Keeping Projects On Time and On Budget

IT managers walk a fine line between profits and productivity, but never more than when launching a new enterprise project. Tight budgets, paper-thin staffing or a misstep in scheduling employees or allocating resources can lead to blown budgets and bungled projects.

"Salaries are money, time is money and technology is money," says Wallace Jackson, CEO of Mind Taffy Design, a media content design and optimization management consultancy firm based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Everything comes down to the almighty dollar."

When Jackson adds up the potential touch points that can knock a project off course and off budget he singles out time, e.g., deadlines, as the most important. Talent, e.g., employees and/or consultants, runs a close second. Technology -- hardware, or processing capability, and software, or user interface optimization -- is also significant. "All of these relate back to time, as more talent equals less time spent; more processing power equals less time waiting; and fewer bugs equals less time reworking."

Build a Breathing Blueprint
Every project needs a plan. But not all plans are created equal when it comes to preventing problems for the long-haul.

The blueprint should spell out precise project needs, not just elaborate on the project description. "Clearly defined and agreed-upon project plans enable stakeholders to be involved in the project where necessary, yet not 'gum up the works' in areas outside the boundaries of their expertise," says Matthew Gallagher, proprietor of Maka's Surf Shop, an Orlando, Fla.-based independent boutique web design studio.

A well-considered blueprint can also prevent scope creep, what Gallagher calls "the bane of any manager over any project." Defining what is being developed is only half of the battle. "Determining what the project is not will keep all members focused on building towards that common goal," Gallagher says.

Paying for the Right People
Money pits within any project can derail the best of budget planning. One of the deepest pits lurks in the talent pool. "I honestly don't believe you get what you pay for these days," says Ranjith V. Balakrishnan, Senior Project Manager at Los Angeles, Calif. -based Professional Interactive Entertainment dba Global Gaming. "Unfortunately, demand for resources supersedes actual quality of work. But it doesn't change the fact that cost is a big factor that either makes or breaks a project."

Allocate funds for quality talent, rather than choosing cheap talent or assigning tasks to staff based solely on time availability. "Many times the required skill set is not readily available simply because it is not cost effective to maintain a full-time employee," says Balakrishnan. "And, sadly, the reality is that people who do not possess the required skill set are given tasks just because there isn't anyone else readily available to do the job."

Monitor skill-sets rather than bodies and plan to add and delete consultants accordingly. Hiring better talent, or even adding contracted expertise, may actually reduce the overall project costs.

Beware of Cost Creep
Hidden costs throughout the life of the project can also sink a budget. "The project cost is important, but during the project phase I also evaluate the expected recurring costs, such as license, maintenance cost and people over time," says Francois Mignot, IS manager at Sanofi-Aventis, an international pharmaceutical company based in Dijon, France.

For example, one hidden cost can emerge when deadlines are moved up. "An accelerated deadline date will result in more consultant usage," says Columbus-based Mike Buglioli, IT Senior Manager at insurance giant Aflac. "Having the right skill sets in-house will reduce consultant use."

Don't let expertise be limited to a few key people. Either rotate the staff or distribute the work to deepen your bench strength and to ensure the success of the project is not vulnerable to employee turn-over.

"IT is a mind game. If a critical resource is lost the project can go off schedule," counsels Gautam Gupta, Group Leader, Amdocs in Cyprus. "So in every scheduling, I always keep rotating the roles in a round robin manner."

Mind the Clock
Prior to initiating a project, determine crucial checkpoints in the timeline and weigh the availability, productivity and cost of preventing each potential pitfall at each checkpoint. That way, you can get an early jump on the need for additional resources and ensure that deadlines and budgets will be met.