Project management tips: Five ways to keep your project and your team on target

Big projects are more about people than technology. Here are some ways to keep programs on track.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
business people working together

For a project to succeed, "You must get on the ground and listen to your people," says Travis Perkins CIO Neil Pearce.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Neil Pearce, CIO at Travis Perkins, is running a major transformation programme for the timber and builders merchant. The initiative involves a shift from legacy systems to digital services.

The transformation will feature technology from big data to natural language processing, to improve the quality of service for customers. Pearce says the potential business benefits will be great for the firm's major retail brands, which include Tile Giant, Toolstation, and City Plumbing Suppliers.

But those potential benefits will only be realised if Pearce is able to draw on the capabilities of his in-house IT team. Here, he shares his five best-practice tips for creating a great working culture within the IT organisation.

1. Have a clear direction

Pearce says CIOs looking to create the right working culture must first and foremost establish set targets for the rest of the technology department. "We've been clear about our mission and goals," he says, referring to the work of his IT leadership team. "You must stick to those ideals."

Pearce presents his plans for digital transformation to staff as a construction project. Pearce says a number of people -- both internally and externally -- have helped him work through the analogy and create a clear direction for digital transformation.

In project terms, Pearce and his team are currently working on the foundations, which involves networks, cloud computing, and middleware. They will subsequently turn to the walls (business applications), the roof (the IT team), and the fixtures and fittings (innovative digital services for customers).

"It's not easy to stick to goals," says Pearce. "It's taken a while to help people understand what our work is all about. But you have to try and find the right communication level, so that you can have a conversation with all the people across the organisation. The construction analogy really helps."

2. Stick to your plan

Goal-setting must be more than an end in itself. Significant challenges arise, says Pearce, when senior executives become distracted and fail to focus on the main business objective. "It can be really difficult to establish the right culture when leadership flip flops all over the place," he says.

"It can be like childhood games of sport, where everyone just follows the ball. What you actually need is someone who explains exactly how the team is going to play the game and how everyone has an important role to fulfil."

Pearce recognises executives must also provide room for expression. Clear objectives might be crucial to success but innovative thinking can also help push digital transformation in a new, positive direction. "You need discipline, but you also need to give people the space to use their flair and creativity at the right point," he says.

3. Encourage self-awareness

Individual psychology plays a part, too. Pearce says the right culture relies on workers understanding their individual role as part of a bigger team. That can be tough in IT organisations, where people can become preoccupied with tasks, policies, process, practices, and issues of governance.

"All those types of things are great but what goes on in people's heads every second of every day is what actually determines organisational success," he says. "Paying attention to psychology helps raise levels of awareness in regards to why certain employees are making decisions and how emotions can play a role."

Pearce works closely with his IT leadership team to try and ensure his senior staff members understand what is happening, what it means, and how those challenges affect everyone in the organisation. "It's all about showing how important it is to take a step back and think about the bigger picture," he says.

4. Communicate your targets constantly

The establishment of a clear direction, with set targets and individual positions, must then be backed up by the use of supporting management strategies. Pearce says communication is key and executives must talk about targets constantly.

"It can get to the point where you feel like you're overdoing it," he says. "It can take quite a while for people to understand your objectives. We're doing a lot in terms of giving regular feedback to our teams about how they're progressing."

Pearce warns other business leaders to expect challenges. There is always a chance you will come up against experienced people who might take a more cynical view about your new way of doing things. For example, there can be reticence about new external partnerships.

"You must demonstrate that you're not going to undermine the work of in-house IT workers and that the role of the technology team is absolutely crucial," says Pearce, whose strategies for interaction include a number of channels, including face-to-face conversations and specialist training videos. "You must constantly communicate with people in order to prove your aims are genuine."

5. Be highly collaborative

Keeping a tight grip on aims and objectives is clearly critical to Pearce's success. However, he also recognises that the right culture relies on an ability to take on external feedback. "You can't be a dictator," he says.

"As the leader, you have to set certain things out and you have to be strong on direction. But you also have to encourage people across the team to communicate those messages as well. You're only one individual and your success will be dependent on the support of a great team."

Pearce's management style might be strong but it is also collaborative and iterative. "I'm always open to feedback," says Pearce, who uses road show presentations to discuss aims and objectives with people in the IT organisation.

"You must get on the ground and listen to your people," he says. "You should use their knowledge to shape your strategy. I understand that I need the help of other people to help me do my job to the best of my ability and they need my help so they can complete their tasks."

Read more about IT leadership

Editorial standards