Expert Roundup of IT Project Management Best Practices

Smartsheet Contributor Kate Eby

Dec 15, 2021

We’ve rounded up advice on IT project management from the industry's top experts for advice. Find tips that span project planning, estimating, and documentation to drive success.

Included on this page, you’ll find real-life project success stories, leading advice on avoiding project failure, and information on why sponsorship is so important.


What Is the Difference Between Project Management and IT Project Management?

Project management is the process of envisioning, organizing, and executing projects, while IT project management is the administration of information technology-specific projects, including software development, technology setups, infrastructure projects, and upgrades.

Mary Beth Imbarrato

Project management is a universal skill set that applies across industries and business departments. “IT project management should be no different than HR project management, customer service project management, or logistics project management,” suggests Mary Beth Imbarrato, Project Management Professional (PMP), Certified Scrum Master (CSM), Strategic Planning Professional (SPP), and Change Management Specialist (CMS) at MBI Consulting. “The key element is that if someone identifies themselves as an IT project manager, that means their expertise is in technology projects. But it is important to know that the overall skill set is similar, [even though] they will have strengths in different areas.”


Why IT Projects Fail

Experts agree that lack of clear goals, weak sponsorship, and planning challenges are the primary reasons for project failure. Paying attention to why projects fail is the best way to improve and deliver successful projects in the future.

Te Wu

Te Wu, CEO and CPO at PMO Advisory, outlines reasons for IT project failure. “Aside from the obvious reason of poor project management, I believe the top reasons for IT project failure are the political and conflicting issues that arise in complex projects distract focus away from the project, leadership waning over time — the leadership is strong at the beginning but over time, leadership attention is inconsistent and often short term.”

As technology projects become larger and more complex, especially for IT professionals, failure rates have also increased. A McKinsey-Oxford study estimates that large-scale IT initiatives (those exceeding $15 million) experience overruns to their budgets by as much as 45 percent. These projects also exceed timelines and deliver as much as 56 percent less value to the stakeholders. There are numerous reasons, including unexpected issues inherent in first-time, first-use invention or deployment. However, issues such as scale and complexity, lack of focus, and unskilled team members also contribute to the reported failure rates. 

One of the most cited elements of a failed project discusses project teams who focus too heavily on process and budget, instead of achieving milestones and forward progression. Long-term endeavors also have impediments that arise from the challenges of rapidly changing hardware and introducing new versions of software during the project’s timeframe.

Project Failure Due to Lack of Sponsorship

Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin, a seasoned project manager and ITPM author, shares a detailed account of an IT project that failed to gain traction due to a lack of executive support. “This was a project that focused on an IT software license compliance audit with an IT security manager as the key stakeholder. Unfortunately, neither I, as the project manager, nor the stakeholder had management sponsorship because the project just wasn’t that interesting to them at the time.”

As Harrin describes, without sponsorship from a senior leader, projects can quickly dissipate. Competing projects and activities across business departments make buy-in and support a challenge.

Alexis Nicole White

“There are often many competing interests that prevent full support and engagement,” says Alexis Nicole White, a PMP, Scrum master, and project delivery consultant with North Highland. Senior sponsors are not the only team members who suffer from the inability to focus. The repercussions of multiple distractions are evident in project management. Imbarrato has worked on IT projects where assigning multiple project coordinators who report to the project manager may have been beneficial to project success. “This would allow the IT project manager to focus on the strategic needs of the organization concerning the project versus tracking down incomplete or overdue tasks.”


Communication Rattles Project Success

Experts also agree that communication is an essential ingredient to project success. Without communication skills, coordinating project deliverables and delivering a complete project is impossible. 

Ben Timmerman, Professional Scrum Master and Director of Software Development at The Brookfield Group, believes that every failing project lacks good communication. “At every failing project’s core exists a lack of communication between the teams, vendors, or clients. Most projects have an unknown that is lurking around the corner. Whether that is scope creep, budget issues, or technical issues, communication is the root cause.” 

Krista Kaszycki

Krista Kaszycki, Director of Operations for AlphaRidge, shares a similar sentiment on project failure. “Typically, IT projects fail due to lack of communication or failure to set expectations and realistic dependencies at the start of the project.”


