The final axis in the model is ‘criticality’. Criticality is defined as the quality, state or degree of being of the highest importance. The problem with criticality is that the concept is far easier to recognize than to define precisely. This attribute of projects fits the old adage, ‘I will know it when I see it’. Each person on a project will be able to easily identify what they think is critical. The difficultly is that each person has their own perception of what is most important and that perception will change over time. This makes it imperative to define a set of questions or status indicators to appraise criticality consistently. The appraisal processes uses “group think” to find the central tendency in teams and consolidate the responses. Using a consensus model to develop the appraisal will also help ensure that a broad perspective is leveraged. It is also important to remember that any appraisal is specific to a point in time and that the responses to the assessment can and will change over time. I have found that the following factors can be leveraged to assess importance and criticality:
Perceived moderate level of business impact (positive or negative) y/n
Project does not show significant time sensitivity y/n
Fall back position exits if the project fails y/n
Low possibility of impacting important customers y/n
Project is not linked to other projects y/n
Project not required to pay the bills y/n
Project is not labeled “Mission Critical” y/n
Normal perceived value to the stakeholders y/n
Neutral impact on the organizational architecture y/n
Since each project has its own set of hot button issues, other major contributors can be substituted. However, be careful to understand the impact of the questions and the inter-relationships between the categories. The model does recognize that there will always be some overlap between responses.
Perceived Moderate Business Impact: Projects that are perceived to have a significant business impact are treated as more important than those that not. There are two aspects to the perception of importance. The first aspect is to determine whether or not the project team believes that their actions will have an impact on the outcome. The second aspect is whether the organization’s management acts as if they believe that the project will have a significant business impact (acting as if there will be an impact is more important than whether it “true” – at least in the short term). The perception as to whether the impact will be positive or negative is less important than the perception of the degree of the impact (a perception of a large impact will cause a large reaction). Assessment Tip: If both the project team and the organization’s management perceive that the project will have only a moderate business impact, appraise this attribute as a “Y”. If management does not perceive the significance, do not act as if there is significance or that nothing out of the ordinary is occurring, I would strongly suggest rating this attribute as a “Y”.
Lack of Significant Time Sensitivity for Delivery: Time sensitivity is the relationship between value and when the project is delivered. An example might be the implied time sensitivity when trying to be first to market with a new product, the perception of time sensitivity creates a sense of urgency which is central to criticality. While time is one of the legs of the project management iron triangle (identified in the management constraints above) this attribute measures the relationship between business value and delivery date. Assessment Tip: If the team perceives a higher than normal time sensitivity to delivery, appraise this attribute as ‘N’.
Fall Back Available: All or nothing projects or projects without fall backs, impart a sense of criticality that can easily be recognized (usually by the large bottles of TUMS at project manager’s desks). These types of projects occur, but are rare. Assessment Tip: A simple test for the whether the project is ‘all or nothing’ is to determine whether the team understands that when the project is implemented and works, everybody is good, or it does not work; everyone gets to look for a job, appraise this as an ‘N’. Note: This assumes that a project is planned to be an all or nothing scenario (must be done) and is not just an artifact of poor planning, albeit the impact might be the same.
Low Possibility of Impacting Important Customers: Any software has a possibility of impacting an important customer or block of customers. However, determining the level of that possibility and significance of the impact, if an impact occurs, can be a bit of an art form (or at least risk analysis). Impact is defined, for this attribute, as an effect that, if noticed, would be outside of the customers’ expectations. Assessment Tip: If the project is targeted to delivering functionality for an important customer assess this as ‘N’, if not directly targeted but if there is a high probability on an impact regardless of to whom the change is targeted toward also assess this attribute as ‘N’.
Projects Not Interlinked: Projects whose outcomes are linked to other projects require closer communication. The situation is analogous to building a bridge from both sides of the river, and hoping they meet in the middle. Tools – such as traceability – that formally identify, communicate and link the requirements of one project to another substantially increase the chances of the bridge meeting in the middle. Note: that is not to say that formally documented traceability is the only method that will deliver results. The model’s strength is that it is driven by the confluence of multiple attributes to derive recommendations. Assessment Tip: If the outcome of a project is required for another project (or vice versa), assess this attribute as an ‘N’. Note: “required” means that one project can not occur without the functionality delivered by the other project. It is easy to see the inter-linkage of people as interlinking functionality. I would suggest that the former is a different management problem than we are trying to solve.
