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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Getting the Right Information to the Right People

As the purveyor of good, sound, efficient, and effective communication, the project manager must ensure that he’s not just tossing whatever status info into the air that he feels like to see what sticks to what individuals. After all, giving a C-level customer information on what scripts you ran today while testing the latest bug fix is not an example of good, sound, efficient, and effective communication, is it?

I’ve even gone so far as to create what I would consider a very detailed, yet high-level status report for the client project sponsor of an organization I was consulting for only to have him wave his hands in the air and say, “I don’t want to see this level of detail.” I was astonished, because I thought it was exactly what he would want to see. Next I gave him a detailed issues list with dates, assignments, and status updates and he exclaimed something like, “I’m in heaven, you get it!” You never know who wants what till you try, I guess.

It all depends on the individual – that end user of your information. As the project manager you can spend hours putting together great detail every week but if it’s the wrong information for the wrong individual – even if it’s great info – you still failed.

Set and get expectations early

As the project manager you want your status information to be seen by the masses – for your career, for your reputation, and for the visibility of your project. But you also want to make sure that the status information you send out means something to the receiving parties. In my example above, what I originally prepared was going to be totally ignored by my customer and he wasn’t going to be very happy in the long run.

Go into project kickoff with your customer with an example of what information you intend to disseminate on a weekly basis. Use that as a starting point to work from. This is the best time to get their input and to fine-tune the details that you provide them with. You may even need to create a higher-level summary report for their senior management. And, of course, meet with your senior management and identify key data that they would like to see on an ongoing basis. They aren’t likely going to want your detailed issues list, but they probably will want your budget analysis and forecast every week – that means a lot to them especially if you’re managing a large, high-dollar and profitable project.

Refine as needed

Finally, refine what you provide each party as needed throughout the engagement. Rarely do I find that my first status reports on a project are identical in format and content to my last. Things change, needs change, priorities change – and all this affects who wants what from the ongoing status information on your engagements. One solution is providing a customized project management dashboard like the one offered in Project Drive, the effective web-based project management software product.


Project managers must be rigid at times and follow best practices in order to help ensure project success. But project status reporting is one area that where it’s ok for the project manager to show flexibility. After all, it is the project manager’s responsibility to be effective and efficient communicators and the foundation of that is getting the right information to the right people at the right time so that good and timely decisions can be made for the project.

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The PM's Role in Project Profitability – Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we established what should be obvious to all experienced project personnel – that overall responsibility for the profitability of any project is ultimately the project manager’s. I also began to look at what I consider to be the key actionable steps that the project manager can take to help ensure project profitability. Part 1 covered the first two of my top five. Those first two actions were:

  • Meticulously manage scope
  • Frequent and purposeful revision of the project schedule

In this final segment, we’ll examine three more steps: careful management of project resources, involving the team in managing the budget, and reviewing the budget with management and the client. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Manage resources carefully

A good team of project resources may very well be your key to project success. Indeed, finding – and keeping engaged – the best and most relevant skill sets for the project solution at hand can mean the difference between a successful deployment and a project gone horribly wrong. But the project manager who can’t skillfully manage those talented and high-priced resources and keep them focused on the assigned tasks is destined to deliver a final solution that is neither profitable nor on time.

See, talented technical resources have egos. They know they can do this or they’re certain they can do that. And they are certain the can do it fast. When working with client project team members closely on key functionality of the project, they may be inclined to gold plate functionality or even add new functionality that “shouldn’t take much time” even though it’s not part of the agreed upon scope of the project. Those ‘small details’ add up and in the end you can find yourself giving away a pile of extra hours (dollars) of development time that you never counted on.

The key for the project manager is to use project management software and keep the project schedule in front of the team members, remind them weekly – daily if necessary – what key tasks they are to be focused on and remind them not to add functionality. Educate them in the change order process and make sure they come to you if the customer is asking for more than we’re supposed to provide. That’s called extra functionality and if you work it right, it’s also called project profitability.

Engage the team in budget management activities

The project manager who sits down regularly with the project resources to review the budget status and budget forecast is much more likely to keep the project budget on track than the project manager who does not make his team aware of the financial aspects of the engagement.

