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One of the hardest decisions that the IT department faces was highlighted in a very lively Regcast a few months ago.

Terry Dewhurst, the streetwise director of transformation at Lastminute.com, talked about how hard it can be to call time on a project that is on track to deliver something that nobody wants any more.

This can happen when the original requirements have disappeared or been overtaken by events. Over-ambitious initiatives that take too long to deliver value often end up this way.

This raises the question of how best to manage projects and how to prioritise them in the first place.

No pushing

With finite resources, most IT departments couldn’t possibly commit to all the project requests they receive. As each division or department presses to have its requests dealt with first, you need some way of prioritising work objectively.

This is where project portfolio management (PPM) comes in. It is partly a discipline and partly a solution category – you can buy PPM software to help you manage all of your projects.

The basic idea behind PPM is that you capture the business benefit, cost, resource requirements, timescales and risks associated with each candidate project, then schedule accordingly.

Must-do requirements relating to critical remedial work, replacement of obsolete systems or compliance requirements are often given priority, then other projects are assessed for possible inclusion based on an analysis of bang per buck, affordability, level of risk and so on.

This becomes an ongoing process once PPM is place, so new project requests are considered against the portfolio of work in progress and jobs in the pipeline. You may then, for example, explore the impact of pausing an ongoing project to accommodate an urgent new request from the business.

Dark corners

Described like this, PPM can sound attractively simple, but it can raise some interesting issues.

Everything suddenly becomes very visible, which can undermine the way in which cosy personal relationships, departmental slush funds and other back-door mechanisms are used to influence the allocation of IT resources.

For this reason, it is critical that any PPM initiative is backed at executive level. You might delegate monitoring and decision-making to a cross-functional team or committee, but from time to time there will be a need for a senior manager to step in and make a call – and bang heads together if necessary.

As well as PPM, we have recently seen the emergence of service portfolio management (SPM). Many of its principles are the same, but the service bit relates to the concept of systems being in place only to deliver valuable services to the business, so that becomes the point of reference.

In other words business objectives determine the performance and delivery of those services. End-to-end management tools are required to turn this principle into practical procedures.

It also becomes very clear where money is being wasted

With this in mind, you can assess capability that is already in place using similar parameters to projects, but viewed more on a run-rate basis: cost of ownership, resources consumed, benefit contributed and risk incurred.

Why would you want to do this? Because these things change over time and monitoring them can provide a steer on when it might make sense to take some action.

Effective SPM could, for example, highlight when it makes sense to upgrade or re-platform an application to stabilise it and make it easier to manage, or when to make an incremental investment to boost the value it contributes.

Clear out the junk

It also becomes very clear where money is being wasted, for example in supporting applications that could be switched off without too much impact on the business.

As IT landscapes fragment over the years, it is not unusual for duplicate and orphan systems to accumulate without anyone ever bothering to question their presence.

In many ways, PPM and SPM, whether implemented formally or informally, with or without specialist tools, are an integral part of what many now call service assurance.

This is based on the premise that a good way of ensuring the best service to the business is to focus time, effort and funding on the things that matter, and not waste time on those that don’t.

Does all this sound realistic, or are we in the realms of theory and idealism? Well you tell us.

We’d love to hear your stories of how IT’s time gets wasted on the wrong things, or how you prevent this happening. Give us your thoughts in the comment area below. ®

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