Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How to Tell if Your Customer is Prepared for the Project

We would like to think that our customer – the one who is spending the money – has been diligent in their preparation for the upcoming engagement that you are about to lead for them. It only makes sense, right? If they are prepared, that means smoother sailing, possibly a shortened project window, and a decreased project budget. Cost savings for the customer! A good thing, right? One would think so, but I never cease to be amazed…..

What should your customer come to the table with? Well, at a minimum, they should have the following:

#1 - High level requirements

The customer who comes to the table with no requirements planned out is a huge red flag. Certainly you should expect to help them to some degree with requirements – and it’s absolutely necessary for you to help them flesh out more detailed requirements in the planning phase – but when they come to the project with nothing it’s time to put on the brakes.

#2 - A group of subject matter experts (SMEs)

During the engagement you’re going to need access to some end users and subject matter experts because there will be questions you’ll have for them as you try to piece together the requirements you’re working with. These people need to be identified up front and need to be prepared to be adhoc members of the customer’s project team.

#3 - An assembled core project team

If you’re dealing solely with the project stakeholder at the kickoff meeting, then you’re customer may be unprepared. They need a core team of their own to assist you and your team in putting more detail into the project, identifying issues and risks, and verifying the project schedule that you’re proposing.

#4 - Preferably a project manager or point person

Again, dealing with a stakeholder is great and that person may, indeed, be the project manager. But if not, there needs to be a primary counterpart on the customer’s side to you as the project manager. Someone you can go to to get things done on their side. Someone to enforce accountability and direct activity because there will be customer assignments.

#5 - Training or software knowledge (if applicable)

This is a tough one and the customer may push back, but if you’re dealing with a software or IT project, then in order for you and your team to get the best possible requirements documented, your customer must have an understanding of what you’re implementing. If they don’t understand the capabilities at all, then they can’t truly fully understand how much or exactly what the solution will be able to do for them. Basic training is a huge plus to the project.

How do you know they’re ready?

So, I’ve presented a list – and I would welcome any comments or additions that any of our readers might have. This list is based solely on some of the frustrations I’ve encountered on the many projects I’ve led over the years. I’m constantly surprised by how unprepared some customers are when they come to a kickoff meeting.

How doe we figure out if this customer is ready or not? It may become evident as you start to go through the statement of work (SOW) because most of the project goals and assumptions are listed there. If the SOW discussion surprises your customer and they seem uncertain of what’s expected of them, it may be time to slow things down. If you are implementing a software solution and the customer has no knowledge whatsoever of its capabilities, then there’s no way they’re really going to be ready to discuss detailed needs and requirements. You likely need to offer training. Ask about their project team because you’re going to need that information for assignments in the project schedule. If they don’t have a team, then you may want to give them a week to put the proper team together. Discuss the project schedule that you’ve drafted. If there are any major sticking points with the customer, then halt the kickoff and get those ironed out before proceeding with the engagement. The worst thing you can do is start the project before both parties are prepared to start because you’re going to find yourself behind schedule very quickly as you work with your customer to identify and fix these weaknesses.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.

Friday, December 9, 2011

When Your Project Depends on Other Projects that are Struggling

Managing a project to a successful end is hard enough as it is. Most of the time your project is a one-time effort and it is completely standalone – other than the fact that it likely integrates with some existing technology and business practices. Those, of course, become integration points and separate tasks in the schedule as well as areas of testing concern and highlights as the project moves on towards deployment.

Now consider the scenario where your project depends on the outcome or progress of one or more other projects. Projects that you likely aren’t even leading, but must be involved with to some degree to ensure proper testing, handoff of information, timing of training and deployment, and to ensure that any solution integrations are properly aligned. If those other projects are running smoothly, then you have no issues. However, if there is a delay or an issue with one of the other projects – and most projects do experience delays and issues along the way – what do you do? How do you handle it? How does it affect your project?

In the few cases where this has either been an issue for me or appeared that it would be, these are the steps I setup to get corrective action rolling…

Discuss with the customer

As this has always been the case with interrelated projects for the same customer, that customer is an integral part of the team on each project and a key decision point for any action going forward. If that customer is not already aware of the impending critical problem, then you – and the other project manager if the struggling project is not also yours – must sit down with the customer and relay the issue to them. Keeping a significant problem from the customer will only delay the inevitable and can serve to cause trust issues should the customer discover the problem before it comes from your mouth.

Brainstorm with the other project managers and teams

You and your team must then work cohesively with the project manager and team on the struggling project to determine what their issue is, how quickly it can be resolved, what impact it has on their schedule, and then what the overall impact on your project and schedule is or will be.