Project resources are required to account for their time and charge their time to the projects they are working on. That’s how your project gets hours charged to it. All project resources have ‘grey hours’. Those are the hours that they know they worked in a given week but can’t remember specifically what they did or which project they did it for. It’s often about 10% of their time, maybe more. If they overcharge hours to your project – meaning if they add their ‘grey hours’ to the engagement you’re managing – that can mean your project is getting 10% extra hours….and dollars….charged to it each week by each resource. Don’t be the project manager who is perceived as the one who doesn’t watch the project budget closely and you won’t be on the receiving end of those ‘grey hours.’

Review the budget with senior management and the client

Finally, regularly review the project budget with your senior management and with the client. This is helpful for two reasons:

  • Educating the allies. The onus is still on you as the project manager to deliver a profitable project. However, by educating your senior leadership and your client along the way in the health of the project budget you’ve now gained two allies interested in helping right the project budget should it start to go wrong. Both of these parties are stakeholders in the success of the project. Keeping them informed early and often means they’ll be aware along with you when the project budget starts to become unhealthy – and not just when it’s already too late to fix.
  • Forcing accountability. If you have educated the client and your senior management as to the status of the project then there’s really no undoing that. You’ve now forced accountability of yourself to them and there’s no turning back. This can be a good thing. Managing multiple projects isn’t that easy, but it’s usually a fact of life for most project managers. Keeping yourself accountable for key areas of the project - like the budget in this case - is helpful and will keep you focused and not inclined to cut corners.

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The PM's Role in Project Profitability - Part 1

Who has overall responsibility for the profitability of a project? Sales? The VP of Marketing? The CEO? The project manager? The project team? Sales is responsible for making a deal on the project that is targeted to make money for the company. The VP of Marketing is responsible for staffing sales and account managers and business development to go out and find new sales opportunities and to create new business for the organization. The CEO has overall responsibility for the organization and it’s profitability. If it flounders for an extended period of time, it will be the CEO who resigns. But in terms of overall responsibility for the budget and profitability of the project….that’s the project manager.

So we’ve established that it’s the PM’s role to maintain the project budget and guard the overall profitability of the engagement. How does that happen? What can the project manager do to ensure project profitability? What actions can he take to help guide the project to an on budget delivery that means it met its financial goals and ultimately ended on a profitable note?

Meticulously manage scope

Most any project manager would tell you that a project’s financial health begins and ends with scope management. And the project manager who performs scope management the best wins…period. Much is said about scope creep, requirements definition and documentation, and ongoing management of new work on the project. But unless that line in the sand is drawn and the project manager adheres to it and gets his team to adhere to it, profits will be lost, unplanned work will happen to make a customer happy, and the project will mysteriously pull into the finish line 20% over budget.

It’s easy when our very skilled developers are working closely with subject matter experts on the customer side for them to incorporate ‘nice-to-haves’ that come up during meetings. The problem is, these ‘nice-to-haves’ aren’t actually part of the documented project requirements that the end solution is being built against. It is the project manager’s responsibility to educate his project team about the dangers of such activity. Five extra hours here, ten extra hours there, more testing time and suddenly you find the project several thousand dollars off the mark budget wise.

Only perform work that is documented by requirements and ensure that all other requested work is turned into change orders that are priced for the customer to review and decide whether or not to pay for. Change orders make the project more profitable by allowing the delivery organization to get paid for that work and they make the customer happy by getting work that they want added on actually documented, completed, tested, and part of the final solution.

Frequent and purposeful revision of the project schedule

If the project gets out of hand, profitability will likely go with it. Many project managers in matrix environments are managing several projects at once. With so much going on, it’s very easy to lose track of what tasks are happening when – also making it very difficult to keep the project team in check and hold them accountable to their project tasks that they are responsible for.

It’s definitely not enough to put the project schedule together and leave it alone. On some projects, PMs start with a detailed schedule produced from project management software and then they put it on a shelf. That can’t happen - it must be a living, breathing part of the project and it – along with the weekly status report – should drive the weekly formal project status meeting with the customer. A regularly distributed, up-to-date project schedule lets each team member know what tasks they should be working on and keeps the team focused on the work that should be happening. Meaning your time, effort and dollars are being spent on the important work – and helping to keep the project profitable.

