Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It: Project Management Excellence
BY David L. Hamil, PMP, MESA Solutions, Inc.
Project failure is endemic in the geo-spatial information systems (GIS) industry. A recent study performed by KPMG Information Technology, a Toronto-based professional services company, showed that of the projects that failed, 87% went more than 50% over budget, 45% failed to produce the expected benefits, and 86-92% went over schedule. Do you know why 85% of all projects fail to meet all of their critical measures of success? Do you know how to avoid the pitfalls and mistakes that can cripple your projects and derail your career? If you answered no to either of these questions, then your projects may be in trouble. This paper presents the top 4 factors that have a direct bearing on the success or failure of a GIS project, and the strategy for substantially achieving project management excellence.
Printer Friendly Version (PDF)
Technology projects worldwide are costing companies billions of dollars more than they budgeted
for, and almost half don't live up to the clients' expectations. Newspapers and business dailies
trumpet few project successes but a massive number of failures. As projects grow larger and more
complex with every passing year, their outcomes - both successes and failures - become fodder for
the media and our competition. Unfortunately, project failures tend to predominate as they not only
make sensational stories but also are far more common.
What are the odds that your next information systems/information technologies (IS/IT) project will
be delivered on time, within budget, and to user expectations? Pretty grim, unfortunately, if you
dwell on the news propagated by IS industry analysts. META Group estimates that half of all new
United States software projects will go way over budget (META Group, 2000). The Standish group
says 53% of IS projects overrun their schedules and budgets, 31% are cancelled, and only 16% are
completed on time and on budget (Standish Group, 2000).
The mismanagement of projects to develop the geographic information systems that companies use
to run their businesses has been going on for years and the situation has not improved. "The
management of projects is still treated in a very amateurish way," said Nigel Kelly, a partner in
KPMG's IT practices.
For its study, KPMG surveyed the chief executive officers of 1,450 public and private sector
organizations across the U.S. and Canada, and analyzed more than 100 failed IT projects. A project
is considered a failure, according to IS industry analysts, if it was cancelled or deferred because it
wasn't delivering its planned benefits, or if it had a budget or schedule overrun of more than 30 per
cent. Bottom line is that there is an astonishing waste of money here. The GIS sector of the IS/IT
arena is no exception - project failure, sadly to say is as prevalent in our business, also.
Wow, what a project "horror scope" for you and I. However, the real message for you and I is not
that a project fails, but rather why it fails. In analyzing these cautionary tales, business leaders can
draw on these "lessons learned" to prevent similar fates in their own project ventures. An analysis of
project failures, both publicized and unpublicized, shows that the principal causes for project failure
can be distilled down to 4 fundamental reasons: 1.) Poor planning, 2.) Lack of corporate
management support, 3.) Poor project management, and 4) Lack of customer focus and end-user
1. POOR PLANNING
GIS evangelists frequently tout the cost savings, improvements in productivity and services, and
market-share increases that GIS can bring to an organization. Why then, have some organizations
that have gone down the GIS road found the process frustrating and the benefits elusive. According
to Dr. Roger Tomlinson, who is widely recognized as the "father of GIS," "one culprit is often to
blame - poor planning (Tomlinson, 2001)."
Proper planning is a key project driver for success. The success of any organization's GIS
implementation depends on thoughtful planning. Dr. Tomlinson states," without such planning, a
GIS implementation can easily run over budget and still not provide any measurable benefits to the
organization." Thus the formula for a successful GIS is to focus on strategic business needs and
know, going into it, what you want to get out of your GIS.
GIS project planning must occurs at two distinct times - at feasibility study time and during project
A. Feasibility Study Planning
A feasibility study typically is the response to some client-identified problem or opportunity. It
reveals what is required to build a solid business case, allowing management to make an informed
decision about funding or canceling the project. "To be, or not to be?" is the primary question a
feasibility study answers. This primary question can be decomposed in three supporting questions:
What is this project all about? Should we do this project? How should we go about this project?
i.What is this project all about?
One primary reason for project restarts, or outright failure, is the lack of a project mission, which at
this early point means a careful analysis of the problems or opportunities and their possible impact
on the organization. Team members, customers, and other stakeholders need a good understanding
of the project's fundamental components - goals, objectives, scope, problem statement, constraints,
A good test of whether or not a project is understood is to walk around and ask various participants
what they think it's all about. A crisp, business-oriented, non-technical answer usually means the
project's groundwork is well established. The answer could be what we refer to as a project
objective statement: a short, concise, high-level summary of the project. For example, 'To identify
and deliver a production-ready, state-of-the-art geographic information system to include online
service provisioning and assurance subsystems by July 9, 2002."
ii. Should we do this project?
