February 27, 2012

Know Your Team

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , , , at 8:21 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

To get bored in IT project management is to give up.  No project is ever the same regardless of the technology being implemented.  Every project requires some form of a project team which means people are involved.  Even if you work with the same team over and over, there are always new inputs, influences and dynamics that make it a new situation requiring you to adapt as a project manager.

 This is perhaps the most challenging and rewarding part of project management that applies regardless of the industry and technology.  People’s lives are dynamic which means they are puzzles to be decoded on a regular basis throughout a project.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, someone has a baby, gets a new boss, is heartbroken, or finds a fabulous new hobby.  All of these things change the person’s priorities which means their interest and devotion to the project shifts and as project managers, we must respond accordingly to ensure that the project is successful. 

 It is important for me to get to know my project team members as people and not just as the resources on the project.  I like to get to know them as individuals and understand what is going on with them personally and professionally.  This provides me with a personal connection and a communication path to getting information regarding changes early in the process so as to better react in the event the changes impact the project.  This sounds manipulative but it’s not.  I am genuinely interested in the people on my projects.   This is evident in that I keep in touch with most project team members long after projects have ended regardless of how tough the project was. 

 And this is the challenge…as project managers we must be genuine in our interest in the resources on our project.  People can sense when you are only in it for the project or your own personal success.  The good news is that the investment in the time to get to know the resources on the project and understand their motivations and obstacles, is invaluable for all parties involved.  The team members feel heard and valued.  The project manager gathers information to effectively manage the team.  The project can move along towards success.    And that’s what it’s all about in the end.

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February 6, 2012

Learning From My Mistakes

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , at 11:51 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

I ran my second half marathon yesterday and based on my training, expected to come in at 2 hours and beat my first race time of 2:06.  Training times supported this expectation as two weeks prior to the race, I ran 12.6 miles at a 9:09 pace.  Reality didn’t match expectations and not only did I not reach my 2 hour goal, but I exceeded by first race time by 2 minutes.  It was a very disappointing experience and one I don’t intend to repeat in my next races.  Rather than looking at the experience as a complete failure (I held a personal pity party yesterday), I am choosing to learn from it.  The success here was that I finished despite having to run and walk the last 5 miles of the race. What I learned was the following:

  • Do not train beyond 10 miles prior to the race (I peaked too early)
  • Do not play soccer the Thursday before the race (my legs were tired)
  • Do not participate in any quad workout the week prior to the race (I had a softball coaching clinic with lots of knee bends the day before)
  • Keep the mileage up until a week before the race, then taper (I tapered too early)
  • Set my own pace and go with what is comfortable for me on that day, at that time
  • Running a race alone is tough for me and requires super mental toughness that I need to train for

 This is all valuable information and information I, personally, could only gain from failure.  Other experienced runners provided me with some guidance that I ignored thinking it wouldn’t apply to me as a seasoned athlete.  I may be a seasoned athlete but I am not a seasoned runner.   

 What is relevant here is that I made some fairly sizable tactical errors, still completed the race, and I plan to learn from the errors. 

 The same holds true with any projects I manage in that the results of a decision or series of decisions may not be as expected.  The first goal is to recover from the errors and the second goal is to learn from the mistakes.  I am constantly looking for ways to learn from previous experiences to improve processes and make things more efficient even if it was a total success.  Actually, I apply this to all aspects of my life as accepting mediocrity and the status quo is not acceptable. 

 No project ever goes according to plan.  Assumptions change.  Resources change.  Expectations change.  Situations change.  There will be mistakes, some more costly than others.  The important thing is to learn from the mistakes and apply the newfound wisdom to the next situation so as to avoid a disappointing repeat performance.

February 2, 2012

Nail Down the Details Before Signing Any Agreements

Posted in IT, Project Management tagged , , , , , , at 10:47 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

Negotiating contracts with software vendors is always a challenge.  The vendors won’t commit to resources until contracts are signed but without knowing the resources and their qualifications and availability, how do you know you will get what you want?

Vendors also want to defer detailed planning until after the agreements are signed.  Once again this is at odds with best practices from a planning perspective.  During the planning, a lot of details come to light that affect the final buying decision and overall timeline and budget.  Signing before nailing down these details generally ends up being very costly from an expectation and overall resource perspective. 

