When is a project a Project? How to prevent the buildup of backlogged requests

I just wrote something up (internal wiki) that I thought was common knowledge, but I think it’s one of those soft-skills things that makes total sense once you hear about it – but somebody needs to tell you.

I think of one of the reasons that IT (at times) intimidates the business – or why IT gets the cold shoulder when it comes to process improvement efforts – is that we can get a bit too wrapped up in the Art and Science of Project Management. It’s hard to build that business-savvy image when every new idea that comes your way is met with a 12-month waterfall Gantt, a copy of the PMBOK, and a formal sign-off sheet.

Howzabout a little common sense first? When you hear about an interesting idea from someone in the business, spend some face time with the requestor. E-mails and phone calls will not suffice; you can’t build a relationship that way. Have a conversation about what they want vs. what they need

  • Sanity Check: Do they want something huge? Impossible? Impractical? is a great idea, but completely out of line with current corporate strategies/priorities? If so, help them understand they are boiling the ocean, it’s overkill and/or not likely to get worked on in the next 12 months. If they agree that this is a bit of a stretch – hey, you’re done! You’ve successfully stopped a bunch of needless administrivia work before it even started!
    • If they still think it’s a great idea, consider capturing the magic by putting together a simple (i.e. quick) Project Charter document, and adding it to your “master list” of projects. Then, immediately put the project on Hold. It will be in your database / list forever, we won’t lose track of the Great Ideas embedded within … but it will be off of our immediate radar screen.
  • Training Issue: Are they asking for something that can be done in a different way (i.e. shooting rabbits with a bazooka)? Maybe they don’t understand all that (insert your favorite ERP here) has to offer. Can we solve their request with some training?
  • Quick Hit: If they’re asking for something that is twenty effort hours (or less), has minimal impact on a small number of people (ie. no training will be needed), and could get taken care of over a few days/weeks – consider it “filler work”, and don’t bother creating a formal Project for the effort. The business will love that you’re delivering value without bureaucracy. Your brain will relish the chance to fill-in the dead time between meetings. And, your boss will/should dig it because it’s lagniappe – that little something extra. Sometimes, all they need is a report tweak or a simple data download … Web 2.0 is not the answer for everything.
    • Caveat: Don’t let this become the way that everything gets done. If a project is big enough, you should go through the proper level of rigor – it ensures that your efforts will be sustainable.
  • The Real Thing: Ok, if you’ve made it this far – this idea is good, it’s not too small, will involve a number of IT and business resources that need coordination and communication – i.e. Project Management – then yes, you need to follow your IT group’s standard process. No shortcuts (from here on out …)

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.