The second major question answered by a good feasibility study is whether or not the project should
proceed. The very name "feasibility" indicates one possible outcome is not to proceed. A
significant portion of the multi-billion losses on software projects comes from projects that should
never have gotten past the feasibility stage, but got caught up in corporate egos and politics.
Once the problems and opportunities have been identified, the next task of the feasibility study is to
define the criteria for an acceptable solution. Feasibility (acceptability) incorporates political,
economic, technical, and organizational components. For example, if the senior vice president of
engineering demands that a particular project to be done, why spend weeks coming up with a
detailed cost/benefit analysis? In this case, the "should" question is fairly easy to answer. It is more
effective to spend the remaining time answering the other feasibility questions.
The second phase of answering the "should" question is to identify the alternatives and recommend
one. The alternative of not continuing the project should always be thoroughly considered. Table 1
shows key signs of an unfeasible project.
Table 1. Signs of an Unfeasible Project
Reasons "Not to Be" (Signs of an Unfeasible Project)
1. Major political issues are unresolved by the feasibility study.
2. Key stakeholders won't participate in the feasibility study (and
therefore the project).
3. Risks (probability of adverse consequences) are too high (technical,
4. Cost and benefit ratio isn't favorable enough, especially when benefits
5. Internal staff's experience and training is insufficient for the project.
6. Requirements are unclear, or keep changing radically during the
7. Risk and reward ratio is unfavorable. High risks usually need a high
reward to be worthwhile.
8. Clients (in a multidisciplinary project) can't agree on exactly what the
problems or objectives are.
9. No executive wants to be the project's sponsor.
iii. How should we go about this project?
A good feasibility study says more than "do it." In addition to defining the project objectives and
deciding whether or not to proceed, it provides a broad outline of how to proceed. This involves
preparing an initial, high-level project plan that provides a gross project sizing, identifies major
milestones, and estimates resource needs. A plan of action serves two purposes: it gives the follow-
up team a direction, and it forces the feasibility study team into thinking about critical
implementation issues up front.
The success or failure of a project is often decided very early. To pull off an effective feasibility
study, you must have the right attitude and the right approach. Having a good feasibility study
process without the proper commitment from management and staff to listen to the answers doesn't
work well - it results in substance without form. Having a commitment to listen, but without the
substance of a reasonable feasibility study process isn't much better. Doing a feasibility study takes
time up front, and it will likely result in a later start date for a software project. The potential benefit
you'll receive from starting slow, however, is a quality product finished on time and within budget. Table 2 shows several tips for a successful study.
Table 2. Tips for a Successful Study
1. Understand the problem before jumping to a
2. Always include key stakeholders in the feasibility
3. Carefully assess internal development capabilities.
4. Define requirements clearly.
5. Distinguish the problem from the symptoms
6. Resolve political issues.
B. Project Implementation Planning
The solution to successful project implementation planning is to develop an understanding of the full
scope of the GIS project. Using the results of the feasibility study as a basis, you must achieve
answers to the following questions: What you're building? Why you're building it? What are your
requirements? Who your customer is? Who's in charge of the project and who are the key or
required staff? What are the risks? What are the benefits? What are the major milestones and target
dates for each? And of course, it's also important to understand what your project isn't. A project
that tries to meet everyone's objectives likely will please no one.
The answers to the above questions, along with many others, should be documented in a formal,
approved document, called the "Project Plan," which is used to manage and control project
execution. The project plan is a single document or collection of documents that should be expected
to change over time - a "living" document - as more information becomes available about the
project. A solid project plan is a blueprint, or a game plan, that charts the entire project's course.
For example, the risk assessment portion of the plan should help to minimize the cost of rework by
anticipating and addressing problems early in the project. According to the Project Management
Institute (PMI, 2000), "there are many ways to organize and present the project plan, but it
commonly includes all of the following:
- Project description and overview,
- A description of the project management approach or strategy,
- Scope statement, which includes the project deliverables and the project objectives,
- Work breakdown structure ("WBS") to the level at which control will be exercised,
- Cost estimates, scheduled start dates, and responsibility assignments to the level of the
WBS at which control will be exercised,
- Performance measurement baselines for schedule and cost,
- Definition of project success criteria,
- Major milestones and target dates for each,
- Subsidiary management plans, including:
- Risk management plan that identifies key risks, including constraints and
assumptions, and planned responses for each,
- Resource management plan,
- Schedule management plan,
- Cost management plan,
- Quality assurance/quality control plan, and
- Communications plan."
