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Let’s Change the IT Conversation from Projects to Products

June 16, 2017 | Mike Dieckmann, Associate Vice President, Division of Research & Strategic Innovation

Many innovation methods adopt, at least implicitly, a product mindset.  Product thinking is core to a focus on the customer (or client, end user, or other term of choice for those your organization serves), whether we describe our intended outcome as a product, service, or experience.  The core skill of product thinking is empathy with the customer, or seeing the world from the customer’s viewpoint.  Innovation practices that employ design thinking are therefore rife with concepts such as identifying the “true job” the customer needs performed, defining value from the customer’s viewpoint, discovering the “minimal viable product” that will meet these requirements, and designing a total “customer experience.”  

Organizations often stumble into a virtual minefield when they involve their information technology (IT) shops in this customer-focused innovation process. One reason is the traditional IT organization operates from a project mindset, not a product viewpoint.  The well-publicized poor track record of IT projects should sound a warning siren to us, indicating something is obviously out of alignment between IT’s project approach and the business’ needs.  In the current environment of digital transformation, where almost every product or service is in some fashion becoming an IT-enabled product, solving this misalignment becomes an epic need. 

The relationship between IT and project management has always been strained, even though IT is traditionally one area of the organization with the best-established project and portfolio management disciplines.  Fundamentally, the core mindset of project management is maladaptive for today’s IT reality.  Although project management, as a discipline, has its roots in the 1940s and 1950s, the modern paradigm is heavily influenced by the “McNamara era” of the U.S. Department of Defense in the 1960s.  In this period, the emphasis of project management became control of activities in a well-understood domain of moderate innovation with a clearly defined mission.  In this environment, a project begins life in the context of a well-defined problem, and a mostly understood (or at least envisioned) solution.  From that birth, the project proceeds almost immediately to rigorous specification, work deconstruction and scheduling of activities among largely disjointed parties.1  This paradigm is largely at odds with the highly novel and semi-artistic nature of IT development work.2  And it certainly does not mesh well with the paradigm of agile, flexible, messy, highly exploratory innovation teams, where much of the project involves both ongoing exploration of the problem and iterative development and refinement (and at times creative destruction) of potential solutions.

Another key innovation barrier facing the traditional IT organization, grounded in project-based thinking, is over-specialization.  IT shops are commonly organized into functional silos of expertise.  The programmers are in one group; the system administrators in another; the network engineers in another; the database administrators in another; …  These silos “hire out” their specialists to a portfolio of projects based on resource prediction and scheduling, seldom grounded in realistic estimation.  Coordinating work and allocating resources within the IT organization becomes complicated enough, let alone working with the rest of the business.  A major part of project management involves breaking down and coordinating work among the IT functional silos, rather than integrating IT’s overall efforts with the rest of the business.  IT project members become focused on the project manager as their customer, rather than the true customer.

Unless IT can overcome these barriers to smooth integration with the innovation process, IT practitioners may find themselves relegated to the secondary role of order-taker rather than being treated as a full innovation partner.  Moving away from a project-centric mindset may be the key lever to this transformation.

If you’re an IT leader, what can you do to begin moving your organization to a more agile, product-oriented mindset?  Explore these ideas:3

  • Be clear on the specific ‘products’ your IT shop supports, in terms of how the overall business thinks of its customers, products and services.4
  • Work to break down silos between IT and other product-oriented functions such as product development and marketing.
  • Reorganize IT development into teams with a long-term focus on product lines.
  • Embrace lean product and prototyping principles.
  • Remove friction between internal IT functions (e.g., development and operations).5 Look at infrastructure, applications and data holistically.  Organize development work into agile, multi-disciplinary teams that can provide the full range of IT support to innovation efforts.


We mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater - project management is a tool that still has much to offer to IT.  But to remain viable and relevant, CIOs, CTOs, and other IT leaders must lead their organizations to learn how to “think product,” not project.