Finishing the Last Mile: How to Close IT Projects On Time and On Budget

by | Sep 1, 2020 | ZAG Standards

The Last Mile in Telecommunications refers to the last leg of steps for a network to provide service to customers. It is a term used to describe the costs and complications of delivery from provider to customer. Telecommunications is not unique in its claim to the last mile. You can experience a last mile in commerce, such as when you order an item from an online retailer, or in travel when trying to complete your daily commute from home to the office.

In commerce, when you place an order with an online retailer, that order may flow seamlessly through their network. Still, to be delivered into your hands the provider must overcome any number of obstacles. From stolen packages at your doorstep to difficulties in delivery necessitating a second try, all increase the time and cost to finalize the delivery.

In travel during your daily commute, you experience the last mile problem from the point you get off public transit or park your car. How you finish your commute and the obstacles you encounter en route represent the last mile problem.

In telecommunications, a provider may make considerable investments upgrading the network used to deliver the data or phone service to your home.

The last mile problem can rear its ugly head in project management as well, causing project finalization to have a very long tail. So, what are some of the contributors to delayed project completion?

Contributors to delayed project completion

Alignment with expectations

From the beginning, a project must align with a company’s expectations. This alignment is achieved in several ways. First, a clear statement is needed to describe the benefits that your project will provide to an organization. These benefits should be stated upfront before the project begins.

Your project must solve a problem for the company. If no problem is solved, no process improved, or no enabling technology implemented, then the project is already at risk for failure. Typically, a project that’s underway stalls as the company realizes that the benefits provided do not meet their needs. Perhaps the organization discontinues the project straightaway. Often, the original scope will be modified to embrace the new requirements thus lengthening the overall project, which may never really satisfy their expectations.

Eventually, users feel the impact of your project. Hence, you must always consider users when determining if a project should be pursued or not; involve users in requirements collection to ensure that you address their needs. Ultimately, even if their needs are not addressed they will feel like part of the process, and will recognize that a project addressing many needs is better than one that addresses few. Users who are part of the process will be more invested and help you push the project to completion.

So how do you get started? While not strictly required in the project lifecycle, consider a business case to align the project with business expectations. A business case is an excellent way to communicate what the problem is, as well as the benefits of the proposed solution.

Manage to the project scope

During the initiation phase, you collaborated with the company to define the requirements for your project. These requirements led to a statement of work containing a project scope. The project scope provides the boundaries of what the project aims to accomplish. Manage the project to that scope and beware of scope creep.

If the requirements gathering was correctly completed, then the project will meet the expectations of the company and its users. If not, then additional project changes will be needed and will likely result in extensions to the project schedule.

Proper planning is essential, and it needs to happen at the beginning of the project. In it, you will have details about how to manage resources, manage costs, manage communications, project risk, and of course the tasks required to complete sections of the project (rolled up into milestones). Plan thoroughly to avoid missed components that add additional cost or time to the project.

Executive sponsor engagement

To ensure that a project is successful and completed without unnecessary delays, the Executive Sponsor should be actively engaged. This person can keep the project aligned with business needs and help realize the benefits of the project. A strong executive sponsor can exert influence within the organization. As such, the executive sponsor can ensure project funding, resolve higher-level issues, provide a pool of resources, and even provide a lifeline to the project when all may seem lost.

Not all Executive Sponsors are ideal and fully engaged. An executive sponsor that is disengaged or uninterested can lead to project failure, or very likely mean that your project moves along slower than planned. So, what should you do? Set expectations with your Executive Sponsor about what you will need of them. Do not be afraid to communicate openly. Provide updates, celebrate the achievement of key milestones. This communication should be two-way so that you can determine changes in the business needs and course-correct as needed.

Priority shifts

Sometimes business priorities will change. Hopefully, you have good communications with your executive sponsor and can see this coming early on. Perhaps a shift in leadership has changed the focus of the business, or a new line of business manager has a tool preference that is outside the scope of the project. These changes may result in a cancelation of the project or initiate an effort to salvage what has been done in a new direction.

A very timely example is the effect of global events such as the Covid-19 pandemic on business. During the height of the pandemic, many companies placed active projects on hold, possibly indefinitely.

The decision to place a project on hold or cancel is essential. If not canceled, the project may continue indefinitely and cost more in time effort and resources in the long run.

Resource availability

Key resources should be available when they are needed as without these progress on a project cannot proceed. Resource availability is only accomplished by planning as far out as reasonably possible.

There are several things that can affect the last mile of a project. Among these are project alignment with business expectations, managing to the project scope, executive sponsor engagement, shifts in priority, and resource availability. By addressing each of these, you should be able to minimize project delays and shorten that last mile. Don’t move the finish line further back; manage the direction a project heads early and address problems directly. Finishing a project strong can save time, money, and build stronger business relationships based upon proven success.

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