Develop an action plan

Next, set about documenting possible action plan scenarios. Will more or different resources on the struggling project help solve the issue? Will more money do it? Are the struggles due to issues at the customer level? Do some requirements need to be further defined and if so, what re-work might be involved.

Once this is determined then – and only then – can you figure out the best and most cost-effective and least detrimental course of action to recommend to your leadership and to the project customer.

Circle back with the customer

Finally, return to the customer with the proposed course of action. Clearly detail to them how the struggling project is going to get back on track – and this should be presented by that project manager if it is not already your project. Then present the impact to your project – the one that was running smoothly till the issue arose – and show them a new project schedule with these effects built into the scenario. If there are any avenues for regaining lost ground on the timeline due to the issues forced on your project, outline those actions as new tasks in the project schedule and discuss those in detail with your customer.

One final step – don’t forget to get signoff/approval from your customer on the overall course or courses of action you plan to take. It may seem like a small technicality, but it can become a very valuable signoff should there be any legal concerns at the end of the engagement.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Keeping Projects on Track Through the Holidays

Oh, the end of year holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. They’re all upon us now….we are joyfully celebrating with our family or planning for the next holiday. Vacation time is being requested, countdown calendars are beginning, and – most likely – some focus is being lost as the daily grind is giving way to hopes of some well-deserved relaxation time. Holidays are always hard on projects – but these current holidays can wreak havoc on the best of engagements.

The big question is this….during this time how do we keep our projects on track with so much anticipated – and sometimes unanticipated – down time? Our projects aren’t taking a break, but our project team members – and often our customers – are. How do we keep the forward momentum going? And also, how do we regroup after the holidays and get the project moving forward again at the same pace it was before the holiday slowdown?

Here are five key steps to follow to stay on track….

Plan way ahead

Project resources plan their vacations with their direct supervisor. Sometimes they tell their project managers and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they assume that their manager tells you – but that never happens. Ask questions, plan ahead. I once found myself with a resource who was leaving for India to get married and not returning for three months right in the middle of critical break/fix testing before a go-live. She assumed that her manager had informed me. Not only had I not been informed, there was no comparable resource available to back fill with. Never assume anything.

Onboard support staff if needed

By planning ahead, you can see if there are some key activities that have to happen during the holidays that can’t be moved. Request a replacement resource during the vacation time if you think it will help – but this will definitely require advanced planning (see #1 above).

Stagger time off if possible

It’s not likely you’ll get much say in this, but have your resources stagger their time off if it all possible. Leaving you as the only project resource available – and probably not able to take vacation time yourself – is a very bad situation to be in. If critical activities have to happen during a planned vacation, you may have no other choice but to go to the resource’s manager and request that vacation time be changed or that other accommodations be made.

Revise the schedule and be realistic

Take the vacation time and revise the schedule. Be as realistic as possible. It serves no good purpose to be too aggressive with the task schedules when you have no project resources available to work on them. If it’s going to cause problems with the deadline of a key project deliverable, then it’s important that everyone knows about it now rather than finding out about it later when you regroup after the holidays and watch that key date come and go. That type of failure does not make customers happy.

Kick start the project January 2nd

Finally, be ready to hit the ground running on January 2nd, or as soon as you can get MOST of your team back on the project. During that first meeting when everyone is back together, be sure to have some fun and discuss everyone’s holiday activities. And then with that out of the way be ready to productively move on. As the project manager, that means that you need to have everything in place including a revised project schedule that shows what the next steps and assignments are on the engagement.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keeping Your Team Focused on a Long-Term Project

As the project manager on a long-term project, I usually have no trouble maintaining focus. I realize that the project is mine to succeed or fail with – hopefully succeed – and I usually have several projects running at once. Focusing on the tasks at hand usually doesn’t seem to be an issue for me. Now for my team…depending on what’s going on with the project and what other projects my team members may be working on…that focus issue can sometimes be a problem.

As a result, I’ve had to ‘experiment’ with different strategies to help keep my team members focused and engaged on the project. Through logical thinking and some trial and error, I’ve come up with these five strategies for keeping my team members fully focused on some of my longer-term projects.

Engage them in all planning activity

Project team members who are heavily involved in the upfront planning activities on a project feel a greater sense of ownership for the project. Being part of that conception phase of the project leads to a greater understanding of everything involved with the project and greater ownership of the goals, mission, and tasks associated with the engagement as a whole.

