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When Technology Projects Break Down and What to do About It, Part 3

Published
  • October 05 2006, 1:00am EDT
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This is the third in a series of columns that explore what it takes to design, implement and sustain technology projects that produce results as promised for stakeholders. My previous column discussed the idea that powerful project review meetings are the trim tabs of IT projects. On a large ship, the rudder weighs many tons and when the ship is moving, thousands of gallons of water surge by it every second, exerting a tremendous amount of force in the direction the ship is already moving. Most ships have a small rudder embedded in the main rudder, called a trim tab. Turning the trim tab exerts tremendous leverage on the main rudder and makes steering the huge ship more effective and efficient.

Effective review meetings accomplish the same things for complex, large IT projects - they help to change direction, maintain direction, reduce pressure and eliminate constant manual intervention.

An IT Project Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow, a pioneer in the study of human motivation, said that all human beings have five fundamental levels of need: biological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and actualization. He said that any human being must first have air to breathe, food to eat and shelter, along with other basic biological needs, and that you cannot interest people in anything else until these needs are mainly met. When these needs are met, people then work to attain a level of safety, that is, to protect their supply of the basic biological needs. From there, people move on to the levels of love and belonging, esteem and actualization. These five levels compose what have come to be called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

In my view (and that of some others), information technology has a Hierarchy of Needs that must be understood in order for IT projects to work. My notion of the IT Project Hierarchy of Needs is shown in Figure 1, and I use my name with it to distinguish it from other such models.


Figure 1: The Lee IT Project Hierarchy of Needs


The five levels in my IT Project Hierarchy of Needs are: people, conversation, process, technology and service. The IT Project Hierarchy of Needs functions just as Maslow Hierarchy of Needs: one level must be mainly fulfilled or completed before moving up to the next level, and each level must be addressed in order from bottom to top. You cannot interest a human being in love, belonging, esteem or fine art if she cannot breathe or does not have enough to eat. By the same token, you can have world-class hardware and software (technology) associated with your IT project, but if your people, conversations, processes are incomplete, your project will not deliver on its promise and will not be of service.

It is my experience that IT projects with the greatest chance of failure are characterized by the expenditure of large sums of money on hardware, software and software development before the people, conversation, and process levels are mainly fulfilled. It is an old adage in the IT industry that on doomed projects the software engineers are told, "Nevermind what the business needs are or who the customers are, just start coding. We'll figure that out later." In other words, we technologists don't want to have the right conversations with the right business people and customers because we don't know who they are, we don't understand each other, and they'll just limit what we can do with technology.

The Strategic IT Project Review Meeting: Where the IT Project Hierarchy of Needs is Fulfilled

In my previous column we discussed the principle of the trim tab and that effective project review meetings act as trim tabs for IT projects. The most powerful of these project review meetings is the strategic project review meeting. In the strategic project review meeting the executives and managers in attendance act to create, design and manage the people, policies, process, hardware and software necessary for the project to succeed. It is in these meetings that the future of the project and of the people associated with it are shaped, so it is crucial that the strategic project review meetings are created, designed and managed to work.

What distinguishes a strategic project review meeting from any other project meeting is that the regular attendees to the strategic review meeting have the power to create, design, manage and change any aspect of the project at any level, from people, policies and process to hardware and software. Other project review meetings are more limited in scope and authority.

The Strategic IT Project Review Meeting: People

The people who attend strategic review meetings are analogous to United States Supreme Court Justices. These nine men and women meet on a regular basis to decide which crucial issues they will address and then they work together to make decisions that affect many people, constrained by the United States Constitution, legal precedent and the need to work with the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

Like the Supreme Court Justices, regular strategic project review meeting attendees are few in number. They have support staffs and organizations, but the small number of regular attendees who have the power to make decisions means that issues can be resolved in timely manner. In fact, organizations might use the number of Supreme Court Justices as a benchmark to decision-makers in a strategic review meeting: no more than nine.

Effective strategic project review meeting attendees use another principle from the Supreme Court: they decide which issues will be addressed at the highest level. It is within their power to direct other project executives and managers at lower levels to make decisions they do not have the time to make or that they know can be made by others.

My next column will continue with our discussion of the strategic project review meeting and the people associated with it.

Note: I did not invent the term "IT Hierarchy of Needs," but I have not found such a hierarchy that uses the word conversation as a hierarchy level. If you believe you know who brought the term IT Hierarchy of Needs into common usage, I would like to hear from you to give credit where it is due.

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