NDU course targets common mistakes in IT project management

Wednesday - 11/17/2010, 11:47am EST

Andy Gravatt, Professor, National Defense University's iCollege

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Andy Gravatt's IT project management course at the National Defense University's iCollege covers time management, risk management, change control and, perhaps above all, the fact that the project managers are the leaders.

"They don't realize the buck stops there. They all know it a little bit, but they don't really believe it," Gravatt said in an interview with In Depth with Francis Rose. He added, "In reality, they're really in charge of that project. You have to take control of it. It's your thing."

NDU is a graduate-level university with five colleges and centers focused on education, research, and outreach in national security. The school has campuses in Washington, D.C., and Norfolk, Va. Students come from all agencies, not just the Defense Department, Gravatt said.

Gravatt's one-week course includes ten lessons, beginning with communication. Classic project management textbooks cover communications later on, "someplace at chapter 12 out of 14," Gravatt said. "It's stuffed in the back." In Gravatt's class, communication is the first lesson after the overview.

Communication is important in identifying stakeholders, how to communicate to them and figuring out as a project manager what you need to do on the job. The next step is initiating and defining the project and then getting a "baseline" of requirements, Gravatt said.

However, both cost and requirements can change through the course of the project.

"One of the rules of thumb in project management is that if you have 10 percent change in requirements, it will never be completed," he said. "If you can't pin it down at the beginning, you have a project in trouble."

Project managers, therefore, need to push back on requirements that continue to grow and "hold the line," Gravatt said.

As requirements do change, a common flaw in project management is not reflecting the change in the schedule.

"We IT people are notorious for burning the midnight oil, calling in for pizza late at night," Gravatt said. "But you don't want to do too much of that or you start burning out your staff."

Managers need to take into account that people may take vacation or leave the project altogether for another job. Most projects "streamline cost" and hire a bare-bones staff. But when employees do leave, those high-quality IT professionals are difficult to come by, even in this economy, Gravatt said. It's better for managers to include extra people on the project team, he said.

"If you have a couple extra people on board, the worst thing that can happen is you can gain some time on your schedule. If you can actually get it done a little earlier, you're all right," Gravatt said.