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Keep IT project planning on track with 5 principles

Whether you're a seasoned IT vet about to take on the biggest project yet or a new team member spearheading an important build, follow a project planning approach that limits scope and hits goals.

If IT projects were simply a matter of picking some good equipment and software, we wouldn't need IT project planning. For most projects, IT must evaluate, select and optimally implement technologies that best align with the organization's needs and staff skills, for the best cost of ownership. Success is rarely guaranteed.

IT project planning helps leaders and teams deliver the best possible outcome. Modern business is dynamic and relies on IT to underpin new initiatives and priority shifts. scope creep is a real danger to IT project plans. Some amount of scope creep is unavoidable, so set upfront expectations for creep: Extend the timeline, increase the budget, document the potential for later implementation as a separate project or follow another path.

Bad habits thrive in large projects, and short ones are typically easier to tackle. If you have a large, complex IT project to implement, break it down into phases or subprojects. Clear goals and short project timelines help to avoid team fatigue that can haunt wide-ranging endeavors.

These five practices should enable IT project planning that meets expectations and keeps the burden of new deployments realistic.

1. Set tangible goals and timelines

IT projects are doomed from the start when goals are too general or unclear. Every project needs real terms for success and a meaningful timeline.

Tangible goals and criteria for IT should map to corresponding business activities directly. Examples illustrate how tangible and nebulous project plans contrast:

  • A business application faces issues with excessive latency, necessitating IT investment to fix it. Basic research reveals excessive server load. The goal to reduce latency is too vague. A more specific project plan that addresses the business need would propose a server upgrade to another hardware platform or an application cluster build to boost performance, lower latency and improve resilience.
  • Compliance obligations require the business to improve data security and extend the data retention period. A general project would add storage; a specific proposal says that IT will build and provision a storage resource -- a RAID 6 disk group -- with 10 TB of archival storage capacity with a layer of encryption to protect the data at rest. The project scope could include evaluation of alternatives, such as a hosted storage array with native data retention/lifecycle, encryption and duplication capabilities.

Establish metrics to gauge success. For the first example, IT needs to track latencies and report calculated availability as a percentage over time. The other example demands criteria around data retention, backups and deletion mapped to business policies.

2. Evaluate IT staff capabilities

Staff knowledge plays a critical role in the planning and execution of an IT project. Technologies for data center and cloud deployments are increasingly complex, with multiple dependencies.

IT professionals are a dedicated and resourceful lot, and there's nothing immediately wrong with learning on the job.

Place staff with relevant knowledge and experience in lead roles, and take advantage of cross-training opportunities with other team members as the project unfolds. IT professionals are a dedicated and resourceful lot, and there's nothing immediately wrong with learning on the job. But the IT project plan must account for time spent to explore a product or platform, configure and manage it, and ensure its integrations work. Include lab testing or proof of principle (PoP)/proof of concept (PoC)  projects as needed.

If the team doesn't have requisite skills, recruit additional IT staff to fill the gap for the long term, or engage the services of a consultant or independent contractor to handle the project and train in-house staff to manage the technologies.

3. Demonstrate proof of principle

Lab testing and PoP/PoC projects reduce risk and build staff experience. PoC projects generally show that a technology or platform addresses the business needs. PoP projects verify that a proposed product or technology will deploy, set up, integrate and function as expected. These types of projects can be used to explore new use cases, configurations and functionalities of existing resources as well. They offer an opportunity to learn, make mistakes and test settings and optimizations without affecting production workloads.

The upfront investment in example projects typically is modest. The project team can either acquire gear and software on a temporary trial basis or rely on vendors to set up the mock deployment.

4. Get buy-in and budget from the business

IT project planning succeeds or suffers based on the quality of communication and collaboration between IT and business leaders. It's critical for the IT side to understand exactly what problem they're tasked to solve. It's equally important for the business to understand how new IT technologies and infrastructure work.

Involve business leaders in planning meetings, PoP/PoC demonstrations and other vital points along the project's lifecycle. Show the business what they're getting, how it works and how it meets the project's goals.

Stipulate defined, measurable criteria and metrics for success from the project owners. Track progress on these areas, and report results. For example, if the IT project is to create a private cloud to host five critical business applications that support up to 1,000 users, its metrics should track transactions per hour within an application or revenue vs. targets for the updated applications.

IT project planning requires a budget proposal. Write a total cost of ownership assessment that includes often-overlooked cost factors, such as licensing and annual service or maintenance agreements. The more realistic the budget proposal, the lower chances of unexpected costs and undesirable follow-up funding requests.

5. Close the loop

IT project execution requires regular progress monitoring and reports to validate that the project is within scope, on time and on budget.

Monitoring and reporting are even more important once the project is finished. Sum up how the IT investments made for a project meet the established criteria, and establish the relevant metrics for IT and business stakeholders to evaluate its success.

IT dashboards track performance, availability and other technical attributes of the project via set metrics, such as storage capacity and network throughput. Dashboards can also include business-focused metrics, such as transactions and views per visit, and calculated or derived metrics, such as revenue per visit. Look for customizable dashboards that can provide needed information for different job roles on the project without ongoing manual work to create reports.

Reports can also show demand for deployment optimizations, configuration changes or even remediation if the project's results fall short of expectations.

In-house IT must compete with cloud and hosted service alternatives on every project, so use these five tenets of good IT project planning to ensure IT's voice is heard and valued when business stakeholders require enabling technologies.

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