plan should include:

  • Training requirements
  • Governance, support, and maintenance requirements after “go live”
  • Ongoing financial requirements
  • Ongoing management support and participation
  • Objectives for continuous improvement

Agile software development. . (2010, July) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from .

Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN). (2010, July). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Fister, G. S. (2009, November). Rescue plan. PMI Network® magazine,(23)1, 18–19.

Project Management Institute. (2008). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide)—Fourth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Scrum (development).. (2010, July) In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from .

©2010, Loran Cox
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington, DC



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