Project management plays a critical role in every technological project. We asked our long-serving Project Director, Dan Sacker, for his perspective based on his work with IDS Logic and our clients.
Why is project management one of the most important factors in successful project delivery?
“Projects are delivered by teams and great teams need to have a framework and environment in which to flourish. A good project manager working with a sound methodology can provide that framework and remove barriers that get in the way of progress. This is especially true in technological projects where there are often multiple organisations involved — the client, primary development company, third-party platform and solution providers, etc. The project manager can act as a bridge between these organisations to keep everyone’s energy and actions focused on delivering value to the project’s stakeholders.”
Why should technology partners have a combination of both great technical skills and great project management skills in their arsenal?
“It’s about teamwork. Modern project teams are often self-managing and empowered to act and having great technologists on the team has always been the key. Add to that the qualities of a good project manager — the willingness to steer, challenge, organise and interface effectively across organisations and shape decisions for the greater good of the project — and you have a stronger formula for success. For us at IDS Logic, we’ve always kept project management at the front and centre of the services we offer.”
What’s a better project management process – Agile or Waterfall?
“I tend not to get too hung up on specific methodologies. Instead, I prefer to apply elements from different methodologies based on the circumstances of each project — budget, the relationship and responsibilities between the organisations involved and the way the outcomes will be measured.
Obviously the old “Waterfall” approach, where everything has to happen in a rigid linear sequence, is too restrictive in a world where change is constant. At the same time, keeping everything fully “Agile” doesn’t always work with the commercial parameters that govern many client-agency relationships.
We typically do things in a linear order where it gives everyone confidence that the project objectives are clearly defined upfront, and then use agile methods, typically KANBAN or SCRUM, to deliver those requirements in the most efficient way. This approach works not just for “projects” per se, but for the ongoing maintenance and support services we offer our clients.
In short, we work pragmatically and don’t try and force fit every project into one rigid way of doing things.”
How do you avoid project failure?
“Project failure might mean different things to different individuals. On-time delivery and on-budget are often cited as key signals of a project’s success, and these things remain at the top of the project manager’s mission focus. Launching too late to realise value from a project in time for a commercial deadline or experiencing a cost overrun that damages profitability are obvious failures.
Worse though is when the project simply doesn’t deliver the outcomes or value for which it was originally commissioned. In my experience, there are three common reasons for this.
- Project objectives were not adequately defined meaning that the requirements delivered aren’t properly aligned with what stakeholders really needed (as opposed to what the team thought was needed).
- The expectation or ambition of what can be delivered in a project exceeds the bandwidth of the team, project budget and available time.
- There is a lack of sensible controls over change leading to morale-sapping reiteration and rework.
Good project management has to focus on avoiding these things. A key job of the Project Manager is to be prepared to constructively challenge and steer conversations with stakeholders to devise the most effective way of meeting their needs.
I’m a great fan of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach where the energies of the whole project team are focused on delivering the minimum that is needed to deliver maximum value to stakeholders at the very earliest opportunity.
Sometimes that means being ruthless about what is in and out in the short term but there’s always another iteration to follow it up.”
What is the first critical step in a successful project management journey?
“Defining the context in which a project and its deliverables are going to exist. Only through that understanding can intelligent decisions be made about what features and requirements need to be prioritised.
Discussing and prioritising requirements is itself a demand on stakeholders’ time. Making this process too broad and deep or trying to consider every possible requirement to make a solution fully “future proof” at the beginning just delays the creation of value and risks death by requirements!
By standing back and understanding the business context, we can frame discussions about project requirements in a way that is prioritised, almost ruthlessly. That way effort is focused on the decisions that really matter now, leaving those that don’t for later when they can be made more effectively.”
How important is documentation in your project management approach?
“Over the years we’ve simplified the documentation we produce for projects down to the minimum needed to support the outcomes of each unique project.
Every document that is written consumes effort not only by those writing them, but by those who have to read them! We’re constantly evaluating if a specific document really adds value to a project – is it really useful in advancing understanding of the project goals, requirements, or approach?
Having answered this question, we then consider if there is a more engaging way to achieve the same communication goal.
Good conversations, accompanied by visual or interactive formats such as diagrams, mock-ups and prototypes are worth a thousand documents. They provoke more thought and ultimately secure a better understanding. That’s a better measure of project success than the number of pages written!”
Which, according to you, is the most important project document?
“It varies, but a centrepiece of IDS Logic’s project delivery process is our User Requirements Specification.
It’s a multi-functional document that serves many uses throughout the project’s lifecycle, written in a way that is accessible and understandable to the whole project team, avoiding jargon and assuming no technical knowledge. Requirements are expressed as user stories which explain in plain language what each user group of a solution needs to be able to do and for what purpose.
This keeps the requirements gathering process concise and makes it much easier to prioritise and group features to get them to the all-important “Done” status.”
Are there any overarching philosophies or practical guidelines that you follow in your own project management approach?
I just try to maintain the right proximity to the project so that I can contribute where it adds the most value. That means staying close enough to stakeholders and the project team to understand the challenges that need to be overcome to get the project delivered, and distant enough not to be so consumed by the detail that the team members are handling so that I can give a fresh perspective when solving a problem.
What is the importance of technology in project management? Do you leverage technology-based tools and platforms to manage your projects?
As you’d expect, we use tools that make it easier for everyone to work together, whether it’s JIRA, Slack, or TeamGantt. These tools themselves don’t make communication more effective but they do give a framework that helps everyone stay up to date.
If you had to pinpoint a single factor in ensuring project success, what would it be?
Effective collaboration! The old days of a command and control project manager creating a mid to long-term project plan for a fixed set of deliverables and then micro-managing project stages in sequence to deliver them are gone. That approach just doesn’t support the need to deliver change and value at the pace the commercial world now demands.
Today’s ‘project managers’ (whatever that role might be named depending on the methodology) need to be good facilitators, empowering the project team to work as effectively as possible.
In the environment that IDS Logic operates in, which is both cross-organisational and cross-functional, this collaboration is absolutely fundamental. We work hard to connect the stakeholders to the project delivery team in a way that enables decision-making and progress.
Companies that are still rooted in a conventional client-supplier mindset tend to struggle with this approach and often don’t realise many benefits from having a technology partner.
But for organisations that recognise that technology projects need a mindset of partnership and where there is a natural synergy between what each organisation brings to the table, the collaboration can flourish. That’s where the magic happens and value is created quickly.”
Dan Sacker is IDS Logic’s Project Director, with 25 years of experience delivering digital technology solutions across hundreds of projects and numerous sectors.