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Managing the returns on non-business projects

by Mark P. McDonald  |  July 16, 2009  |  3 Comments

“There are no IT projects, only business projects,” is the frequent imperative of many CIOs and IT leaders.  However, every IT organization faces the need to implement changes that have little to no business impact.  The question is how do you manage such a project.

The answer is as cheap and as fast as you can.

Why ?

The return on a non-business project is measured best by minimizing the duration of business disruptions.

One of weakness of many IT organizations is that they have one approach to managing projects based on managing business projects.  However at least 1/3 to ½ of the project work in IT is not business related.  Technical upgrades, enhancements, swapping out infrastructure are all in important but they are not business projects.

Trying to manage a non-business project using a business project methodology has led organizations to blend project scope, bundling some business wants/needs with the core non-business work.  Take your last network upgrade project to see if you did not include some odds or ends from the business or justify the project based on a more general business case.

Recognize projects for what they are – non-business but necessary to the business and manage them to their inherent value.  That value includes:

  • They cost as little as possible for a given level of potential failure
  • They occur as quickly as possible
  • They disrupt the business as little as possible

Using this guide you can tell people that, yes we have to do an upgrade, it will improve technical performance, reduce costs etc, and we will have it completed as quickly and cheaply as possible.  Show how you are managing these projects for cycle time compression (concurrent engineering, prefab development, etc).  Show how your approach is specifically attuned to reduce costs to their bar minimum.  Show what steps you will cut out of a non-business project, because they simply are not needed.

Following the same methodology for both business and non-business projects sends the wrong message to your people and your business peers.  After all the projects must be all the same type if you are following the same project approach.

Non-business projects are vital to IT success; they can easily take too long and cost too much.

Remember the business is a jealous partner. 

They see every minute you spend on a non-business project is a minute the business sees you as taking IT attention away from their needs.

Category: change-on-the-cheap  cio  tools  

Tags: financial-leadership  it-leadership  it-project  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.

Thoughts on Managing the returns on non-business projects

  1. Sophia Swain says:

    This is a really interesting point – in our business they are rolling out leadership behaviours (behaviour competencies that have been rebranded and ‘refocused’ based on the current needs of our business) One of these is “focuses on the customer” which has had everyone nodding their heads wildly in agreement and applying it in the most obvious way – business projects that directly improve the customer experience. As an IT person I often work on projects that must happen to ensure we’re not putting the IT infrastructure etc at risk. However explaining to a business colleague how this demonstrates “focusing on the customer” has proved a challenge. I suspect in part this is because the projects are slow to deliver and cause too much disruption because they are approached in exactly the same way as business projects and so appear to directly impact my ability to “focus on the customer”.

    It’s refreshing to read something that talks openly about the different challenges faced when delivering an IT project rather than a business one.

  2. Mark McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments. Here are a few other points to build on this and your situation.

    Being customer focused is nice, but recognizing that not every project has a direct and visible like to the customer is being mature and realistic.

    Management and leaders need to make it OK for some projects and investments to be less directly related to the customer.

    If they do not then the company will have no ability to operate at scale or at speed — which are the benefits of many IT infrastructure projects.

    Its mature to recognize that customers want an 1:1 type relationship and would not value an infrastructure that enables you to serve more customers at scale. However the economics of your business require that scale to offer customers value at a good price and good margin for the company.

    You might want to try that line of argument.

    I appreciate your reading the blog and glad that you found some value here.

  3. […] “‘There are no IT projects, only business projects,’ is the frequent imperative of many CIOs and IT leaders.”  A number of us had a raging debate on Twitter about this. While it’s certainly true that all projects must have business justification (e.g., revenue enhancement, strategic impact, cost saving, legal imperatives), there will of course always be projects that have little or no direct, short-term impact on the business stakeholders of the company, yet are critical to do.  See my recent post on “roof projects”. […]

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