Disciplined Project Management Will Show Payback

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Remember the days when a software installation really only affected your IT staff? When all of your technology components came from one supplier? When you could easily make system upgrades "off hours?" Those days are long gone.

Today, technology is more complex, it affects more areas of the organization, it involves components from multiple suppliers, it's implemented on accelerated schedules, and it's more visible to members via member-direct services. Beyond that, there's no "good" time for system upgrades-as any credit union with 24/7 services can attest. So when it comes to gauging a technology implementation's success, the bar has been raised significantly-with little room for error, disruption or delay. To clear that hurdle, it's vital to use a project management approach.

Project management is the use of consistent, methodical best practices to ensure that a project successfully achieves its objectives. It can be handled internally or outsourced; in either case, it's usually headed-up by a project leader supported by a cross-functional team. Effective project management always involves several keys, each with an important purpose.

Initial Buy-In: Some IT efforts don't succeed simply because the credit union fails to secure support from those who'll use the new technology, or doesn't notify staff whose workflow could be affected during installation. Good project management begins before the project does, through communication with everyone the initiative will impact. You'll also need senior management's agreement to allocate the necessary resources. If you encourage ownership and garner support upfront, you're far more likely to succeed. Speaking of which-don't forget to define "project success" at this stage and to secure everyone's agreement on that definition.

Detailed Project Plan: One of the most important elements, the project plan accomplishes several objectives. By providing a work breakdown schedule that details all tasks and their dependencies, the plan ensures each step is thought through in advance. By documenting roles and responsibilities, it ensures that tasks don't fall through the cracks because they weren't assigned. By noting key milestones with dates, it helps keep the project on schedule. By listing prerequisites and estimated costs, it minimizes unnecessary delays and surprise over-runs. Just committing the plan to paper isn't enough. Be sure to provide a draft to each person involved for review and buy-in. And don't assume it must be a complex document created with specialized software. A simple spreadsheet can be effective if the plan is complete, current, and communicated.

Risk Analysis: Every project plan includes some assumptions; for example, the existing network bandwidth will suffice, or the new hardware will arrive when scheduled, or a third-party certification process will finish on time. But if they're too aggressive or not well researched, your assumptions can create tremendous risks and jeopardize the project. It's important to document every assumption the plan is based on and the risks you'll encounter if they're wrong. If a particular risk is too great, adjust the plan.

Project Tracking: The best-conceived plan is useless unless it becomes a tool you use to keep the project on track. Once finalized, make the plan a living document. The project leader should take time each day to update it and communicate important news and changes to the team. If an unforeseen event causes you to miss a milestone or the scope of the project begins to "creep up," you'll need to adapt.

Cost Management: No one likes financial surprises, so it's important to keep on top of the project's hard and soft costs. If you don't coordinate all the details with your suppliers, you could purchase unnecessary or incorrect hardware, or fail to include a required expense in your budget. Just running behind schedule could cost you. On a recent project, a credit union had to hit its implementation date or face penalty fees from a third-party. Research and confirm all costs upfront, and then track them.

Regular Communication: The more internal staff and external suppliers involved, the more vital communication becomes. Brief and time-sensitive updates are ideal for handling through e-mail; more complex issues can be addressed at weekly status meetings (a must for most projects). While it can be tough to coordinate schedules, regular face-to-face communication will pay huge dividends down the road.

Follow-Up: One common pitfall that plagues IT projects is closing out the project prematurely. The project isn't over once the software is installed or the end users trained; it's over when all open issues have been resolved and there are no lingering problems. Depending on the project's complexity, closure might come days or even weeks later. So it's vital that the project leader or other designated person sticks with the initiative until it's completed. Good follow-up also includes a comparison of estimated vs. actual costs-a learning tool that makes future budgeting more accurate.

Project management can benefit any IT effort, no matter what the scope. Many credit unions use it when merging with or acquiring another institution; implementing an account number conversion; adding a new branch, phone system or more ATMs; upgrading the network platform; adding a relatively complex technology (especially those involving the Internet or internal networks); converting their core database; or implementing any technology that involves multiple suppliers.

It's a common business philosophy that you become what you practice. Whether your initiative involves 10 steps or 110 steps, the practice of project management will do more than improve your IT implementations-and you'll find this disciplined, best practices approach working its way into everything you do.

Jim Giacobbe is Director of Project Management for USERS. He can be reached at 1-800-523-7282, ext. 2314 or JimGiacobbe users.com.

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