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To build better IT projects, start by building a better project manager.

One such group is the Project Management Institute. With headquarters in Pennsylvania and a global membership, PMI offers training, testing, certification and a good deal more. More than 50,000 people have received the PMP certification. In January, Microsoft chose the PMP certification program as the standard for its entire services group, which has 12,000 employees.

Caveat Vendor

Despite all this work to improve IT project management, some in the IT industry argue that only the symptoms are being treated, while the real, underlying causes remain untouched.

Tom DeMarco, principal of the Atlantic Systems Guild, a technology consultancy, claims that the big problem with IT projects lies not in the execution but rather in the setting of deadlines — a task often undertaken by senior executives. “The heart of the problem is a sick dynamic around expectations,” he says. “There’s a kind of competition to set increasingly unrealistic expectations, with no accountability. If you’re the manager of a software project, there’s a lot of accountability. But for setting a wrong expectation in the first place, there’s none.”

Another often-overlooked source of IT project trouble involves contracts. Many, perhaps most, involve third-party suppliers of hardware, software and services. Yet few IT managers know how to negotiate a contract that allows problems and disagreements to be remedied without time-killing trips to court.

“We try to get very real with both parties as regards the allocation of risk. Everyone needs to know, going in, what are the most likely things to happen — and even some of the less likely things to happen,” says Wayne Bennett, a partner and leader of the technology practice at U.S. law firm Bingham McCutchen.

A good contract, Bennett says, spells out what to do if there’s a dispute. “If the technical leads get into a tiff, that shouldn’t make everyone get out their sabers,” adds Bennett. “There ought to be somebody higher in the organization, hopefully with a cooler head. So we lay out the procedure, culminating with a sit-down by the two CEOs, who theoretically can put the dispute into perspective.”

All the more reason to get your arms around project management: do you really want your CEO tied up in negotiations around a project that’s months late, over budget, and totally irrelevant?

Peter Krass is a freelance writer and independent consultnat based in Brooklyn, New York, and a former editor at Inc., Planet IT, and InformationWeek.

Tackle Projects Like a Pro

To solve the problem of IT project failure, CFOs need to focus on the data. So says Ira Grossman, president of software-management firm Emergeon LLC in Troy, New York. If your company embarks on a project with a deadline 12 months out and it comes in within 14 months, is it really late? Not if you knew that 75 percent of comparable projects recently completed by other companies took an average of 15 months. So how to get this sort of data into the mix? To help you get started, Grossman offers these six steps:

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