IT Operations | Feature

6 Project-Management Tips

Working through the weekend? Haven't taken a vacation for ages? These 6 tips for transparent, streamlined project management can help.


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When it comes to project management, the IT department is typically its own worst enemy. "When project requests are pushed through the budgeting process by different departments, it's up to IT to make them all work," explains Joy Hatch, vice chancellor for information technology for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). "Unfortunately, we're known for doing what we need to do to get them all done," she adds somewhat ruefully.

"At Loyola, we call it 'heroic mode,' because you require your staff to be heroic to get the project load done," remarks Richard Sigler, director of Technology Services' Project Management Office at Loyola University Maryland. "You've got people working over weekends and postponing their vacations. Your staff is overloaded."

This story appeared in the October 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

To reduce the amount of time that staff spend in heroic mode, both institutions have deployed highly transparent, planned approaches to project management--as well as a streamlined and objective method for prioritizing and approving IT projects. Here's what they've learned along the way.

1) Create an Institution-wide Partnership
Hatch's office manages projects that affect the entire 23-college VCCS system. Over time, the sheer volume of IT work threatened to unhinge even the most heroic IT staffers. "After so many years of working in crisis mode, we suddenly had to become more efficient after the economic downturn--we realized that we were no longer going to be able to do everything for everybody," recalls Hatch. "Then the question became, who's going to do the prioritizing? IT shouldn't be prioritizing, because we're just there to support our academic and business partners. But you can't have individual departments prioritizing separately with the expectation that IT will still get everything done."

To resolve the issue, VCCS formed a project board made up of vice chancellors of the Academics, Finance, Workforce Development, and Advancement departments; the director of internal audits; and a representative from Grants, Budget, and Procurement. The board approves project proposals, prioritizes them, and determines which ones to set aside if resources are unexpectedly shifted in a different direction. "By having everybody in the same room, using the same procedures, and making decisions as a group, everybody gets on board," explains Hatch.

2) Make Participation Painless
At Loyola, project advocates used to deliver five- to 10-minute presentations in person to the Technology Services Advisory Committee (TSAC). "Inevitably, each presentation took much more time than it was allotted," recalls Sigler. "The presentations became very burdensome on the TSAC group, which is not something you want." So, in 2009, the school switched to a system in which the entire project pitch is done online via a project-proposal form.

Similar to VCCS's project board, TSAC consists of representatives from each division of the school, including students from the Student Government Association. To make it easier to review proposals, the TSAC subcommittee for project selection--open to all members of TSAC--created a scoring methodology and questions used to objectively measure the impact, cost, and effort behind every proposal. "We've really streamlined the process," notes Sigler. "Using the scorecard, it takes five to 10 minutes to score each project."

Members of the subcommittee are also involved in reviewing each project's detailed cost estimates and evaluating each project's risk of failure--factors that determine how closely a project must be managed for a successful completion. At the end of the process, the subcommittee creates a list of projects recommended for funding, based on priority and available capital and resources. This list is then submitted to the broader TSAC group for final approval.

"There has been a lot of enthusiastic participation by TSAC members," says Sigler. "Nobody's required to participate in the TSAC subcommittee for project selection, but people want to. I think that really testifies to the fact that the process has been embraced and is seen as useful."

3) Reduce Information Clutter
When it comes to pushing a project proposal through the approval process, both institutions have found that too much information is not necessarily a good thing.

At Loyola, the first step has always been to perform a high-level investigation of the estimated cost and hours needed to complete a project. An IT director has typically performed this task, which could take as much as four to eight hours. "When you're getting a lot of project proposals, this becomes very burdensome," notes Sigler.

To lighten the load, the institution now paints in broader strokes. "We've since adopted very broad ranges for the investigation parameters based on the Project Management Institute's definition of rough order of magnitude," he says, "so that this high-level investigation can be done quickly, and we can have the information we need to continue the scoring."

Staying out of the informational weeds has benefits beyond savings in staff time. VCCS recently revamped the proposal reports it provides to the project board in order to increase their clarity. "The project board is made up of executives--let's get them in and out," insists Hatch. "Let's give them the least amount of paperwork they need--just enough to explain what they need to know without burying them in details."

4) Share Progress Throughout the Process
Once a project is in motion, it's important that the entire community be kept abreast of its progress. "It's incredibly helpful for our customers to be able to see the whole of what we're doing," notes Sigler. "One of the realities is that sometimes very critical projects consume more resources. Folks need to understand why resources originally allocated to their project have to be transferred temporarily to another project. By having everything in front of them, they can recognize the value of the project that the resources have been assigned to."

Loyola has automated its reporting procedures throughout the project management process. Once a project is approved, a team website is created using a designated SharePoint template. Thereafter, the project manager posts simple status reports, whose frequency is determined by the amount of rigor assigned to the project during the scoring and assessment phases of the approval process. These status reports are also automatically e-mailed to the project team, the project advocate (the person who submitted the project), and the project sponsor. Real-time reporting is also available through a series of dashboards built into the project management system.

"We find that TSAC is also interested in the high-level status for each project in the portfolio," remarks Sigler. He used to give brief updates on each project at TSAC meetings, but quickly found that it was more efficient to distribute a monthly newsletter, which is also posted on the internal Technology Services website.

5) Track Your Available Resources
Even if you have enough money to cover every project, you need to ensure that you have enough man-hours available to complete the projects without overburdening your staff. "If our project list requires 300 development hours, but we only have 200 development hours available, we're going to be right back in crisis mode," says Hatch.

VCCS IT staffers currently track and measure how they use their time. The goal is to create an accurate accounting of the time available to spend on new projects, and how much time is typically spent within each division of IT maintaining existing projects. "Once a project like our new decision-support system rolls into production, how much time does that free up?" posits Hatch. "How many of those hours will then go into maintenance and are no longer available for development time?"

Loyola uses a project portfolio-management system called AtTask to track its available resources against projects under consideration. "The system allows us to see folks who would be overtaxed by the [proposed project load]," explains Sigler. "Then we have the opportunity to remove projects, working backward in priority order...until you're taking on enough work without overloading your resources."

6) Encourage Collaboration
For a resource-strapped IT department, cross-campus collaboration can help distribute the load. "When people can see what's happening in other departments, they have the ability to work together so they're not working on overlapping projects," says Hatch. "There's a synergy that's gained from two people from two departments suddenly realizing that they can use the same product to meet both their needs."

Sigler agrees on the importance of sharing resources among different areas of the institution. Recently, TSAC received a proposal for a new scheduling system from Alcohol and Drug Education and Support Services, followed by a similar proposal from the Counseling Center. "We were able to find a solution that met both of their needs, which led to tremendous efficiency," explains Sigler.

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