In Part 2 of this two-part series, we’ll examine three more ways the project manager can help keep the project on track and profitable throughout it’s lifecycle.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Take Your Project to the CEO

As project managers, we often wish there was a way to ‘get our way’ on our projects. Get the resources we want, secure the proper equipment for testing, and maybe increase the project budget to get the entire team onsite for a project milestone celebration with the customer. But, alas, we’re so busy with the day-to-day management of our project – and it may be one of several projects that we’re leading at any given time – that we don’t have the time or energy to make too much noise about it. If only there was a way to make things easier to get what we ‘need’ for our projects – and to sometimes just get the things we ‘want’, too.

What we find often is that in order to get things accomplished for our projects and on our projects and to gain the visibility we need to get there, there are some steps we need to take on our own. We essentially must ‘market’ our product to get the things we need for it to help ensure its success and to help ensure the overall satisfaction of our customer on the engagement. And there’s no better person or persons in power to market your project to than the CEO or top-level senior leadership within your company. The three proactive actions that I’ve found to work best for me are discussed below.

Send your project status report to senior management

A very easy first step is to include your CEO or senior management on your regularly weekly status report distribution. As long as they have your status report on a regular basis then they know who you are, who your customer is, and what’s going on with your project on a weekly basis. That’s probably 100% more visibility than most of the projects in the organization.

If your CEO knows your project and knows your needs, then you’re more likely to get their attention when issues arise – like resource availability or technology needs. You’ll be seen as proactive and on top of your project and you’ll be surprised how quickly help will be on its way when needed.

Have the CEO or other senior management attend a status meeting

Invite the CEO – or some level of senior management – to your next status meeting. Think of a reason – any reason – that will get them there. Maybe an important issue is being discussed that requires a key decision and you’d like to have them hear about it and be involved.

By getting the CEO involved in your status call with the customer you will be serving two purposes that will help your project from this point forward. 1) Your CEO or senior leadership will be even more aware of you and your project further entrenching their interest in your project’s well-being. And 2) the customer’s satisfaction level will immediately rise because now they think their project is important enough to your organization to warrant this type of personal involvement from the top. Not many projects get that – but then not many project managers go to this level of effort to make it happen.

Invite the customer to your site

One more thing you can do is to invite the customer to your site if they are not local or if this is not already a common occurrence. Invite them for a tour, or a face-to-face meeting with your leadership, or possibly even a disaster recovery demonstration by your IT staff if that’s relevant to what you’re doing for them on this engagement.

Bringing the customer onsite can definitely boost the profile of your project within the organization because there will be some specific preparation that will have to happen and likely some post-visit follow-up and communication between the customer and your senior leadership.


I’m certain there are many more ways you can make your project more visible – these are just three. However, gaining the attention and involvement of senior leaders in the company in your project – in a good way rather just when disaster strikes – can bring instant visibility to your project. And once that happens, it’s far easier to gain help with resource and technology acquisition, project funding, and the general knocking down of those annoying roadblocks that often get in the way of our project and a successful end solution.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Managing Projects Through Uncertainty

These are definitely uncertain times. The economy is still tanked in the US. In some US cities one out of every seven house sit empty, real unemployment rates are running as high nearly 30% (After adjustments), and there are approximately five unemployed applicants for every one open job. Uncertainty and chaos at its best.

So it should be of no surprise when we experience uncertainty in our projects and with our project customers. After all, the very same uncertainties I've already mentioned are affecting our companies, our client companies, and nearly every single financial decision being made. How can anything be stable? How can we be certain that our project won't be halted or completely shut down tomorrow? How can we be certain that our project management jobs will be relevant and needed next week? How can we know for sure that our project teams that our customers are counting on won't be disassembled due to layoffs or needs on more important projects next month right in the middle of critical tasks? The answer is we can't. We can never be certain. Even in good times we can't be certain of these things as managing projects is really all about managing change, isn't it? I've had most or all of these things happen to my projects and teams in good times and bad due to forces and conditions that are often beyond my control or influence.

We don't take on the role of project manager because it feels safe. Project managers generally know things can change or happen during the course of any engagement that can greatly affect the outcome if we aren't prepared for it. It's called risk planning and risk management. We just have to be aware during very uncertain times that there are additional risks that may need to be considered and planned for.

So, do we really do things differently when we're managing in uncertain times? And by uncertain times I mean with our jobs, our company's status, our client's stability, or our projects financial or technical viability. Do we do things differently? In my opinion, yes, at least a little.