Have team members peer review all deliverables

Another way to increase ownership and focus is to have all of your team members perform peer reviews on every deliverable that goes to the customer. This serves another valuable purpose as well – it keeps more eyes on each deliverable and can significantly decrease your chances of delivering an error-filled document or product that only serves to damage customer confidence and satisfaction. Trust me, I know. I trusted a business analyst when he said a functional design document was ready to go to the customer…not once but twice! Since then I have my team peer review everything. It took far too long to make that customer feel comfortable with me and my team again.

Keep task assignment steady throughout

When possible, spread your assignments for your project resources out over the life of the project. Too much downtime for a project resource can cause them to lose focus or worse…can lead to them being completely lost to another project. By keeping them responsible for tasks and engaged throughout with steady work will keep them feeling like they are constantly contributing and will help keep them continually focused.

Look to team members to interface with the client regularly

Putting your project team members in significant roles in the project – especially putting them in roles where they must regularly interface with the customer – can have very positive affects on their ability to stay focused. Knowing their role is key to customer satisfaction and interaction will keep them on their toes and increase their overall participation level on the project.

Have team members periodically lead key meetings

Taking the previous item a step further – have members of your project team periodically lead customer meetings or weekly status calls if you’re comfortable with it. Make an excuse periodically to not be available and assign leadership to someone on the team – rotating the leadership responsibility, of course. Being in a temporary PM leadership role in front of the customer or on the other end of the phone will further induce the focus aspect you desire throughout the engagement from your team members.


Project team members will lose focus periodically throughout an engagement. It’s your job as the project manager to do everything you can to minimize those instances through continuous interaction, engagement, and assignments. Utilizing team collaboration helps promote ownership that also helps to keep those team members focused and engaged throughout a long project. Your project team members are likely as busy as you are and working multiple projects so being aware of that and utilizing them where they provide the most strategic advantage helps you, helps them, and helps the project.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Project Management for Startups

I’ve worked with several startups in both capacities - as an employee and as a consultant. Frankly, I enjoyed the consulting role more, but that’s just me. One thing is for sure - I definitely like working with and for startups. It’s energetic, you own your own role, you often make your own rules…the project is really really really yours because everyone else is so busy and trying to figure out what they need to do next. Take it and run with it is usually the mentality of a startup. Exciting and trailblazing.

Now let’s focus solely on project management. Is it needed in a startup? Is it feasible to have a structured project management process in a startup? If both of those are yes, how do you do it? What does it take to set it up? Lots of structure…a little structure? Let’s consider…

Do startups need PM?

I’m going to answer with a resounding ‘YES!’ to this one. Why? Because they are new, they are trying to establish sound business practices, and they are trying to obtain and retain customers. If a startup embarks on projects without one or more experienced project managers and some defined processes, the only thing that will get them success is luck and you can’t really build a successful business on luck…not for the long-term anyway.

Is it feasible to have a structured PM process in a startup?

Again, my answer is yes. I’ve done it. I was asked to come in to a startup and salvage their first three projects that were failing miserably. I wrapped PM processes around it, brought customers in for presentations on how things were going to be done, and we ended up with three successful implementations AND the makings of a PM practices at the same time.

How do you set up a PM practice in a startup?

In my case, you come with your own tools. They literally had nothing. Well, they owned MS Project, but this was a few years ago. Today a startup would be far better off with a cost-effective web-based solution like Project Drive or a similar tool. MS Project is just too expensive for most startups if they need licenses for multiple users and it’s just not necessary.

You need some templates in hand…project schedule shells from past projects, plan documents that you’ve pulled from other successful engagements, a budget planning and forecasting tool or spreadsheet that has served you well in the past. They likely won’t have anything…so you either need to have it with you or search the internet for something to download. I offer several templates and sample documents for free download on my website at bradegeland.com.

And finally you need to assess how much staff you need. Most startups, when their business is ramping up, should be able to make do with one or two consulting project managers. Hiring permanent staff right out of the gate is probably a risky idea. Adding experienced consulting PMs can get you started down the right path and they can then be used to help you in the hiring and training of more junior level project managers who can eventually take over the reins.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

It's About More Than the Tools

Tools are great in the project management world. I dare say they’re a necessity if you want to get your tasks done in a timely manner. And doing things in a timely manner is critical if we want to stay on track and on budget.

But really, the tools we use can be anything…depending on the size of the project and the complexity of reporting. You can actually manage a project with only Excel or similar spreadsheet software as your only PM tool if you have to (though probably only on very small projects) – using it for managing tasks and timeframes in the project schedule, managing resource assignments, and definitely the budget. I use it all the time to manage the project budget – including analysis and forecasting on a weekly basis. But I’d never use it on a big project or a critical project. I’m a fan of real project scheduling software like MS Project, Project Drive, or a similar tool. They’ll get the job done faster, better, more accurately and more efficiently and they have reporting built in to the tool – which will make your executive management and customer much happier and your job much much easier.