How to Prevent IT Project Failure

All projects come with risks. IT project managers intend to deliver projects on time and within budget, but failure is not out of the question. To prevent failure, project managers must ensure ongoing senior leader support and excellent communication.

“Ensure full buy-in and support from all key stakeholders and project team members from the inception of the project's charter,” suggests White. This helps prevent competing interests from dominating resources. “Be sure you have developed an escalation plan for resolving issues quickly and create accountability for missed target dates.” Beyond gaining buy-in from stakeholders, Kaszycki encourages teams to “[take] the time to understand the goals of each stakeholder early on in the project and providing consistent updates will save you a world of headache.”

Timmerman echoes the need for communication. “Overcommunication is not necessarily a bad thing. It may get repetitive, but ensuring that you and the project team have the same path to achieve the goals is a requirement for a successful project.”


Best Practices and Principles for IT Project Management Professionals

Sometimes, even the most perfectly orchestrated project goes off track. Even though projects are challenging to complete, project teams can always become better, faster, and more efficient.

Every project is not doom and gloom, however. Project managers can learn from other experts to better manage future information management projects. Imbarrato shares a real-life scenario in which only the IT team used an Agile project management methodology and the rest of the organization did not, thus creating confusion among the project team. 

“IT project teams need to include representatives from various business units due to the forthcoming change. Those representatives are responsible for providing requirements, clarifying the needs, answering questions from the IT development team, and usually, user acceptance testing,” says Imbarrato. 

She continues, “In a situation that relies on an unfamiliar methodology, the IT team should train the project team (business unit representatives) on how the project will unfold, the methodology they will use, the key elements of that methodology, and how the business unit representatives can contribute in a meaningful way. It doesn't take a lot to lay a solid foundation for the project team members to understand how the project process will take place. ” 

Imbarrato concludes, “I would suggest including a visual illustration of how the project will unfold, a project glossary of terms that include all of the acronyms commonly used with IT projects, and a roles and responsibilities document for clarity on tasks and task owners.”

Knowledge and Communication Are the Keys to Project Success

Evidence from all project management experts supports the benefits of effective communication. Wu believes that knowledge is power: “Take time to understand why (strategic alignment), who (stakeholders, especially customers), what (scope), when (schedule), where (if the geographic location is important), and how much. By understanding the 5Ws, project managers can better determine ‘how.’” 

White echoes Wu’s sentiments when it comes to preparing with knowledge. “As a project manager, one must ask many questions, even if they seem silly. Often, those ‘silly’ questions are omitted and can prevent disaster.”

Project managers rely on clear communications between team members and clients. Timmerman urges project managers to focus on the collaboration between all stakeholders. “At the end of the day, an IT PM is in the business of people. Whether you are implementing a switch for a client or building a minimal viable product, you are constantly dealing with people. Understanding technical capabilities and how team members communicate throughout a project allows the PM to mitigate issues before they arise. The ability to identify when risk is becoming a reality often separates a good project from a bad one.”


Keep Everything in One Centralized Location

Maintain all project information, documents, tasks, and progress reports in a centralized location to limit confusion. As Black says, “Technology is your friend. Using automation and technology to ensure the project is delivered efficiently is a game-changer. Don’t be afraid to try something new or different to gain different results.” 

Kaszycki echoes this sentiment and suggests that project teams “find a collaboration tool that is flexible enough for their unique needs and that can facilitate the most important data transactions. For example, do you need to be able to automate certain notifications or collect large-form datasheets?”


Best Practices for Good IT Project Management Governance

Project governance refers to the elements that contribute to project success. The three key pillars are structure, people, and information, but additional components will vary from organization to organization. 

Wu believes that project governance is an essential but misunderstood topic. He provides three best practices for IT project portfolio management governance:

  1. Establish Governance Processes Early On: Even if project governance is adopted from organizational governance, most project teams will benefit from understanding the project governance framework early in the project. 
  2. Align Governance with Business Impact: Tailor project governance to your market, business, and the technology tools you’re using. There is no one-size-fits-all model in project governance. Ensure that the governance framework is representative of the project’s projected impact.
  3. Train Team Members: Conduct training on the key governance processes (e.g., how to resolve escalating risks) and parameters (e.g., budget limits), as well as roles and responsibilities.

