Know Your Enemies

What has this famous saying from the Sun Tzu’s Art of War have to do with software project management?

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you are certain in every battle to be in danger.” --Chapter III, The Art of War by Sun Tzu

What has this famous saying from the Sun Tzu’s Art of War have to do with software project management? Managing an IT project is like going to a battle. A project manager has to understand the project’s enemies and be able to assess the project team’s abilities in order to complete a project successfully. Before a project manager plunges into action, he or she has to have adequate knowledge of the project’s enemies.

What enemies does an IT project manager have to face? To complete a project successfully, the project manager has to deliver the product that satisfies the client’s requirements on time and within budget. The enemies are the project risks – factors that may cause a project to fail. The project manager has to know the potential risks he will be facing and his team’s strengths and weaknesses before planning and organizing his team to handle the project.

In Chapter 1, Sun Tzu says that we should consider everything before taking action. One basic principle of the Art of War is that “We should not assume that the enemy will not come, but instead we must be prepared for his coming; not to presume that he will not attack, but instead to make our own position unassailable.”** translation taken from Khoo Kheng-Hor (1992), Sun Tzu & Management, Pelanduk Publications.

Hence the project leader has to identify the potential problems at the start of the project, and be vigilant throughout the project to foresee any changes that are likely to cause project failure. Knowing the enemies and developing strategies to respond to potential risks is part of the planning and controlling processes in project management.

Each project may have its unique characteristics and risk conditions. Typical risk conditions occur in the following areas:

  • Project scope and requirements
  • Human resources
  • Quality
  • Cost
  • Communication

What a project manager could do at the start of an IT project is to scan these areas, and look for potential problems that are likely to surface.

Is the project scope well defined? Does the client and potential users know what they need and want? Poor scope definition and control will most probably lead to potential conflicts between the client and the project team, and cause client’s dissatisfaction. Is the scope too broad given the duration of the project? Inability to manage the scope may lead to delay in meeting the project deadline. Is the project cross functional, cross cultural and cross organizational? Is it highly complex? After considering the scope of work, the project manager has to examine his project team’s composition and assets to meet the challenge.

Human resource is a critical success factor in any project. Does the project team possess the relevant knowledge, skill and experience to handle the project? The qualities of the project team members will determine the time they need to spend on the tasks assigned to them. Does the project manager or key personnel in his team have the required business or domain knowledge? Does the team understand clearly the requirements and desires of the project’s stakeholders? Inadequate understanding of the project requirements or incomplete or unclear requirements specification may lead to the development and delivery of a final product that does not meet the client’s needs and expectations. Will there be any staff motivation problem? Will there be any potential conflicts among the team members?? Team work and relationship are critical to the success of a project.

If you are a customer who purchases a product, say a car, wouldn’t you be concerned with the quality of the car? It’s not just a matter of its appearance, but also its performance, reliability and ability to function to serve your needs. Customer satisfaction is determined by the quality of the product and its accompanying services. Similarly, the client and potential users will expect a quality IT product in terms of functionality, reliability, efficiency, maintainability and usability to be delivered to them. What are the likely factors that would prevent the final system or software from being able to satisfy its customers? This is the question a project leader has to ask right from the start.

Costing is a tricky process. Will the project costs fall within the budget? How to ensure that none of the cost areas are overlooked when estimating project cost? Cost items such as hardware cost, material cost could be estimated easily but what about hours spent on meetings and planning time? How would the project manager estimate the hours spent on quality assurance? As costs are all estimates, risks are involved. Many cost areas could be overlooked, and unexpected expenditure may be incurred during an IT project, particularly when the project involves people from more than one country, and traveling is necessary.

The project manager has to deal with the uncertainties and changes that are likely to occur in the course of the project. Hence, communication is vital to the management of IT projects. Plans may change and such changes need to be communicated to all parties concerned. Stakeholders have to be informed about the progress and status of the project. What are the conditions that impede flow of communication and dissemination of information? What are the possible areas of conflicts among project team members, and between the project teams and various stakeholders? A project manager has to be aware of the risks of miscommunication or communication breakdown, and takes measures to reduce such risks.

It is vital to know your enemies in managing IT projects. The challenge is to develop appropriate strategies to overcome the enemies. This article examines the likely risk areas that the project manager has to deal with, and in subsequent articles, the author will cover risk response.

Lim Gek Kheng (Ms) is Senior Lecturer at the School of ICT, Ngee Ann Polytechnic


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