But project management doesn’t stop with the tools, does it? In fact, it’s really not about the tools. You don’t have to spend the big project dollars on the tools – you can do it fairly inexpensively as pointed out above. But the big dollars are spent on the personnel resources and the tasks they undertake and the time they spend on the project. It’s about project skills and the actual management of the project itself as well as the leadership used in managing the project resources. It’s about project best practices.

Project management, as a whole is really about…


Your team and your customer need consistent behavior. You need to hold project status meetings at the same time every week (yes, every week), you need to deliver weekly status reports in advance of that project status meeting with your team and your customer, and you need to be holding internal meetings with your team every week to get updates and hold them accountable. The project manager who regularly postpones or cancels meetings is not displaying consistency and will find it hard to demand consistency from his own team throughout the project.

Best practices

Using best practices – whatever you and your organization define as best practices – is the responsibility of the project manager. Doing things like using repeatable processes and templates that work, conducting formal project status meetings and reviews, planning out the project budget and reforecasting it to stay on top of it on a weekly basis, and managing project scope closely against the project requirements are all a few examples of project management best practices. These are the responsibility of the project manager and using them is a way to display good project leadership and a way to help ensure ongoing project successes.


Finally, project management is about leadership. If a project manager can’t be a strong project leader, then he’s not bringing much to the project table. Sound, swift, and confident decision-making, efficient and effective communication and customer management, consistent behavior and delivery on project milestones and deliverables are all examples of good project management leadership and are all the responsibility of the project manager.


Tools are a necessary part of the project management process. But they don’t guarantee success and they don’t ‘make’ the project manager. If the project manager can practice consistency, utilize best practices, and show project leadership, then his days as a project manager are likely numbered. PM is much more about the soft skills than just the use of tools.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Finding Your Niche as a Project Manager

What are you good at? At what do you excel? What areas are project team members frequently complementing you on? Do you get positive customer feedback in a particular area on a regular basis?

For me it’s communication. I once had a business analyst tell me that of all the project managers he’s ever worked with, he received by far the most email from me. He said he felt that he was included on all communications and always knew the latest status and where things stood on my projects. That made me feel good because I consider communication to be the #1 responsibility of the project manager. If you’re doing that right, then that’s half the battle.

Capitalize and accommodate

Everyone has his or her own strengths and weaknesses. No one is strong in everything. Think about those job interviews – you’re asked about your strengths and weaknesses. You know you have some weaknesses – you may even have a huge glaring weakness that you certainly can’t tell them about, but you have to tell them something during the interview because even they know that no one is perfect. But seriously, in order to be successful we absolutely must know our strengths and weaknesses – both in order to capitalize on our strengths and accommodate for our weaknesses. We have to find our niche – what we excel at – and run with it.

Like I said, for me it’s communication. I’m also pretty good at organizing, but I’m best served having a strong business analyst along side me on a technical project who can serve as that person to document the customer need well and ensure that we continue that process as the skilled technical team takes over and creates technical specs from functional requirements. I’m technical – I used to be a developer and an application development manager and have led developers on projects for years as well as being able to estimate development efforts with the best of them – but I’m best left to coordinate, communicate, assign and delegate and leave the detailed documentation to the skilled project team resources.

Why projects fail

More projects fail than succeed. I’ve always stated that more than 50% of all projects fail. A recent number I saw in a Project Management Institute LinkedIn group study showed that approximately 76% of all projects fail to some degree. That number is huge. Some just will fail because they’re poorly defined or never should have happened. Some will fail because funding will run out. Others will fail because of senior management or the customer brings it crashing to the ground because of ever-changing requirements. It’s hard to say what will cause a project to fail until you’re in the middle of it.

Project manager failure points

We must also admit that many projects will fail because the project manager was not equipped to handle the project. Either they didn’t understand what their limitations were, couldn’t communicate with their team or manage the customer well, or weren’t good leaders or decision makers, or we’re very organized. It could be one of a hundred things.

The key for a project manager is to understand how they think and work professionally and what they’re good at and what they must admit that they are not good at. Most importantly, they must recognize those weaknesses and filter those responsibilities to the team whenever possible. Then, and only then, will they give their projects and team members their greatest chance at overall project success.

Brought to you by www.project-drive.net.