C. Project Planning Summary
The fundamental premise of achieving excellence in project management states that the project
manager's greatest challenge is effectively balancing (or juggling) the components of time, cost,
scope, quality, and the expectations for each. Figure 1 shows the project diamond, which signifies
Figure 1. Project Diamond
The components of the project diamond have a symbiotic relationship. For example, when a user
requests an additional report that wasn't agreed on in the requirement specifications, the project's
scope and quality change. This will change the other project components as well. As a result, the
diamond's shape will be skewed, graphically depicting a project out of control. The challenge is
managing change while keeping the diamond's shape intact. Project planning defines the diamond,
while effective and efficient change and expectation management lets you manage it throughout the
project's life cycle.
Effective project planning is not conducted in a vacuum. It must be carried out in coordination and
cooperation with all appropriate stakeholders. The project manager must manage their expectations
throughout the process. The project manager must constantly look for opportunities to create win-
win relationships by negotiating work that must be accomplished. A project manager who declares,
"this can't be done in the time frame allotted" will meet with stiff resistance from client
management. On the other hand, a project manager who can defend this statement with a solid
understanding of the project's scope, backed by a logical work breakdown structure; thoughtful
estimate and project schedule; and concise risk analysis will be met with a response like, "Maybe
you're right. Help me to understand what you understand." This is effective expectation
management and proper development of win-win relationships. Once your project plan is in place,
it's much easier to manage your project diamond.
2. LACK OF CORPORATE MANAGEMENT SUPPORT
Does your project have the full cooperation and support of corporate management? If not, then
you're project is likely doomed to cancellation or cutbacks. Your project is not the only game in
town. Make sure you have a dedicated sponsor who will support your project from its inception to
completion, such as a project manager who communicates resource needs early and often to his or
her senior management.
A project succeeds only when senior leadership makes it a top priority and broadly communicates
their sponsorship across the organization. Organizations respond when leadership emphatically
communicates their commitment to the project. All levels, from the bottom through the middle to
the top, must remain sensitive to the needs and priorities of the project.
Without the commitment of our upper management, then our projects may suffer in any one or more
of the following areas:
- Inadequate Staffing - Your team cannot set and maintain direction if key positions are left
unfilled or inadequately filled for a long period. This is where the inner-company politics
come into play. The project manager must aggressively seek out talent. They must identify
the critical skills and characteristics needed for success in an open position. They must
organize a selection process that leaves little question about what team members can do and
how they would fit within the project team.
A project manager is only as good as his or her team; don't let your ego distract you from
your project's goal. Work with your senior management to assemble a talented team,
provide resources and ground rules, and let the players take ownership of the target solution.
You've probably heard the statement, "80% of management is picking the right people, and
the other 20% is getting out of their way." A good project manager must create an
environment where the "right people" can perform optimally. You have to work hard to fail
if you have the best people.
- Unfulfilled Commitments - The project manager should always engage in good-faith
commitments with customers and managers about what is realistically achievable. In spite of
this, if the project manager loses, or never fully obtains support from his or her senior
management, then even such commitments as funding, staffing availability, and hardware
and software needs may be unachievable.
- Inadequate Funding - It almost goes without saying that a project is "dead" if funding is
insufficient or if funding is cut. Corporate management will put their money where they
believe they will receive the most benefits. If you, as the project manager, truly believe in
your project and can communicate both its short- and long-term benefits, then you must be
that "champion for the cause" to keep your project funded.
3. POOR PROJECT MANAGEMENT
Project management can be subdivided into two categories - the software development process, and
the role and responsibilities of the project manager.
A. Software Development Process
GIS projects, like a project for constructing an automobile, must have an ordered set of steps for
taking what started as a concept in someone's mind to a real product that usable by the client.
Without a sound software development process, GIS projects can easily run astray. Many
organizations that undertake a GIS project do not fully embrace a defined, repeatable, and
predictable software development process. The consequence of this behavior usually is a
significantly increased risk to the project in predicting and controlling the critical factors of
schedule, cost, scope, and quality.
According to Neal Whitten, a world-renowned project management author and lecturer, "an
organization may have currently defined processes, but those processes are ineffective for one or
more of the following reasons (Whitten, 1995):
- Not comprehensive enough: they do not already define all of the activities that apply to all
- Overly complex: they require too much time and skill to comprehend and apply,
- Not flexible: they are not easily tailored to meet the unique needs of new projects,
- Not "owned": there is weak or no buy-in from the project's members,
- Not continuously improved: lessons learned from past projects are not used to improve the
current processes, and
- Not enforced: the guidelines are there, but the project leadership lacks the discipline to
Even worse is the situation where a software development process is not followed because a process
has never been defined and documented fully. Having no software development process, or not
following a defined process, is indicative of an organization that, albeit perhaps unintentionally,
lacks the vision and discipline to become or maintain a world-class position in the fiercely
competitive software industry. A software development process offers a framework from which to
plan a new project, avoid repeating mistakes of past projects and improve on things that went well.
