Why There’s No Such Thing as an IT Project

Very early in my career I worked with an IT manager who refused to use the term ‘the business’ in conversation. He’d pull people up when colleagues said things like, “The business is asking for…”

What you really mean, he would argue, is that the Marketing team, or the Finance team, is asking for something. There is no dichotomy of IT and ‘the business’. IT is part of the business.

As a result, all our IT projects – that is, projects that the IT team worked on – were framed in business terms. Even things that could traditionally be seen as true technical pieces of work like network upgrades or hardware replacement. We did them because they helped support the company’s overall objectives, moving us forward together to achieve the required business changes.

At the time it was a refreshing way of creating a company culture where IT underpinned and supported the other departments in the organization. Today, that way of thinking is a necessity.

Delivering business change

A BCS Digital Leaders survey points out that for 55% of respondents, business transformation and organizational change are the top management issues for the coming year.

‘Business change’ is facing challenging times. Businesses know that they have to make changes to processes and products to stay competitive. Tools that make processes slicker and save thirty seconds off call handling times can generate big returns over a year.

However, they also have to be alert to societal changes, many of which are driven by technology. Consumers are interacting with organizations in different ways and expect different things from them, largely driven by how they choose to purchase, stay up-to-date and share data.

There are drives to change organizational working practices, products, processes and more. Projects are set up to deliver all of these. When you start to aggregate the amount of change required in some areas you are really looking at something bigger: transformation.

Delivering business transformation

I think of business transformation as the next level up from business change. When you are looking at shifting an entire business culture then you are dealing with transformative programs of work, not individual projects.

Business transformation should be led by strategy because it’s the vision for the future of the organization that defines what you should be working on.

Portfolio managers don’t need to be told that all projects and programs should align to strategy. A strategy without the projects to deliver it is just a plan. Probably a pleasant, creative vision of what the future state looks like, but in the absence of action it will stay as a set of slides and nothing more.

The bit between the CEO presenting the strategy at the annual conference and the front-line staff actually seeing the benefits of this is often missing. Delivering business transformation requires creativity from all teams. IT is not devolved from this. If you take my old manager’s view that all change is business change, then IT becomes a service function, working in tandem with their colleagues in other departments and delivering projects that underpin business strategy.

In many respects there is nothing wrong with that. But what elevates a team – be it an IT team or another – is the ability to use their subject matter expertise to bring creativity to a problem.

Technical subject matter experts are often the best placed to come up with suggestions of how to turn that strategy presentation into tomorrow’s reality because they understand how cutting edge tech can support, drive and enhance those business goals.

Delivering business skills

Of course, they can only do that if they understand how the organization works as a complete entity. That is where the future of project management is going.

My well-thumbed edition of Managing Successful Programmes talks about the role of a Business Change Manager but my own experience – and that of many other project managers I have spoken to – is that this role is often absent on both transformative and smaller projects.

It falls to the role of the project leader and the delivery team to fill the gap.

I don’t mind that: I think it broadens the role of the project team and from a personal perspective it certainly makes the work more rewarding and interesting. Whether it would work with your project management team or not is a decision that you’ll need to take for your business.

Whether you fill the change management role with a project manager skilled in doing that or a separate team is your choice.

The point is that whether you have someone in post with the title of Business Change Manager or not, the role still needs to be done.

Change ‘science’ is not that difficult to understand but it is difficult to get right. With only 8% of the Digital Leaders surveyed in the BCS study saying that their organization has sufficient resources to address the management issues and IT trends that their company has prioritized, this is a huge risk for getting value out of programs of change.

Delivering business value

Projects and programs that fail to address the business change requirements will struggle to see any value delivered as a result. And why do we do project work unless it is to get something that the business thinks is valuable at the end?

This brings us back to strategy. Working on projects to introduce new tools and processes is only useful if the activity clearly ties back to why we are doing that work. Rushing ahead with transformative change for the sake of change or because a new app looks pretty cool on the CEO’s iPhone is not a good enough reason.

Again project leaders have a role to play in challenging project proposals and in continuing to link tasks back to benefits. For the IT project management team, that means understanding the objectives that are driving IT choices to help bridge the gap between strategy and the future state with projects that meet clear needs.

Without this holistic view, IT departments risk accidentally (or deliberately) blocking business change and other teams risk missing the technical implications of what they want to do, such as data security. Technical project teams are key to driving forward business transformation, and only when ‘the business’ works together as one will we see the best benefits being realized from change.

This article first appeared in Project Manager Today, September 2015. Reprinted with permission.