Project Practitioners > What’s the biggest risk an IT project manager faces?

What’s the biggest risk an IT project manager faces?

By J LeRoy Ward

We’ve all read the grim statistics regarding IT projects. For years, such highly respected organizations as Standish, Gartner, Forrester, the Government Accountability Office, and others, have reported high failure and abysmally low success, rates. Failed projects usually have three common characteristics: they are completed far in excess of their original budget, are delivered way behind schedule, and often fail to satisfy even the basic functional requirements demanded by their intended recipients.

The list of root causes for IT project failure often reads like a rap sheet of a serial offender. The causes are almost always the same, but change in rank order priority from one year to the next. For example, poor requirements definition is always on the Top Ten list published by certain organizations; it just may change from 3rd one year to 5th the next. If you’ve followed these surveys through the years, I bet you can cite from memory all of these reasons yourself.

And yet, I think there’s one reason for failure that may rise above all others, but is rarely, if ever mentioned: IT project staff turnover.

While there’s a long list of risks any organization faces when starting an IT project, certainly one of the biggest risks has to be the potential that the team members you start with might not be the same ones you end with; and changing team members in the middle of a critical project can be very disruptive. If you lose a key technical person, or one who’s doing a great job at client relationship management, this could pose serious obstacles to project success.

Think of your favorite sports teams. What happens when a key player gets injured? Or, a group of players are banned from playing due to violating team policy? In some cases it’s devastating to the team. In other cases, the team has a deep bench and can respond. But in either case, the team dynamic changes while everyone becomes adjusted to a new “roster.” Time is of the essence in projects, and we rarely have time to get the project done, let alone work through these types of disruptive changes.

Why do I say that personnel turnover may just be the biggest risk? Because of a recent slideshow Baseline Magazine published on its website that presented the findings of a survey conducted by TEKsystems of more than 400 North American IT leaders and 900 tech professionals regarding the state of IT employment.

Here are four stats that really made an impression on me:

81% of IT pros surveyed said they were open to new job opportunities, even when happily employed and not seeking another job.

Just because an IT worker appears happy in their job doesn’t mean they won't leave. In fact many recruiters prefer to contact people who aren’t actively looking for work under the theory that those that are aggressively looking for work aren’t happy in their current position and might bring that unhappiness with them to a new job. Recruiting someone out of a job they like seems to result in better placements.

The IT pros surveyed are receiving an average of 34 solicitations per week from recruiters…..up from 23 a week in 2012.

Demand for top-notch IT professionals is soaring for those with certain skills: think cybersecurity. These folks are in such high demand they are receiving calls, texts, emails, or LinkedIn messages to the tune of 34 per week to leave their current job. That’s a lot of activity. To me, it’s a numbers game. If you barrage someone long enough with inquiries, sooner or later they’re going to respond to one. Think you don’t have someone on your IT project that’s not getting recruited? Highly unlikely.

77% of IT pros submit more than 10 resumes a week, and 21% submit more than 40 a week.

It’s a “hot bed” of activity out there. A whopping majority of IT pros want “out.” Out of your company and out of your project. That’s not very good news is it?

73% of IT leaders said they receive more than 10 resumes in a given week for a single position and 18% get more than 40 a week.

This is the other side of the coin. Every time a new job is announced, the resumes are flying through the ether confirming that many IT pros are always looking to make a move, and for a wide variety of reasons, no doubt.

What can you do as an IT project manager when confronted with these stats?

If someone is bent on finding another job, it’s certainly hard to stop them; however, it’s not impossible. You may be able to dissuade them from leaving at least long enough to get your project done.

Here are some tips for retaining IT professionals in your organization and on your project that I have employed through the years with some success.

  • Spend a lot of my time talking to the key folks on your team. Listen carefully and intently to their concerns, their future plans, and especially what motivates them. Then do everything you can to provide whatever it is that does motivate them. When was the last time you asked a team member “What motivates you?”
  • Go to bat for them to get them a raise. This isn’t easy of course. You’ll have to deal with your boss and possibly HR. But, interestingly enough, I was successful in almost all instances when I did this. Even though there’s a host of theories that says people aren’t motivated by money (think Hertzberg), I don’t know one person who wouldn’t want a few extra bucks in his or her paycheck — do you?
  • Allow them to work from home even if your company doesn’t fully support it.  Working in “Cube City” or “Dilbert Village” can be very distracting. Sometimes people just need a quiet place to work and get the job done. Authorizing a team member or two to work from home on an occasional basis can boost their productivity, which is only going to work to the benefit of the project.
  • Give them time off and don’t make them note that on their time sheets. Many IT folks work more than 40 hours a week. If they travel, chances are they’re doing in the early morning or late at night. And, if they do so internationally, they’re losing some weekend time as well.  This is all to be expected of course, but in life you’ve got to give folks a break and reciprocate by letting them take a day off here and there to make up for their sacrifice. In my view, we have to give as much as we take from people.
  • Encourage them to earn various credentials such as the PMP, CSM, CISSP, or whatever will help them in their career. Cover their application and exam fees and allow them to study at home for a few days so they don’t have to take leave. I once let one woman check into a hotel for three days to study because she had young children at home. I also authorized room service for all her meals so she didn’t even have to leave to eat. I got this idea from the old movie The Paper Chase, where a group of law students who were studying for their final exams did that so they could study without distraction.

Was I able to keep people from jumping ship? Yes, but not indefinitely. Eventually, people will leave an organization for a wide variety of reasons. I just wanted people to leave for the right reasons: to move up the ranks, to earn more money, to take on more challenging assignments or to learn new technology. I was always happy for them when they left on a positive note.

Even though some of what I did was definitely “under the radar” I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do: it was to do right by the person which, in turn, was the right thing for the company.

J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM, is President of Ward Associates ( providing project, program and portfolio management advisory services, workshops, and keynote presentations to organizations of all sizes.  He welcomes your thoughts and comments.

He is presenting a keynote address on International Project Management Day on November 6, 2014, entitled: 6 Steps in Developing a Governance Model for Strategic Portfolio Management. Visit the IPMDAY registration page to learn how you can attend for free.



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