Particular Characteristics of IT Projects

IT projects are no different from engineering, research or business development projects. They require excellent management skills, financial forecasting, preparation, focus, and at the end of it, best practices of project management. And yet in the last decade the path of managing IT projects has been rocky, with problems and characteristics that make them somehow ‘different’ from other ‘industrial projects’ (although in the end, the target users are the same). A damning statistic for the IT industry is the rate of failure in such projects; approaching 50% or more versus a few percent for most industries.

To understand the differences, one needs to accept IT projects, like projects in any specific industry, to have some particular characteristics. Let’s discuss the three most important problems.

First, it is difficult to define project specifications from client requirements right from the start – project managers need an interactive process to ensure that users are comfortable with the proposed solution before beginning development. This problem arises because the end products of IT projects (software solutions, business intelligence solutions, etc.) are highly interactive. To evaluate the impact and usability of a data warehouse that must not only handle and process information both from user input and data storages but also act as a personal assistant when it comes to generating reports is a lot harder than determining the specifications of a mansion, no matter how customized each room is. The IT industry invariably produces interactive solutions that need to function at 100% with a heavy load of users, and this sort of pressure and high-level requirements are not part of other industries.

Second, IT projects are iterative and not step-by-step. Under an iterative approach like the PDCA cycle, a project team is often managing several phases simultaneously. While this offers the bonus of incremental refinement, it also carries the risk that change-management becomes a lot harder. On the other hand, the initiation period is a lot shorter; many projects are simply abandoned after the first requirements-gathering phase as prospective clients discover that their specifications are too expensive to implement. Often, companies are just looking to find quotes and with IT projects, that requires more time than with other industries.

Third, because IT projects involve a lot of uncertain parameters from the user’s point of view, there is always a risk of a change in the requirements. This is the primary cause of nightmarish scenarios where at the end of a multi-million dollar contract the user realizes that the developed solution is totally in opposition with their actual needs (although it might be exactly according to initial specifications. This also means that risk management in IT projects becomes a lot more important than many other industries, as IT solution providers and clients both try to limit the damage by establishing detailed and informed requirements at the very beginning.

IT projects are not disasters waiting to happen. Instead, like other industries, they also have their own specific characteristics that give certain project management principles a far greater importance than usual. Once you can efficiently handle these characteristics, IT projects become as easily comprehensible as other industrial projects and perhaps even more lucrative.

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