Not Directly Linked to Paying the Bills: There are projects that are a paler reflection of a “bet the farm” scenario. While there are very few true “bet the farm” projects, there are many that projects in the tier just below. These ‘second tier’ projects would cause substantial damage to the business and/or to your CIO’s career if they fail, as they are tied to delivering business value (RE: paying the bills). Assessment Tip: Projects that meet the “bet the farm” test or at least a “bet the pasture” project (major impact on revenue or the CIO’s career) can be smelled a mile away; these should be assessed as an “N”. It should be noted that if a project has been raised to this level of urgency artificially, it should be appraised as “Y”. Another tip, projects with the words SAP or PeopleSoft should automatically be assessed as an “N”.
Indirectly Important to Mission: The title “important to mission” represents a long view of the impact of the functionality being delivered by a project. An easy gauge for importance is to determine whether the project can be directly linked to the current or planned core products of the business. Understanding linkages is critical to determining whether a project is important to the mission of the organization. Remember, projects can be important to paying the bills, but not core to the mission of the business. An example, a major component of a clothing manufacturer that I worked for after I left university was its transportation group. Projects for this division were important for paying the bills, but at the same time, they were not directly related to the mission of the business, which was the design and manufacturing of women’s clothing. As an outsider, one quick test for importance to mission is to simply ask the question, “What is the mission of the organization and how does the project support it.” Not knowing the answer is either a sign to ask a lot more questions, or a sign that the project is not important to mission. Assessment Tip: If the project is directly linked to the delivery of a core (current or planned) product assess this attribute as an ‘N’. Appraisal of this attribute can engender passionate debate, most project teams want to believe that the project they are involved in is important to mission. Perception is incredibly important, if there is deeply held passion that the project is directly important to the mission of the organization assess it as an ‘N’.
Moderate Perceived Value to the Stakeholders: Any perception of value is difficult at more than an individual level. Where stakeholders are concerned, involvement clouds the rational assessments. Simply put, stakeholders perceive most of the projects they are involved in as having more than a moderate level of value. Somewhere in their mind, stakeholders must be asking, why would I be involved with anything of moderate value? The issue is that most projects will deliver, at best, an average value. Assessment Tip: Assuming that you have access to the projected ROI (quantitative and non-quantitative) for the project you are involved in, you have the basis for a decision. A rule of thumb is that projects projected to deliver an ROI that is 10% or more of the organization’s or department’s value, appraise this as an ‘N’. Using the derived ROI assumes that the evaluations are worth more than the paper they are printed on. If you are not tracking the delivery of benefits after the project, any published ROI is suspect.
Neutral to Organizational Architecture: This attribute assesses the degree of impact the functionality/infrastructure to be delivered will have to the organization’s architecture. This attribute has a degree of covariance with the ‘architectural impact’ attribute in the previous model component. While related, they are not the exactly the same. As an example, the delivered output of a project can be critical (important and urgent), but will cause little change (low impact). An explicit example is the installation of a service pack within Microsoft Office. The service pack is typically critical (usually for security reasons), but does not change the architecture of the desktop. Assessment Tip: If delaying the delivery of the project would cause raised voices and gnashing of teeth appraise this as an ‘N’ and argue impact versus criticality over a beer.
An overall note on the concept of criticality, you will need to account for ‘false urgency’. More than a few organizations oversell the criticality of a project. The process of overselling is sometimes coupled with yelling, threats and table-pounding in order to generate a major visual effect. False urgency can have short term benefits, generating concerted action, however as soon as the team figures out the game a whipsaw affect (reduced productivity and attention) typically occurs. Gauge whether the words being used to describe how critical a project is match the appraisal vehicle you just created. Mismatches will sooner or later require action to synchronize the two points of view.
The concept of criticality requires a deft touch to assess. It is rarely as cut and dry as making checkmarks on a form. A major component of the assessment has to be the evaluation of what the project team believes. Teams that believe a project is critical will act as if the stress of criticality is real, regardless of other perceptions of reality. Alternately if a team believes a project is not critical, they will act on that belief, regardless of truth. Make sure you know how all project stakeholders perceive criticality or be ready for surprises.