When I'm managing a project during what I would consider unstable or uncertain times or circumstances here's what I focus on:

Solid documentation

Document, document, document. It's a tedious task unless it's for deliverables that are already built into the contract and we're getting paid for them. But during uncertain project times it becomes even more critical. The more documentation that's available, the easier you can onboard new team members if your project team is unstable. And, more documentation means you have yourself well covered if customer questions arise concerning your team's performance on the project.

Thorough risk management

We all perform issue management - it's hard not too when issues arise. But really performing risk management and doing it right is something we often overlook or gloss over. Not only is risk management and planning critical, it's even more so when times are uncertain. Different things need to be planned for such as work stoppages, technology solution changes, or sudden project resource losses.

Effective communication

Communication is job #1 for the project manager and it's never more evident than when you're dealing with unstable project situations. It's extremely important to keep your project team and the customer well informed of project status, project schedule, and all issues at all times - especially when your project is running through turbulent waters.

Customer satisfaction

There's not really any one thing you can do in terms of customer satisfaction. There's not one thing you can specifically do to guarantee it. But rather it's a cumulative process of maintaining best practices and good communication and checking in frequently with the customer to make sure that their needs are being met. Don't assume your customer is happy...ask them.

Frequent upward reporting within the organization

Finally, keep your senior management well informed on your project. Especially if the uncertainty lies within your own organization. The loudest project manager is usually not the one who gets the ax first. It's the quiet one because they seem more expendable even though they may be the ones who are just the best at taking the ball and running with it. So if you're more independent and good at taking off with a project with little to no senior direction, that's great. But if your company is laying people off, start making some noise. Make sure your senior leadership knows who you are, who your project team members are, and what's happening on your project.


I realize that these are things we should - and hopefully do - focus on anyway during our projects. But during uncertain times they are definitely key processes that we can't afford to skip or cut back on. If anything, they need increased attention and focus and that's where I generally put in some extra effort. I can't say it's always what keeps things afloat in uncertain project times, but I can guarantee that it has never hurt the project.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Achieving Success One Project at a Time

There's no question that every project manager would like to experience success on every project. The reality, though, is that more than 50% of all projects end in failure to some degree. Maybe not total and utter failure, but they fail to some degree to reach full customer satisfaction, or end user usability, or hit the mark the project budget, or get delivered on time. In some way or another, more than 50% are not fully successful.

Even in project failure we can learn something to take forward to the next project, and the one after that, and so on. When we learn to ride a bike we crash, we fall off, we run into the side of the garage. But eventually we get it. And we get better each time we ride the bicycle. That's how project management works as well. We may be terrified as we run our first project and any success we experience may be purely due to luck or that it was a simple project or that we receive lots of help getting there. But we learned something. And we learned more on the next project, and so on. We eventually get to that point 20 years down the road where we can look back and see a path of many project successes that have build us a solid reputation as a skilled project manager.

As we establish our reputation as a good project manager one project at a time, there are a few basics that we must remember and try to incorporate as part of our normal flow of managing the project. Doing this will help us to ensure that our continued success is due to planning and experience and not relying on luck for most of our successes:

Produce planning documents

Those documents that seem like placeholders at the front of the project: the communication plan, the risk management plan, the resource plan, the project charter, etc. are actually important documents. We produce them and get them signed by the customer and then we have a benchmark to work from. We skip them and have no agreement on those processes with the customer and we leave open the possibility for questions and interpretations throughout the engagement. Choose the former, not the latter.

Do the fundamental things

Produce weekly status reports. Hold weekly status calls. Meet regularly with your project team to touch base even when there isn't a lot of work going on. Maintain the project budget and resource plan meticulously. If you continually do these things regularly throughout the project and don't skip meetings you set solid expectations with your team and your customer. As a result you keep project participation high, accountability high, and customer satisfaction high.

Practice the best communication possible

Don't assume your team and your customer understand something or always know what's going on. Don't assume that everyone knows what's expected of them. Always strive to practice efficient and effective communication throughout the engagement and you'll see the results in positive ways from your team and from the satisfaction level and participation level of your customer. Communication like this is critical to the success of your project.

Conduct lessons learned sessions

Finally, don't skip the lessons learned sessions. Even though it becomes increasingly hard to focus on the project after implementation and as you and your team begin to drift to other projects, schedule this session with your team and your customer and go through the project and what happened good and bad. It's important and you'll learn from it.


