Oct 31 2006

6 Ways to Take Control of Struggling Education Technology Projects

IT leaders share strategies on how to take control of struggling projects and steer them in the right direction.

When John Gorman stepped into a new university IT leadership post, the school was in the midst of replacing its antiquated communications system. The project was understaffed, over budget and way off course. He was brought in to clean up the mess.

“At the time, the sense of need was so urgent that there was nowhere to go but up,” says Gorman, who has since left that post to become IT director at Penn State's Great Valley (PSGV) School of Graduate Professional Studies in Malvern, Pa. “I was brought in with great hope and expectation.”

However, Gorman adds, “That honeymoon only lasts about an afternoon. Then they want to see results.”

Managers who take over failing IT projects are often seen as heroes coming to the rescue. But after the initial glory fades, they're left with the sordid details to clean up, and they need to take quick, decisive action to steer the project in the right direction. “It can really be a job breaker or a job maker,” Gorman says.

A good place to start is to look for small successes that can build positive momentum, says IT project management author Phillip Laplante, associate professor of software engineering at Penn State Great Valley and the founder and director of the Eastern Technology Council's CIO Institute, a community of CIOs in the Philadelphia area.

Corporate project managers are often trained to find such successes, but at understaffed university IT departments, project management training is a rarity, says Thomas Moberg, vice provost and CIO at North Dakota State University (NDSU) in Fargo, N.D.

But IT managers can learn from each other's experiences. University leaders around the country offer the following key strategies for taking over failing IT projects.

1. Listen: When PSGV's Gorman took over the telecommunications project at his previous school, he was an unknown entity with a clean slate, and everyone wanted to help him succeed. So the first thing he did was listen to various stakeholders – the project's users, developers and sponsors – about the project's history, problems and potential solutions.

“You need to listen to all sides,” PSGV's Laplante agrees. “There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing, a lot of people jockeying for positions and you have to filter through all that.”

Based on the information gathered, managers must assess why they were brought in. “You need to find the root cause of the problem,” says NDSU's Moberg. “Why wasn't this project working?”

Some may learn that their predecessors were actually good leaders who became scapegoats for problems beyond their control. In that case, PSGV's Laplante suggests meeting with the team members, letting them vent and explaining that you're there to work with them to make the project succeed.

2. Speak: Early on, as the pieces start to come together, the manager must communicate from the trenches to the leadership that the project will turn around, NDSU's Moberg says. Then he or she needs to start laying out the project plans. “Communication is 60 to 70 percent of the job,” he says.

When managing project teams, PSGV's Laplante tries to convene members weekly to go through bulleted lists of issues. Bad news should be delivered face to face, he says, then followed up with an e-mail or written report so it's documented.

“Never hide bad news,” he advises. “Don't celebrate it, but never bury problems. They'll find out eventually, and their trust in you will be erased.”

3. Regroup: If a project is failing and new management has been brought in, it's critical to review the project plan – its goals, deliverables and timeline – and to determine what issues exist and their resolution, says Hetty Baiz, manager of the Project Office at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. The team should discuss what impact the new management might have on the project.

All projects need a written plan, with the goals and objectives, scope, roles and responsibilities, resources, schedule, risks and overall strategy clearly spelled out, Baiz advises, adding, “You don't just start a project.” She suggests following up with monthly meetings led by an objective facilitator from outside the project to review and report on the project status.

4. Salvage: It's tempting to scrap a failing project plan and start from scratch, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, advises PSGV's Laplante.

“You need to assess what you can keep in terms of process, tools, people and functionality,” he says. “You may be a person of action who wants to come in and ready, fire, aim. But you need to take the time to aim [before you fire]. You need to resist the temptation to make promises you can't keep.”

While you're building the right environment for success, “Look for low-hanging fruit,” says PSGV's Gorman, and don't go too far too fast. People will watch to make sure you're the right person for the job, so you need to find small successes to gain their trust. If you wait too long, “people will get frustrated,” he warns.

5. Assign: Too often, projects lack clarity about who's responsible for what, so NDSU's Moberg often uses a process called responsibility charting to sort out the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the project. Moberg learned the responsibility charting process from Tom Gilmore, vice president of the Center for Applied Research, a consulting firm in Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass. (See CFAR's responsibility chart below.)

For his responsibility chart, Moberg draws a table with two axes: On the left side, he lists in detail the actions that must be taken to complete the project; across the top, he lists the stakeholders. In each column, he assigns roles that stakeholders must play for each action. For example, “A” indicates a person wh must approve an action; “R” designates person who is responsible for carrying out an action; “C” specifies a person who is consulted about an action, and “I” indicates a person who should be informed about an action.

The manager can get the stakeholders in a room and let them discuss or vote on who will do what, or he or she can just tell everyone what their roles are, says Moberg. When all assignments are complete, everyone should be clear about the roles necessary to carry out an action.

6. Celebrate: Emotions play a big role in complex projects, so it's important to stop and celebrate small milestones, Moberg says.

Project managers will be criticized, says PSGV's Laplante, so they need a coping strategy, such as exercise, a hobby or a good sense of humor. “Learn to separate work and the rest of your life,” he says, acknowledging, “That's hard to do. When you're in battle, it's really tough.

“I don't know if you can ever do it without a little stumbling, so don't set impossible standards for yourself.”

Project Checklist: Questions to Ask

Data is critical to any project, but it's often absent, says North Dakota State University provost and CIO Thomas Moberg. As a trained mathematical statistician, Moberg asks a long list of questions to gather the data about a project's budget, schedule and deliverables. They include the following:


  • What was the planned budget?
  • Does that cover the total cost, including upgrades, maintenance, replacements and licenses?
  • How much has been spent?
  • Who's tracking expenditures?
  • Where and how are they being tracked?
  • Have there been regular project reports?
  • In what format are they presented?
  • To whom is the project team accountable (i.e., who is authorizing the funding and who is the intended audience)?
  • Has it been on schedule so far?
  • How much time was projected for the project?


Melissa Solomon is a writer in Austin, Texas.


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