7 Challenges and Solutions in Managing Large Scale IT projects

Irrespective of whether you use Agile, Waterfall or any other software development lifecycle in IT projects larger than ~5000 FTE or projects of high complexity, PMO and Project Managers face daunting challenges. This article helps in understanding the key problem and what tools, processes, methods to apply to resolve them. While some of the challenges can be handled with experience and skills, others require more focused approach and specialized solutions and tools.

1. Monitoring & Control

Generally, bigger IT projects are more complex, risky and can de-rail with slight oversight. The reasons behind this can be many – complex technology, resources from multiple regions, mixed stakeholders, higher project impact etc.

Irrespective of the reasons, such a project requires higher degree of visibility and control to check the problems before they become too large to handle or cause damage beyond repair.

Without right ALM tools, project management tasks will consume too much effort and the actionable insights identification will be delayed. The larger the project, the more important it is to have right ALM tool to support project management tasks that will handle the scale, complexity, and variables. As the project complexity or the size increases, these tools will require more advanced capabilities. For example – many off the shelf ALM, DevOps tools (HPE ALM, PTC Integrity, IBM CLM, and JIRA etc.) do a decent job for projects but as the size increases the number of requirements will not easily fit in the visual dashboards. If the user stories / requirements run into thousands, handling them will not only require enhanced tools but also higher level of project management skills.

Complex project means detailed reports are not easy to produce due to technical complexity (reporting tools, systems used by the team, tools’ capability) and size (team size, scope, number of requirements). Out of the shelf ALM and DevOps tools can help to some extent. But more likely, these tools will require changes and integrations to suit your specific need. Some illustrative project progress reports are provided below.

Typically, a large IT project involves modifications in multiple systems. Below chart is a composite Burn-Up chart (how much work has been finished) which not only shows the total work, but also gives view of contribution from each system against planned contribution.

Similarly, a chart that can give a bird’s eye view to stakeholders about the progress will keep stakeholders constantly engaged and invested in the project. Below sample chart gives project progress view in four dimensions ‚Äì Baseline, Requirements Developed, Continuously Integrated, and End to End Tested.

2. Communication

It is utmost important that the entire development team and stakeholders have sense of ownership, and are equally invested in project success.

Broken communication is a recipe of disaster. Online Collaboration tools and effective communication methods (verbal, written) should be used. Effectiveness of communication methods be checked and fine-tuned regularly. If Agile SDLC or DevOps is being used, then, collaboration and communication become even more important.

Effective communication will require –

    1. Meeting regularly and engage everyone, preferably face to face – Meeting regularly with the entire team creates a sense of team, and importance of the initiative. It gives them a level playing field and chance to voice their ideas and concerns. Ensure that everyone is included and engaged. The ability to make sure that your message was received and understood is highest and easiest with face-to-face communication1.
    2. Promote transparency ‚Äì It promotes responsibility by making it clear to every team member what needs to be accomplished as a team. If anyone in the team doesn’t have a clear understanding of the project or a problem, he/she won’t be able to contribute to the best of his/her abilities.
    3. Show respect – respectful work environment reduces conflict and makes team more productive and effective. A conducive work environment promotes team work, better collaboration and higher trust.
    4. Use collaboration tools – ALM Tools such as HPE, JIRA or tools developed in-house play to promote collaboration play a differentiating role. Newer tools even have video capability for better collaboration.

3. Technology & Domain Skills

Projects involving niche technology or complex domain requires right experts engaged in the project from day 1. In projects of smaller size or complexity, it is often practical for project manager to act as an expert in the project too. In larger projects, it is essential to have a dedicated expert(s) in all the key make-or-break skills.

Depending on project technology, niche skilled resources will be needed along with general skills. E.g. DevOps experts, Agile Coaches, Scrum Masters, Agile Project Managers, Enterprise Architect, Solution Architect, Business Analysts, Functional Analysts, Performance Testers, Developers, and Database experts etc.