Whitten defined eight steps to define a software development process (Whitten, 1995). The top
three of these steps are:
1. Identify the software model - The first step in defining a software development process is
deciding on the software process model that best fits the needs of your organization and the
type of project you are implementing. There are numerous models and variations of models
from which to choose. Most models are derived, at least in part, from one or more of the
following basic models: Code-and-Fix Model, Waterfall Model, Incremental Model, and
2. Identify the Activities - Once the software model has been selected, the next step is to
identify the primary activities that need to be implemented to satisfy it. A representative list
is as follows: Requirements Definition, Functional Design, Detail Design, Test
Plans/Procedures, Code, Unit Testing and Incremental Deliveries, Integration Testing,
Regression Testing, System Acceptance Testing, Software Packaging and Delivery, Training
Plans/Procedures and Training.
3. Identify the Relationships Among Activities - With the activities defined, now identify the
relationship between related activities. This can be achieved by listing the entry and exit
conditions for each activity.
Let's look at the entry and exit conditions for the Functional Design activity.
Entry Conditions: The approved requirements, as set forth during the Requirements
Definition, are distributed for review.
Exit Condition: The GIS functional specifications are reviewed and approved prior to
proceeding on to the Detail Design activity.
B. The Role and Responsibilities of the Project Manager
KPMG's Kelly stated, "The management of projects is still treated in a very amateurish way."
Although some of the blame can be placed on the software development process, or a lack thereof,
the primary place to "point is finger" when poor project management comes into play is a failure by
the project manager to "manage the project."
Simply put, the project manager is "the" individual with the responsibility for managing the project.
To get results, the project manager must relate well to: the people to be managed, the tasks to be
accomplished, the tools available, the organizational structure, and the organizational environment,
including the customer community.
I have identified six key competencies of a "top gun" project manager:
1. Education and Experience in Project Management - Organizations that undertake the
management of very diverse projects must possess thorough knowledge of project
management and implementation. Along with up to date formal training, the project
manager should be an apprentice "on the job" before he or she is placed solely in control of
managing a project. Remember, project management and implementation is a craft, not a
science - you can't quantify all of it. At some point, you'll have to rely on your own
intuition and experience to substantially ensure success.
All in all, the project manager must possess the skill set to be able to manage their project,
from inception to completion, using the organization's software development process.
2. Negotiation and Communication Skills - Another of the key competencies of a "top gun"
project manager are his or her ability to effectively negotiate and communicate with senior
management, direct reports on the project team, the client, supporting organizations, and
other stakeholders who have a vested interest in the success of the project.
3. Planning and Organization Skill - Recall the number 1 reason for project failure is poor
planning. The project manager has direct control over this and can setup the necessary
measures to "build the proper foundation" that will be a stepping-stone to project success.
Coupled with proper planning, the project manager must be a good ringleader who minimally
organizes the following: meetings, schedules, deliveries, financial statements, and various
other plans to substantially ensure his or her project is targeted for success.
4. Effective Problem Solver - Due to the complexity and diversity that may exist within a
project (e.g., a GIS data migration project), the project manager is often called on to analyze
problems and make timely, strategic decisions that can have a profound affect on the project
- whether good or bad. The project manager should be skilled at being able to isolate the
root cause of a problem at any given moment in a project, and if necessary enlist the help of
his or her project team to "buy into" the solution.
5. Leadership Ability - The best leaders spend much of their time just watching and taking it all
in. They avoid jumping to conclusions or leaping to premature judgments. They try to
understand what is needed and why. They are constantly learning from minute to minute as
well as from year to year.
Never forget that every leader is always being watched. Set the standard with your own
attitude and performance. If you demand thoroughness, practice it. If you expect openness
to new ideas, listen and consider. If you want to promote teamwork, be a team player. If you
want good communication, communicate well. Sure it's obvious, but it can be darned hard at
times to practice what you preach.
