I have had the privilege of managing two PMOs, both composed of several project managers. It was always interesting to watch—the best project managers were the ones who had a habit of identifying risks, both threats and opportunities. And these individuals did not perform the risk identification just once at the beginning of their projects. Rather, they had a habit of reevaluating their projects with an eye toward new risks.
Wise project managers know that there are unknown risks lurking in every corner. Each new phase of a project brings uncertainty, some significant, some not. Furthermore, as new stakeholders enter the scene, new interests and concerns can cause our projects to get off track.
If you’ve been burned by risks recently, let’s talk about what you can do to improve your chance for future success.
What does it take to facilitate a successful project launch? Let’s look at two scenarios, one that results in potential failure and one destined for success.
The Wonder Wheels Company assigned Tom Dooley to manage a high-profile project, a project critical to the achievement of the company’s annual goals. Jane Johnson, a senior leader and the project sponsor, called Tom to her office, handed him a few memos and described the project deliverables. Coldly staring at Tom, Mrs. Johnson gave him the deadline—six months; this was a do-or-die situation.
Tom immediately called a team meeting to discuss a quick development of the requirements backlog. He urged the designers to start the first-sprint design work as soon as possible. Tom planned to use every trick in the book—crashing, fast-tracking, sprinting, and late nights (even though he knew it would put stress on his family life).
Fast forward two months. Droopy-eyed Tom facilitated a stand-up meeting with his project team and discovered that the team would be unable to complete the second sprint on schedule. The team members were fuming about the lack of clarity in the project resulting in scope creep, rework, missed deadlines, and budget issues. To make things worse, the top developer resigned the previous week.
All Tom Dooley could do was hang his head and cry. He knew his career was about to die (okay, humor me).
Elements of a Successful Project Launch
Most project managers have endured challenging situations like this. What’s a project manager to do? How can we start a project successfully, even when there is immense pressure to execute immediately?
Unfortunately, many people think of the project charter as an administrative hoop they must jump through to get their project approved. Therefore, many charters are written hastily with little thought.
The value of the charter process is engaging stakeholders, discussing the issues, resolving conflicts, and getting agreement as you initiate the project. The stakeholder’s interest are considered and aligned, resulting in less likelihood of costly changes later in the project.
The charter provides a picture of where you are going, why you are going there, who will be impacted, top risks, and who is going to help you.
Project sponsors send a message to their project teams and other stakeholders through the goals contained in their project charters. The focus of the goals — either business results or project activities — will drive the project team. As Steven Covey said, “Begin with the end in mind.”
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Project managers are often asked to undertake projects to transform the business operations or to respond to an operational risk. There is often a disconnect. The project manager may not understand — since the sponsor may not have shared — how the project connects to the business strategy.
When writing project goals, the author — typically the project sponsor — should determine whether to state their goals as business results or as project activities necessary to drive the business results.
“If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.” — George S. Patton
With this in mind, allow me to illustrate the difference and why it’s super important. Get this right and project teams will start to run in the right direction.
You get on the elevator with someone who asks you about your upcoming project. Can you clearly describe your project in 60 seconds?
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Perhaps you are on the way out of a meeting with senior leaders when a Vice President asks you about your project. She says, “I only have a minute, but could you give me a brief summary of the project?”
Your ability to describe your projects helps others understand your projects. You (and your project sponsor) will be in a better position to engage your stakeholders and get their support. Are you ready?
Let’s look at creating a summary that allows you — at a moment’s notice — to tell others the most important information about your project.
Why do you need a project summary? Here are three reasons:
Have you ever encountered conflicting ideas when facilitating change within a department, business unit, or across an organization? Do you often see resistance to your change efforts? Have you ever started down a path that made perfectly good sense to you but seemed crazy to others?
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Perhaps you’ve recently started a program. The program team has been working on an organizational strategy, where the mission is translated into a strategic plan that is subdivided into projects. You are looking for ways to align your efforts to gain the greatest benefit.
For any program, it’s critical to identify your stakeholders and seek to understand their needs and expectations. Invariably, stakeholders have different needs. How can we resolve and harmonize the different stakeholder perceptions and distinct expectations?
Three Ways to Surface and Resolve Conflicting Ideas
1. Identify Stakeholders. First, identify the stakeholders. Stakeholders include individuals, groups, or organizations — internally and externally — that may be impacted by the change initiative. In the program example, stakeholders might include the project sponsor, the project team, the project manager, the board, program vendors, information technology, and human resources, to name a few.
