Staying On Track

FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - A few years ago, Tony McDonald was Budget Rent A Car Corp.'s director of financial systems and in charge of creating new reporting technology for the Lisle, Ill.-based car rental agency. The project was well under way when the corporate controller who had sponsored it left the department.

Suddenly, McDonald says, "we had this reporting means no one wanted."

McDonald's team eventually completed its work. But without any business advocates to press for it, the new system was never put to use. Eventually, he says, "they wound up scrapping the whole thing."

No information technology professional wants to see months of work go down the drain when the business sponsor moves on. But with such high executive turnover rates these days, there's a real danger that a project's business champion may be promoted, transferred or lured away well before the completion date.

So, how do you keep a project on track when the business manager changes? It's never easy, but some IT executives who've been there offer some hard-earned wisdom on how to minimize the disruption.

By the time the key business executive sponsoring an IT project announces his departure, it's already too late to take action. Instead, a project should be structured from the beginning to minimize the impact of such a change.

"Strategy is the key," says Steve Streitmatter, managing director of system design and integration for the ground operations division at Federal Express Corp. in Memphis. Ideally, he says, every IT project should serve a strategic company goal, such as helping it become the low-cost provider within its market.

An IT project that serves a company's stated strategy has better odds of surviving, he says. "If it's one executive's pet project, you've got a much bigger chance of it failing when that executive moves on," he says.

Making Your Case

The second key element, says Streitmatter, is to write a clear, objective business case for the project. "It should document the cost, the return on investment and the reason for doing it, as well as the risks of not doing it or delaying it," he says. If a project serves strategic corporate goals and if the IT manager in charge of it can present a solid business case for it, that should help the incoming business manager see the logic behind supporting the project.

Streitmatter knows firsthand the advantages of following these steps. He's currently involved in a multiyear technology project that's aimed at helping FedEx's operations people schedule employees and capture delivery data. Since its inception, the project has seen its business sponsor change more than once.

But thanks to a sound strategy and a well-developed business case, the project has stayed on course.

Some IT and business managers prefer to act as the conduit for all communications between IT and business functions. But this strategy can be a huge liability when management jobs change hands.

"I think the hierarchical organization, where the only point of contact is at the top of the pyramid, is a real shaky project structure," says Doug LaBoda, CIO of claims services at Travelers Property Casualty Corp. in Hartford, Conn.

Teamwork between the IT and business units, says LaBoda, "needs to be two hands clasped together, with all the fingers intertwined."

LaBoda says he has been fortunate enough never to lose a business liaison contact while a project was under way. But because there are many points of contact between his IT managers and their business counterparts, he feels certain it wouldn't present much of a problem. "Within our claim services organization, I have a relationship not only with the CEO but probably with all of his direct reports, and with many of their direct reports as well," he explains.

Once an IT executive discovers that a project's business sponsor is leaving, the best response is to get the new manager and potential users interested in the project as fast as possible before it loses its focus and sponsorship.

Steve Bublak, a consultant at New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers, is working on a campaign management project at a national direct marketing company where the CEO recently resigned. The new CEO, who has a background in finance, is slashing expenses and has already killed one major technology endeavor. The future of Bublak's project is uncertain.

If it does survive, says Bublak, it will likely be because it was the result of a highly successful system demonstration to future end users that was quickly organized by the vice president of IT strategy.

"He was saying, ‘Let them see it; let them taste it,' " Bublak recalls, and the demonstration turned out to be a huge success.

Zetlin is a management writer and author of Surviving the Computer Time Bomb (Amacom, 1999).

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