6. Aims for Excellence in All Work - Although I believe much of how a project manager
functions in his or her daily work is characteristic of their very nature, the project manager
can learn to aim for no less than the best. The project manager, of all people on the project
team, must strive for excellence in "all" project work, and expect no less than the same from
his or her project team. Achieving excellence in a couple of areas, but missing the mark in
others is not acceptable. For example, if the team meets a particular software delivery date
and kept the expenditures within budget, but what the team delivered does not meet the
quality expectations, as defined by the client, then we have missed the mark on achieving
overall project excellence. It's a tall order, but one that we should strive for.
All in all, seasoned project managers are good ringleaders. They know they must balance
four elements of expectations - quality, schedule, cost and scope - at all times. Quality
shouldn't be sacrificed to adhere to a rigid schedule or a tight budget. Nor should a schedule
be tossed aside because of an obsessive focus on quality. Yet in even the most well managed
project, sometimes it makes sense to ease up on a deadline, a budget or a quality-control
process. But these slips shouldn't simply happen. They should come from conscious
decisions made by project managers who understand their objectives and know that project
management is a balancing act.
4. LACK OF CUSTOMER FOCUS AND END-USER PARTICIPATION
Are your users involved in the system requirements definition process, the system design process,
and throughout the project's implementation and testing phases? If the customer loses focus or is
never fully engaged in the project, then your faced with the situation where the project deliverables
likely will not meet the client's expectations.
User involvement is a key driver for a successful project. It is absolutely imperative that the
customer, including the end-user of the GIS, be proactively involved throughout all lifecycle phases
of the project. The end users are powerful and are only becoming more so. Their power can work
for you, or against you. To have their power work for you then make sure the client's users are a
part of the project team, and that you involve them during requirements gathering, application
design, prototyping, testing, and incremental acceptance. If you, as the project manager, do not
include the very users who will be using the GIS, then you may not achieve buy-in to the new
system. Far too often, lack of buy-in by the true GIS users causes the system to be "shelved." Oh
yes, the system may satisfy every requirement, pass every acceptance test procedure, and receive
signoff by the client's project manager. However, it could fail to pass the most important test - user
The client involvement, and in particular the end-user participation, can "make" a project.
Reminder, the end users are probably the most powerful organism in the client's organization. Let's
ensure that they're playing on our team.
Considering that billions is spent each year on IT software development in the U.S. and Canada
alone, the KPMG and Standish findings painted an alarming picture of project mismanagement in
both private and government sectors. There's a buyer beware message to the extent that the clients
need to understand what they want, what they are getting, and go after it with a vengeance. Clients
need to be able to quantify and qualify project benefits, have it planned initially, managed properly,
and its status monitored early, often and closely.
Remember, all software projects run into snags - no project is immune from failure. The potential
troubles are well known: missed deadlines, blown budgets, unmet expectations, and internal
resistance - the list goes on and on. How teams respond to problems determines the project's
eventual success or failure. Avoid past mistakes by responding effectively to problems as they arise.
The trick is to manage a project in a proactive way, preventing some problems and minimizing the
effects of others. With proper planning, support of senior management, sound project management,
and active client involvement, a GIS team can bypass many common mistakes.
While there are essentially 4 principal reasons why projects fail, as I have documented here, it only
takes one of them to make the difference between success and failure.
While avoiding the mistakes of the past, never forget to stop and celebrate successes, even the small
ones. GIS technology is taking organizations places they've never gone before. So when you get
somewhere that you've never been, be sure to have your team "pull over" to take in the view. Then
push on together.
META Group. 2000, www.metagroup.com, META Group, Stamford.
Standish Group, 2000, www.pm2go.com, The Standish Group International, West Yarmouth.
Tomlinson, R. 2001., Planning for a GIS, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Redlands.
Whitten, N. 1995., Managing Software Development Projects, John Wiley & Sons, New York.
About the Author
David was a charter member of MESA Solutions in 1997. David, along with several other program directors, oversees the management of automated mapping/facilities management/geographic information system (AM/FM/GIS) solutions for MESA’s clients in the telecommunications, cable, electric, gas, and water industries. In addition, David is responsible for working with his senior management to grow MESA’s systems integration presence worldwide by participating in joint business opportunities with companies who currently hold a worldwide presence - Environmental Systems Research Institute and Telcordia Technologies.
David has been involved in AM/FM/GIS projects since the early 1990s. He has assessed, defined, designed and implemented telecommunications and electric solutions for numerous customers; both domestically and internationally. His experience lies across standard facility documentation and management, data conversion and migration, operational support systems, SCADA, CIS, CRM, and ERP.
Prior to his AM/FM/GIS work, David designed and implemented digital image processing software for the Department of Defense.
Please send your comments regarding this feature to David L. Hamil