Do projects matter for IT?

(Originally posted on Eric Brown’s Technology, Strategy, People & Projects blog on June 7, 2011, with some edits. Still highly relevant at the end of 2014!)

Short answer: not as much as many believe.

Information technology (IT) focus is shifting from classical projects to agile services. Here’s why.

Reason 1: Much of IT defies project definition

A classical project has a predetermined start, end, work breakdwon, and result. When done, the result goes into “maintenance mode”, and you jump to the next project.

But what if something never has a “maintenance mode”? What if a work breakdown is impossible to know?

For example, the web is never done. A university’s web site must be exciting and work quite well; the key audiences are technologically progressive prospective and current students. What university wants technophobic students? Relevant university sites must keep up with rapidly evolving consumer technologies.

A university’s web site is a good example of an agile service: an adaptive mix of agile applications and expertise. These are where a lot of IT’s attention is going.

Agile services don’t end. They are not classical projects.

Reason 2: Small projects don’t matter much

Isn’t a service just a lot of mini-projects? And isn’t the latest trend to make projects smaller?

Neither matters much. Small projects are really large tasks or iterations in an agile service.

By themselves, small projects don’t tell the value of IT. Agile services do.

Reason 3: Virtualization and clouding

The largest classical IT projects are implementations. Virtualization and especially clouding make it easier to create new things, sometimes minimizing implementation projects into simple tasks.

Without huge implementations, the focus shifts to maximizing value of existing investments. Again, emphasizing agile services at the cost of classical projects.

Reason 4: Agile is where it’s at

Classical projects use waterfall, a prescriptive method from the manufacturing and construction industries. It’s from a time when the pace was steady, change was resisted, and top down was how it happened.

Relevant IT is the opposite: fast-paced, adaptive, and responsive. That’s why agile management is natural for IT: it encourages adaption, continual reassessment, early problem discovery, and faster completion.

I’m not the only one seeing this. Look at Google search trends for agile project (blue) versus waterfall project (red):

agile vs waterfall

But this isn’t just about improving how projects are done. Agile does something that waterfall can’t: manage services.

Paraphrasing Men In Black II, “Waterfall projects: old and busted. Agile services: new hotness.”

Do classical projects belong in IT?

Classical projects still have a place in relevant IT. We will still have cookie cutter projects with well-understood paths and vanilla outcomes.

However, “well-understood” and “vanilla” and are being outsourced, such as email, web systems, ERP systems, and more. If not outsourced, they may be “keep the lights on” , undifferentiated from plant operations. Or their business value is not intrinsic; the value is in what others—users, innovators, developers—can wring from them.

Agile services are the future of IT. It’s how relevant IT works, it’s how relevant IT provides business value, and it’s how relevant IT communicates what it does.

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