IT and project delivery rarely have a positive connection in peoples minds in companies both large and small. It’s almost the norm these days that IT projects always delivery late and over budget. But this doesn’t have to be the case. When you have the right people, processes and governance in place within your IT department, delivering projects becomes a breeze. One specific aspect we’re going to look at in this blog post is around achieving more by doing less. By that I mean how we can increase the throughput of delivery to deliver value to the business faster with the same amount of resource and the same amount of project demands.
Seems impossible, right? Well, no. It all comes down to process, communication and managing dependencies. Let’s dig into this a little more, firstly with an analogy for building a house.
Let’s say you are a housing developer and you have an estate of 100 houses to build. You know that you have 100 houses to build and you know the resources you have on your team for building those houses. Let’s say this breaks down as follows for 100x staff;
- 1x Site Manager
- 2x Quantity Surveyors
- 2x Project Managers / Construction Managers
- 15x Groundworks People
- 50x Brick layers
- 10x Electricians
- 10x Plumbers
- 5x Plasterers
- 4x Roofers
- 1x Carpet Fitters
So looking at that split, it sounds fairly sensible for a split of resources to enable delivery of 100x houses. For argument’s sake, let’s say that we have all materials on site at the start of the process to enable us to build the 100x houses without worrying around delivery timelines from suppliers. Before we set the team running ahead with building the units, we need to have a plan, and a plan isn’t purely to build the houses in the fastest time possible. A plan needs to understand resource dependencies, and in this case, this is people. The same as in IT.
Before jumping into the details of what this means. We have to think back to what this means for a business and why project delivery is so important. It comes down to two factors;
- Capital tied up in Work-in-Progress, meaning that this is an opportunity cost as this limits what we can invest in elsewhere and often can result in having to source additional finance to support investments, when in fact with a change of approach that may not be needed.
- Lost revenue for every day something is not delivered. In this case for houses, that is the profit that could be gained today by selling or renting a completed house VS waiting 3 or 6 months for that profit to be released.
The same is true in IT. All IT projects deliver value to the business, enabling the business to move faster, be more agile, and keep ahead of the competition. Delays in delivery in IT result in the company becoming a laggard in the industry.
So, let’s get back to the plan for building 100 houses. In a nut shell, we have three core approaches;
- Delivery Plan 1 – Big Bang: We build all 100 houses, then start to sell them
- Delivery Plan 2 – Phased Delivery: We build the houses in batches of 25 so we can release 4x lots for sale at one time. This tends to be how the majority of housing developments work.
- Delivery Plan 3 – Agile Delivery: We build and sell the houses one by one as they become available.
Taking into account the considerations around having capital tied up and lost revenue, let’s visualize what this means in practice. For the purpose of illustration we’re going to assume;
- Every property is rented
- Every house takes 1 week to build end to end
- Every house generates a rental income of £750 per month
- The house is rented out the day it is completed
What this looks like in numbers;
As we can see from the above graph, the Agile delivery plan, selling 1 house at a time, results in a higher cumulative revenue by the end of the 110 weeks. But this is not just a small difference, this is a significant performance improvement.
Delivery Plan 2 – Phase is 341% more efficient than Delivery Plan 1 – Big Bang. Delivering £937,500 revenue and releasing that working capital to the business in the 12 months.
Delivery Plan 3 – Agile is 25% more efficient than Plan 2 – Phased. Delivering an additional £300,000 revenue and releasing that working capital to the business in the 12 months.
When compared to the least VS worst efficient delivery method for providing value, Delivery Plan 3 – Agile is 450% more efficient than Delivery Plan 1 – Big Bang. Delivering an additional £1,237,500 revenue and releasing that working capital to the business in the 12 months.
Meaning you can delivery 4.5x the value to the business without changing either budgets or people resources available.
Now we know things aren’t always as smooth as this in reality, there are a lot of nuances which get in the way of this perfect scenario. And this brings us onto the main point of this blog post around achieving more by doing less. It’s kind of a given these days that Agile is the way forward for the vast majority of IT projects, or a combination of a more Waterfall-Agile (aka. Wagile) delivery for hugely complex projects that have a lot of dependencies both in and outside of IT.