4. Expanded Regression testing

Focus more on Regression than the functional testing of newly created functionality. Due to large team size, and substantial code changes and systems, regression impact risk also becomes higher. Regression Testing should get appropriate focus and full regression testing should be done in an integrated environment at the end of each code drop. In multi-vendor scenario, handling issues effectively becomes more pressing issue.

Automation testing will play an important role. Consolidating the inputs and getting insights at the right time to focus on problem areas become a key requirement. Hence, it is imperative to have daily reports that can be generated automatically and give actionable insight. Refer to below sample report. With such a report project managers can find impediments, act quickly and focus on right issues/teams/vendors and can use it for future planning as well.

5. Stakeholders Onboarding

The bigger the project, the more stakeholders it will have. More stakeholders mean agreements will be long drawn out and decisions will be slower. It is important to get stakeholder buy-in and have agreement on a minimum viable product (MVP) at the earliest for the success. Listening, talking and understanding success criteria and expectation from each one of them helps in arriving at MVP. This will help in getting them invested in the project’s success early on.

In organizations that have been in the business for decades and follow a hierarchal organization structure with a low level of collaboration among teams and departments, it may prove to a herculean task to arrive at a common agreement. Be ready to have many meetings with various stakeholders to reconcile the differences.

Here are four key steps PMO team can take for stakeholder buy-in:

      1. Engage and get at least one person on your side who is an influencer for stakeholders, who knows internal working of the organization, change management, communication and large-scale program management.
      2. Interact with stakeholders with open mind. Understand their concerns and expectations.
      3. Identify and engage the leaders at all levels of the organization.
      4. Stay open to fine tune team processes based on project performance.

6. Change Management

Depending upon the project, some or all of the below changes will be done in the project. The larger the project, the more changes it will have.

      • Software
      • Application
      • Environmental
      • Hardware
      • Network
      • Documentation
      • Processes

In case of Transformation project, almost all of the above areas will be impacted and it will be essential to have an early agreement on organizational change management process, impacted teams, and one or two change champions from each team.

A successful change management has all of these traits – identify key supports and use them in positive messaging, creating sense of urgency, developing and sharing of vision, communicating the vision early at all levels, empowering the employees, identifying the obstacles early-on and mitigation, establishing a sense of coalition, generating small wins and driving change messaging from top-down through frequent communications.

Above all, a large scale change must have following traits:

      1. Capability and drive to secure “small wins ” continuously for momentum
      2. Credibility of the change leader
      3. “Change agents ” that are trusted by the peers, supervisors and subordinates

7. Governance Structure

Setting up formal governance structure and escalation path is needed for faster problem resolution. But it is not a trivial task. PMO should put together a project governance that is right fit based on project complexity, individual’s roles and responsibility, communication, scope, timeline and stakeholders themselves. Governance model helps in setting accountability, role clarity for all team members, responsibility, effective issue management and communication. Project governance also helps PMO to define what to do when risks present themselves and to deal with issues and their impacts.

Source: Adapted from Governance and Governmentality for Projects. Enablers, Practices, and Consequences by Ralf Muller 2

Scope management, team skills and superior leadership are obvious other focus areas as in any other IT project.

References:

    1. Better Communication: Technology Isn’t Always The Best Solution. Retrieved Aug 25, 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/ciocentral/2011/01/04/better-communication-technology-isnt-always-the-best-solution/
    2. Muller, Ralf (2016). Governance and Governmentality for Projects. Enablers, Practices, and Consequences. New York: Routledge

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Mohammad Raza Rizvi

Mohammad Raza Rizvi is an IT leader with 15+ years of international experience with multinational firms. He has experience across the United States and Europe working with many customers and helping them succeed in their Transformation programs and Implementations across Telecom, Finance, Automotive, and Printing industry segments. He has helped clients with Solution Roadmap, Business/IT Alignment, Program Plan, IT & CRM Solution Consulting, System Integration, Solution Blueprint, Transition and Digital services for on premise and cloud products.