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Constraints are Killers for IT Projects

After working on information technology projects for many years, I'm here to declare what may be obvious -- it's not the technology that's the problem, it's the constraints.

Software and hardware technology keeps improving, and offers many innovations that can dramatically change how government and business work.  But the constraints remain intractable.

Project management literature is rich in discussions on working with constraints, such as the tradeoffs between schedule, cost, and scope.  The implicit assumption is that all the parties working on a project are rational players and motivated to achieve the stated project goal.  I have experienced other constraints that are not usually discussed and which are even more hazardous to the health of a project:

1. Communications constraints.  A great way to make a project fail is to isolate the project team from stakeholders and prevent communication with people who are most knowledgeable about system requirements.

2. Political constraints.  This is a huge category, but encompasses the extra time and grief of dealing with competing groups within an organization who assert power over a project.  The project team cannot tell whose decisions are final or whose priorities really are most important.

3. Hostile players.  Surprising often, some project participants openly or secretly want your project to fail.  Deflecting their sabotage or co-opting them into the success of the project is time consuming and emotionally draining.

4. Pennywise pound-foolishness.  Sometimes artificial constraints compel projects to spend much more than necessary to solve simple problems.   I have witnessed organizations that spend $1000,000 on costly software optimizations rather than spend $1,000 on a memory upgrade to achieve the same performance improvement more quickly and with less risk. This can happen when different groups manage infrastructure and cannot work together, or when government standards prevent software or hardware upgrades.

5. Project management navel gazing. Ironically, project management itself can create problems which project management activities become a distraction from the real project goals.  Obsession with documentation artifacts at the expense of project progress doesn't usually turn out well.  Many failed projects are well documented.

6. Fragmented, competing project teams.  A final, avoidable constraint is to divide a project team and encourage fighting among the members.  The classic approach in government contracts is to carve the project into pieces and hand each piece to a different contractor.  Without a stake in the overall success of a project, these sub-teams are tempted to avoid responsibility and quick to assign blame to competing contractors.

I recently met with some of our consultants to discuss their career goals and how we can seek opportunities for growth.  One of them said he was tired of working on projects that were constrained in terms of time, technology, cost or resources. Ah, the nirvana of the project without constraints.

Constraints play positive effects as well by sharpening priorities and helping the project team work together to achieve a challenging goals.  It's hard for me to imagine a successful project without a schedule constraint, for instance.  

Sadly, there is no such thing as a project without constraints.  If you can reduce the unnecessary constraints and work as a team to manage the unavoidable constraints, you are more likely to succeed.

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