We take each project individual and methodically, following best practices to achieve both success (hopefully) and, more importantly, valuable experience. Even project failures help us to become much better project managers if we learn from them.

Practice best practices, stick to the basics, document requirements well and allow for proper planning, and then communicate effectively for your best chances of success.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Strategies for Onboarding New Project Resources

There are several reasons why new resources would be onboarded mid-stream on a project:
  • A project resources moves to another project
  • A project resource has left the company
  • A project resource is performing poorly
  • A new skill set is needed on the project
  • Additional resources are needed to get the job done
The list can probably go on and on. The reasons can vary, but what can't change is the fact that onboarding a new resource must be done as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. It needs to be performed as seamlessly as possible so that the project doesn't skip a beat. It needs to seem to the customer as though it never really happened - it should go that smoothly. Ideally, it's as smooth as changing the name in the your project management software tool to the new resource. Because anything less and your project is in danger as well as the confidence that you have built up in your customer in the ability of you and your project team to deliver on the engagement. If a changing of the guard on the project causes bumps, then your customer is going to feel them and that is never good.

First, you must assess the situation in terms of the outgoing resource and their status on the project. Consider these questions when assessing this...
  • How key is this person's role on the project?
  • How critical is their expertise specifically for this customer's requirements?
  • How involved have they been so far with the customer?
  • How can we get a new person engaged quickly on the same knowledge level?
Understanding these issues can help you get the right person in the role and transition to the best of your ability in order to minimize the affects on the project and the customer.

So, let's look at key strategies or processes for bringing on new resources to your project in mid-stream.

Provide all project materials

The first step of the process is to get a new resource anything and everything that you possibly can on the project. Of course, this works best if they have some time to get up to speed and aren't immediately thrown into the fire on the project. If the outgoing resource isn't already gone, but has an exit date set, then this entire process - including the next steps below - will be much smoother and it will likely affect the customer to a far lesser degree.

Provide the incoming new team member with everything that was put together for project kickoff including the statement of work for the project. Also, get them the current and recent versions of the project schedule produced from the project management software tool, weekly status reports for the past two months at a minimum, the current versions of the issue lists and risks lists, copies of all deliverables produced and delivered to date, and resource forecasting and budget information - if applicable - for the project.

Direct contact knowledge transfer

If possible, the incoming resource needs knowledge transfer time from the outgoing resource. If the outgoing resource has left the company or was an utter failure on the project, then this step is either not possible or not necessary. But in the case where they are leaving for another assignment, then secure time away from the team and the customer for the two resources to discuss the role, the project, and the customer and to transfer key project knowledge and status. Ideally, the new resource would shadow the outgoing resource on the weekly status customer call for one to two weeks before actually participating.

Team knowledge transfer

Following, or during, the one on one knowledge transfer activities, conduct a series of unofficial team meetings for the purpose of getting the new resource up to speed and offloading knowledge to the knew resource from all team members. How long this takes will probably depend on the urgency of the situation and the number of team members on the project, but one or two meetings should be enough in most cases.

Customer introduction and transition

Finally, conduct an introductory meeting with the customer where your new resource is introduced and can discuss his or her background and what their role will be on the project. Ideally this will be a separate call from the regular weekly status meeting and would also include the outgoing resource. However, that's not possible in all scenarios and it may have to happen as part of the formal weekly status meeting.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Managing the Project for Success

Managing the Project for Success

At the end of the engagement, every project is looked at as either a success or a failure. The end result of the project is going to be judged - usually by the customer, the project team, and senior company management. Just about every individual who either had a hand in the project or was somehow affected by it will have an opinion.

When judging the success of the project there are usually three key factors to look at - three key success determiners. These are:

* Was the project delivered on time?
* Was the project delivered on budget?
* Was the customer satisfied - is the delivered solution a workable solution that solves the customer's needs?

With the success criteria defined, we still must understand that there are many ways to get to the point of a successful - or failed - delivery on a project. One is luck, but I really can't go into that because no one has any control over that option. So let's look at some of the ingredients that go into good project management - some might consider these to fall under the category of best practices.

Good communication with all project parties

Communication is, in my opinion, the number one contributor to success or failure on the project. Everything - to some degree - revolves around effective and efficient communication. In order to lay the groundwork for good communication on the project, the project manager should develop a formal communication plan to that will identify what types of communication happen, when formal meetings and reports take place or are produced, who is responsible for each type of communication, and how to contact all important parties involved in the engagement. With this document in place and understood - and followed - by all, your chances for realizing efficient and effective communication in the engagement will greatly increase.