There are always blockers throughout any process, whether that is building houses or delivery IT projects. Taking the house building example, let’s say for arguments sake that it takes a carpet fitter 2 weeks to fit carpets throughout an entire house. Regardless of which delivery method you choose, you ultimately have a bottle neck and this bottle neck gets compounded the more efficient your overall delivery method is (Big Bang –> Agile). In the Agile example, you are already 1 week over estimate (100% over planned time for delivery) by the time you deliver your first property because of the bottle neck with the carpet fitter. Not great. But, that’s still more efficient than Deliver Plan 2 – Phased because you’ve still sold one house in 2 weeks rather than none.
So how does this apply to IT project delivery?
Hopefully the analogies above has put things into context and you can relate to the elements within IT. The reality for something like IT is that it gets even more complex from the overly simplified example above.
Imagine you have 100x IT projects that you need to deliver and 100x IT staff. The nuances of skills, specialties and experience of staff will hugely vary which can result in issues cropping up that should never have been an issue if the right processes were in place an dependency on a few key resources where they only know how a certain system or technology works. Rarely in IT are we building things from scratch, we’re often either extending or upgrading current functionality and/or integrating with these systems.
Imagine having to re-build a wall on a house because it was done wrong on the first attempt and because that work wasn’t managed properly and peer reviewed for quality. This is what happens in IT on a near daily basis in many organisations, albeit it’s not quite a visible as this. It’s more like having to rebuild a server, refactor poorly written and unsupportable code etc. Ultimately, it’s all waste that needs to be removed.
What this often results in is a situation whereby multiple projects that are running in parallel agile delivery methods end up stuck on the same bottle necks with resources who are either specialized in a specific technology or only have access to that system and this can add weeks and months onto the delivery of a project which is ineffective.
Take the simple example, if we have 21x staff and 4x projects to deliver. We could split this up as;
- Parallel Projects: 4x Projects of 5x staff and 1x shared resources with specialist skills
- Sequential Projects: 1x Project of 21x staff including the specialist resource
Let’s say that each project takes a total of 4 weeks to deliver.
Given that, in the Parallel Projects delivery method each of the 4x projects will be complete in 4 weeks, so we can deliver 4x projects in 4x weeks, but, only at the end of the 4 weeks.
When compared with the Sequential Projects delivery method, we’d deliver 1x project per week for each of the 4x weeks. Delivering value faster and without blockers. The reality is though that while the 20x staff working on these 4x projects are wanting to get them over the line, the specialist resource is likely working across 20x, 30x, 50x other projects too where they are required only for a small part of the project. So this person/area soon becomes a significant blocker on many different projects resulting in large delays across the entire IT department.
So what’s the solution?
The reality is that this is a complex beast to manage but there are a set of guiding principles that can significantly enhance IT project delivery to increase the throughput of work to delivery more by doing less. These principles are;
- Identify common blockers on projects, and put in place measures to ensure that no longer becomes a blocker. Whether that is training and upskilling other staff, putting in place processes to ensure less experienced staff can still do work in this area as long as it is peer reviewed by an experienced member of staff etc.
- Significantly reduce parallel work streams, you can’t effectively split your workforce more than 25% across active projects, i.e. 100x active projects would require 500x staff. If you’ve only got 100x staff, you need to manage the active projects to around 25x projects at any point in time so you have 5x people per project so you can focus. The rest go into the backlog to be worked on in suitable priority. You will always find that you’ll need that 6th person at some point, and you want them to be available when you need them, not to delay the 5x people working full time on that project. It is not IT’s job to prioritise projects based on either opinion, seniority of who asked for it, or whoever shouts the loudest. Put in place a process where the business has a forum to collaborate with senior stakeholders so they can inform IT what the IT priorities are then IT can focus on getting things delivered. Also keep in mind that you should probably split this as 50% Projects, 25% Business-as-Usual (BAU) support and 25% Internal IT Improvement Projects (as often these underlying issues cause delays on all projects so they need to be resolved).
- Arrange staff into project delivery squads that can be focused on the delivery of a single project without distractions.
- Documented processes are absolutely key to getting this right, and making sure that staff are fully aware of the processes. Far too often processes are informal and/or misunderstood which causes confusion for staff. Basic governance is key.
- Tooling, training and peer review help to spread skills and knowledge throughout the delivery squads to reduce dependencies on single people and increase productivity. Build this into the processes.