Everything is under control. That’s what you think. Your project is running smoothly…you are in charge. The customer is happy. Suddenly, the wheels start to fall off. If you haven’t been there…that’s great. If you have, then you know what I mean.
Not everything is within the project manager’s control when running an engagement. The PM has their hand in almost everything and can speak up to affect the outcome on most things not directly within their control, but as far as having total control over everything…not possible. However, they are still responsible.
So here I would like to discuss five factors that I’ve singled out as issues that are not directly within a PM’s control, but they can watch for them and hopefully take evasive action in time to save their project should these things begin to occur. Be considering your own list of what you think about the list I’m presenting…
This is a scary situation to be in because it can be so damaging to both your reputation as the PM and to the reputation of the delivery organization. And it doesn’t really matter which side has the revolving resources. If it’s your team, then you’re constantly losing experience with the customer and this particular implementation…and that’s bad. If it’s the customer’s team, then you’re constantly losing your allies and having to start over with individuals on where things stand and bringing them up to speed. It’s a frustrating place to be in and that’s why it’s critical to run through the project team functions – on both sides – during kickoff and ensure that you have buy-in from the powers that be that there is the proper commitment to keep the key resources engaged throughout the project.
Starting too Soon
Ok, you have the statement of work (SOW) in hand and that’s a great start…not every project provides you the luxury of having an actual SOW. You have the schedule drafted and the project is kicking off. What may start to become apparent is that either there are not enough requirements in place or well enough defined to really start the project, or the customer doesn’t yet fully understand the solution and how they will use it. The requirements issue may jump out at you quickly – especially during kickoff discussions. The understanding of the solution and how to use it – that one is going to take some discernment and help from your delivery team to recognize.
Watch for the signs because the deeper you get into the engagement the more apparent this is going to be and when you go to implement that final working solution, the customer is going to think you’re talking a different language if the gap in understanding has continued to widen throughout the implementation.
If you recognize it early, push to shelve the project until the customer has had more training, or reviewed requirements further, or discussed the intended solution at greater depths with their end-users and business process SMEs. It’s a tough sell, but it will make everyone happier in the long run.
Managing the budget to keep both your executive management happy and the customer happy is one of the key responsibilities of the project manager, in my opinion. Losing control of the budget is never a good thing and can easily lead to a project being canceled…which can be a career-killer if it’s the right..or wrong project.
As bad as that is, having a project that lacks a budget or has a vague budget isn’t much better. Trying to manage a budget that doesn’t really exist or is a moving target can lead to great dissatisfaction for the project manager and the customer.
I was leading a large federal project with a ‘vague’ budget of $1.2 million for the implementation. Some processes were taking longer than anticipated – mostly because the customer data was far more detailed and of a larger volume than previously understood through the exploration phase. I was also of the understanding that the budget could be increased to cover this issue. That was not the case and there was a lot of corrective action that had to be taken – even though the customer was well aware of the issues and the budget concerns.
Having a good understanding of the budget you’re managing is critical and gives the project manager much more control in keeping the project in check and keeping customer confidence high.
An indecisive customer is as bad as an ill-prepared customer. If you’re running a phased project and they keep moving implementation phases around, that can affect many things on your project over the course of the engagement. It can affect when you onboard particular expertise and with resources tight, it can throw off your entire resource planning process.
If the customer continually changes their mind on requirements, tasks, deliverables, and milestones, the overall effect on your project schedule can be monumental. The risks to track will mount, and the change orders will mount as well. In the end, customers who have paid for a lot of change orders are not usually the happiest customers – even if they are the primary reason for the many change orders.
Manage the customer well and keep their expectations…and their changes in check if at all possible. Set the understanding upfront during kickoff that the project schedule is important and should be changed as little as possible – otherwise, it is of no use.
Flexible Project Plan
Some of what is applicable here were already covered as part of ‘Indecisive Customer’ above. However, there are more concerns with this one and it bears more discussion here.
It is critical at the time of kickoff to review the project plan in the draft and discuss milestones. Get the customer’s verbal agreement at that time as to the general milestones and anticipated implementation date. And, within the first 2-3 weeks of the project, finalize this project plan in greater detail and obtain a formal customer sign-off, if necessary, to ensure that everyone is on the same page with dates, expectations, etc.
A moving target project plan is nobody’s friend. You never want to be known as the ‘flexible’ project manager. If dates, tasks, and milestones are constantly shifting, then your ability to hold delivery team members and customer team members accountable to dates and tasks falls apart and you’re still left with the target on your forehead.
Summary/call for input
This list could go on and on…especially if you’ve had a long project management career like me. What’s on your list? Please share your own thoughts and experiences.