Best Practices for IT Support Projects

IT support project management is the process of planning, organizing, and executing IT initiatives. Project experts attribute success to an understanding of the IT support role. They encourage open conversation and feedback. 

Previously, Wu was the global director of project services at a large audit, tax, and advisory firm. He shares, “My counterpart, the global director of IT support, and I always argued over the deliverables and quality of the systems before project completion. During one extensive project, the CTO of the organization became tired of our disagreements and asked me to lead both the project and support for the project. Because of this direct role in IT support, my view of the department changed. My advice for IT support project managers: Put yourself in the shoes of the support manager, and you will see their world very differently.”

White reminds IT support project managers to “engage the support teams often and frequently during the project.”

This approach also resonates with Kaszycki, who says that “a good technical team is worth their weight in gold. Place a clear value on proactive feedback from every member of the team.”


IT Project Planning Best Practices

During the project planning phase, teams set the project direction to reach the end goal. During the IT project planning phase, responsibilities include defining tasks, timelines, and available resources; estimating costs; and assessing potential risks. 

White believes that project failure is often due to a lack of proper planning: “Constraints are often imposed by the business, limiting resources, time, and cost. Therefore, the project manager cannot properly plan how to deliver.”

Amy Black, CISSP, PMP, and Director of Security, Privacy, and Risk at RSM US LLP, agrees that a project’s time and budget demands require close monitoring to proactively respond to change: “IT projects often fail due to a lack of flexibility and a failure to build buffers into the project plan. Speed bumps are inevitable in a project, and the project manager must proactively and adequately plan for budget and schedule lapses.”

Amy Black

Black also provides several tips for IT project planning. “Always plan for buffer time and resource buffers to ensure on-time delivery, be realistic about your time and cost estimates, minimize scope creep by focusing only on the work required to meet the end goal, overcommunicate with the team and stakeholders, vet timeline concerns up front, and provide status updates weekly to ensure visibility and accountability,” she says.


Best Practices for Estimating IT Projects

Successful IT projects require accurate cost estimates, including the resources and other expenses that contribute to on-time project completion. The cost estimate is also useful when obtaining budget approval.

“Cost estimation shouldn’t be a terrifying experience,” says Kaszycki. “Use your past projects as a guide, and make sure that you have contractual protections and a collaborative conversation with both technical and operational leadership to get the most accurate insights to inform your estimate.”

Black suggests adding buffer time, even if you’re confident in your estimate, based on previous projects: “Too often, people work with subject matter experts for estimates on key milestones and deliverables and overlook the time needed to properly manage the projects and allow for adequate buffer time. Be sure to overestimate hours and budget to allow for slips to the schedule, and don’t charge yourself for the time and effort it will take as a project manager to oversee the engagement.” 

Wu echoes the idea that you should use historical precedents to build out your IT project estimates. He suggests that IT project teams “determine the total work required for project success before diving deep into the estimation. Too many IT projects underestimate — and sometimes outright forget — the organizational change. Then, the resulting budget is wrong from the beginning. It is best to determine the ‘total project work’ and then dive into the estimation.”


Best Practices for Documenting IT Projects

IT project documentation is a record of activities. IT project managers should create documentation throughout a project. The records include the activity, completion date, and team members. For example, a project charter, a project plan, and meeting notes are essential documents.

Best practices for IT project documentation include the following:

  • Document at Each Milestone: “We mandate documentation at each milestone. Not only does this allow for more accurate benchmarking, but it also ensures that you are not relying on memory and forces adherence to processes, for things like informing a client of changes, updating a project management tool, informing the technical team of impact survey, etc.,” says Kaszycki.
  • Document to Ensure Successful Project Transfer: Timmerman understands that documentation is complicated. “Everybody wants it, but nobody wants to do it. It’s never about documenting everything. Think about documenting the things that help in a successful project transfer should someone else take over midflight.”
  • Set Documentation Goals: “Set the expectation with the team to understand documentation goals before project kickoff in order to determine the lowest level of documentation required for a project,” says Timmerman. “You can always add documentation, but clearly defining the minimum requirements is a great place to start.”

For project documentation templates, read this project documentation template roundup.


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