2. Analyze Stakeholders. Next, identify the needs and concerns of the stakeholders. We should also identify the stakeholders with the greatest interest and power. Who can influence the change in a positive or negative manner? Change can be deliberate (planned) or emergent (unplanned). As much as possible, guide the change process in a deliberate manner. Things coming out of nowhere can be highly disruptive.
3. Facilitate the Resolution of Conflicting Ideas. After identifying and analyzing the stakeholders, turn your attention to resolving the conflicts. In the change management world, this is called sensemaking. Sensemaking consists of things that help individuals and groups to make sense of what’s happening around them. How does this happen? It often occurs in hallway discussions, rumors, gossip, and half-baked emails.
Healthy sensemaking, however, consists of activities aimed at understanding the impact and outcomes of the change process and agreeing on how to move forward. Approaches include:
Clarifying the mission
Defining the strategy
Engaging the stakeholders in the change process
Identifying the initiatives to support the strategy
Are You Making Sense?
What change initiatives are you managing right now? Does the change make sense to your stakeholders? If not, consider identifying and analyzing your stakeholders. Pay particular attention to the high-power / high-interest stakeholders. Then apply some of the approaches listed above to harmonize the interests of your stakeholders. Best wishes!
Life is filled with new adventures and experiences. Remember the first time you rode a bike, climbed a tree, or took a job. New adventures are exciting, but they can be filled with great uncertainty.
Project managers may be asked to manage a project, unlike anything they’ve ever faced. Consider Sue, an event planner, who was asked to manage a project to implement a new accounting system for her organization. Sue had no accounting background or experience in implementing software.
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To varying degrees, every project is different from our prior projects — that’s what makes them unique, and for me, this is what makes project management fun. It’s different every day.
But, some projects are completely alien to us; the endeavors are foreign to our experience. How should we approach these projects? What steps can we take to improve our chance for success?
Imagine that you are at the 15% completion point of your project, a project that is essential to your organization’s strategic vision. Your project is significantly behind schedule and over-budget. You are not likely to dig yourself out of this hole.
“No project recovers from a variance at the 15% completion point. If you underestimated in the near, you are generally off on the long term too.” –Gregory M. Horine
You had the best intentions to start strong. However, you had two other large, complex projects in flight, one project that was in deep trouble.
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What’s a project manager to do? How can we jump-start our projects while maintaining focus on other projects? I don’t have any simple cookie-cutter solutions. Every situation is different. But allow me to share a few tips to start quickly and give energy to new projects.
People have expectations. Individuals, teams, or organizations have a strong belief that something is going to happen in the future.
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Project sponsors expect projects to be completed in a timely fashion. Developers expect clear requirements. Testers expect the test region to be stable. Users expect that all of their needs will be met. Vendors expect a statement of work.
Sometimes the expectations are valid; other times the expectations are false. The individual’s expectations are unrealistic or invalid. What causes false expectations and how can we set and maintain the proper expectations?
Let’s look at seven common causes of false expectations and what we can do about each. Take note that all of these problems are related to communications.
Things are not discussed adequately. For example: Why do the users of software expect one thing and get something different in projects? One of the top reasons that projects fail is due to a lack of user input. Be sure to involve appropriate stakeholders in your discussions (whether it’s software requirements or anything else). Summarize and document decisions.
Things are miscommunicated or not communicated at all. Another reason people have false expectations is due to information not being communicated properly. Check your sources and verify information before communicating.
Things are misunderstood. Sometimes the information is correct but is misunderstood. The receiver’s environment, experience, language, and culture may affect the way the receiver interprets the message. Create the message with the audience in mind. You may wish to test the message with a small group before distributing to a larger audience.
Things are over promised. Sometimes, well-meaning people make promises that can’t be kept. The promise maker thinks things can be accomplished but the individual doesn’t understand the requirements, constraints, and required resources and budget. Validate requirements. Get estimates from experienced personnel. Make sure you have adequate budget and resources. Stay focused on delivering the promises.
Things change. In the course of developing new products or services, things may change. It’s easy for a small group to make decisions and fail to communicate the changes to the other affected stakeholders. Define a method for capturing and communicating changes to stakeholders.
Things get lost. One group specifies the requirements. Another group creates a design. Another group may perform the build process…and yet a different group may test and accept something being created. It’s no wonder that things get lost in the process. Consider tracking things/requirements from one process to the next to check off and make sure the things specified early in an endeavor end up in the final product.
Things are constrained. Someone may share a need in a strategic planning session or a requirements session. There seems to be agreement in the room. Later the idea is cut due to resource or budget constraints, but the person who shared the need does not know about the cut. Communicate the final plans to stakeholders. Communicate through different channels – don’t assume everyone will read an email.