Timely delivery of status updates up and down the chain

This falls in the category of doing what you say you're going to do. During project kickoff - and hopefully in a formal communication plan - the project manager identifies when and to whom project status information will be delivered. Many project managers let this act slide or sometimes skip weekly reports and formal status calls. When that habit starts, customer satisfaction often slides with it. Deliver the information as per the agreed upon schedule. A well-informed project team leads to great project success. A well-informed customer leads to greater customer satisfaction, which is one of the key project success determiners as we previously discussed.

Continual project schedule and project budget oversight

The project manager who regularly revises and delivers the project schedule to the team and customer ensures that everyone is up to date on project tasks and what's coming in the near future. No surprises. And the project manager who is constantly monitoring and revising the project budget and overall project resource forecast will never be surprised to find that the project is 40% over budget. Why? Because it will never happen. Continual oversight and forecasting of the project budget will mean that the project manager will always be aware of the slightest deviation from the planned budget and will be able to take corrective action or at least discuss with the customer and senior management to figure out the best changes to make.

Use of repeatable processes when managing the project

Finally, nothing beats using the successful processes that have worked in the past. Luck is a good thing when it happens, but relying on it for continued project success never smart. And if you aren't using good tools and repeatable templates and processes that have brought successes on previous projects - if you aren't learning from the past - then you'll always be relying on luck. Put in place solid tools, repeatable processes that bring project consistency, and meaningful templates that project managers can use over and over again with confidence and your project success percentages will definitely rise over time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Using Collaboration and Communication to Ensure Project Success

Using Collaboration and Communication to Ensure Project Success

In my opinion - and I believe many project professionals' opinions - the number one key to project success is effective and efficient communication. I don't mean sending emails every hour on the hour. That's neither effective nor efficient. That is a waste of time. Information overload is not really helpful for anyone and your project resources will come to resent you - the project manager - for filling up their days with useful reading. In fact, they'll learn to tune your verbal and written communications out if you are an ineffective communicator. Why? Because they'll feel they have better things to do and that you're not really adding any useful information to their efforts.

Along with effective and efficient communication on projects is the concept of collaboration. Collaboration can have many meanings in the project management world. In general, the best way to solve the project collaboration issue is by utilizing a solid project management tool like Project Drive's web-based project management and collaboration tool.

Let's look at and discuss four keys to effective communication and project collaboration:

Creating a project communication plan

One item that is critical, but often overlooked, is the project communication plan. When the project manager puts a detailed, official project communication plan together at the beginning of the project he is telling everyone that this is how information will be processed and delivered on the project. It sets an expectation with the project team and the customer, it can be another paid deliverable on the project if planned right - thus increasing revenue, and it adds to customer satisfaction and confidence because they know there's a plan in place that they can hold you to.

Producing timely project status information

Of course, once a communication plan is in place, you MUST follow it. And one of the key areas of project information dissemination is through the detailed weekly status report. Produce and deliver a detailed status report and revised project schedule at least one day in advance of the project status meeting with the customer and don't deviate from the schedule. Likewise, be diligent about delivering updated relevant project status information through effective emails throughout the week - don't wait for weekly status call to get important information out to everyone. And always follow-up the status meeting by sending out notes to all participants to ensure that everyone understood what was discussed and that all parties are on the same page.

Conducting regularly scheduled informational meetings

As mentioned above, plan to hold regular weekly official status calls with the customer. It's your chance to check up on the customer's progress on any assigned tasks, provide the customer with detailed updates on your team's progress, and review and discuss any outstanding issues and risks. Just as important, though, are weekly informal status meetings with the entire project team. This is the project manager's chance to get all status information from the team, discuss decisions that need to be made and any concerns team members might have, and to discuss newly assigned tasks and give proper direction. Use this time to prepare much of the discussion that will take place during the official formal weekly call or meeting with the customer.

Using an effective scheduling and collaboration tool

Finally, choose and effective tool to both manage your project schedule and allow for team collaboration on the project. Choosing a good web-based collaboration tool like Project Drive is often a good idea and can drive effective and efficient communication and information-sharing on the project, as well as making your project team members responsible for providing their project task updates to you with no excuses.