 A number of years ago I was working for a biotech company and we were selecting an ERP system.  A big name player was interested in breaking into the small-midsized life sciences market and saw our company as an opportunity to make this happen. Our budget wasn’t in line with their typical installs and they were touting a turnkey solution for life sciences.  I was skeptical.  They claimed the implementation and validation could be performed within our budget.  After detailed planning and working through the resource assumptions, it became very clear that they were shifting the responsibility for significant documentation tasks to our team (which was limited) which resulted in the reduced consulting fees.  Once we shifted the responsibility for those tasks back to their consulting team (to meet our timeline), the cost went through the roof and was no longer feasible.  This was not a surprise to us.  What was surprising was that they thought they would slip it by us. 

 In other cases, I’ve been brought into manage projects after agreements have been signed and quickly realize that my client made a series of assumptions (not documented) that were not aligned with what the vendor planned to deliver.  This tends to put me in the awkward and uncomfortable position of renegotiating the contract without much leverage as my client has already committed.  It often requires significant diplomacy on my part in that I have to demonstrate what was overlooked by them during the selection process.  Since they tend to have to defend their decisions and actions internally (politics!) and the scope or budget or timeline changes once detailed planning is performed, it can get pretty hairy. 

 If you are able to work through the details before signing the agreement, a lot of this messiness can be avoided or minimized.  I recommend performing the detailed planning prior to signing contracts, working with the vendor to create detailed statements of work to minimize surprises, and generating a project charter capturing the project elements.  The project charter is an internal document but I generally have the vendor consultants read and sign as well in order to hold them accountable as members of the project team. 

 And one of thing greatest benefits of going through this process is that you can learn very quickly how committed the software vendor is to the success of your project and to your company.  If a vendor is completely resistant to investing the time to generate a detailed statement of work based on detailed planning, this is a major red flag.  I would seriously reconsider doing business with that particular vendor.  Detailed planning sets everyone up for success.

January 25, 2012

Staying Connected

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , at 7:41 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

During a project it is very easy for me to focus on the tasks and forget about focusing on the people (other than to make sure they know what tasks they are to be working on).  I assume that everyone is working toward the same endpoint and that completing tasks is the most important thing.  I have to remind myself that part of my job is to stay connected with the people and make sure they are feeling the love.  It is easier to stay connected than to have to reconnect after a period of neglect. 

 This means getting up, walking around, getting on the phone, and giving team members and stakeholders personal attention.  In a formal team setting, they don’t always want to openly discuss issues related or unrelated to the project that could indirectly or directly impact the project.  Taking the time to give them an opportunity to feel heard is vital to the success of the project. 

 Sometimes the information or feedback is difficult to hear (which may be why I sometimes avoid it) but to be effective, I need to set aside my personal insecurities and do what’s right for the team members, stakeholders, project, and client.  I often learn things that may not be pertinent at the time but can be useful later or when pieced together with other pieces of information, begin to form the answer to a problem we might be encountering or better yet, provide us with an opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise be made obvious to me. 

 This is helpful personally as well.  While at a coffee shop this morning, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.  She’s on a board with my husband and mentioned a meeting tonight that I wasn’t aware of.  This prompted me to text my husband to confirm that I need to be in home with the kids.  The bonus here was that I got to reconnect with a friend and, as an extrovert, replenish some energy that’s been lacking a bit lately.  She also shared with me some information about some mutual friends and community projects that I am storing for future reference (all of it good).  I had to look away from my computer long enough to have the chat but it was worth it. 

 As a goal oriented person it is so very easy to focus on ticking things off the to-do list leaving others to their own devices.  This also leaves others to their own agendas which may not match up with the goals and objectives for the project.  Making the communication a to-do list item (a high priority one at that) is critical for project managers.  The people are the keys to the success of the project regardless of the number of tasks completed and staying connected keeps the people connected to project.

January 24, 2012

The Perfect Project Plan

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , at 7:33 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

The perfect project plan is perfectly accurate for a nanosecond before it is no longer accurate.  The hours of discussions and effort to create tasks and dependencies, assign resources, add durations, and determine the overall timeline are not completely wasted.  The effort of bringing everyone together to understand the overall objectives and subsequent details is priceless.  The perfect project plan provides a framework for the overall project. It takes into account past experience, expectations, and reality and combined together is a guidance document for the overall project. 

 Resources and availability change.  New information is obtained.  External and internal pressures adjust priorities.  These are all elements that contribute to the immediate obsolescence of a project plan.  As effective project managers, it is our job to take this data into account to reassess and rework the plan and the plan details.  This does not mean modifying the MS Project Plan (my tool of choice) every time there is a new piece of information.  It means communicating revised priorities and tasks and expectations to project team members and stakeholders.  Experienced project managers are constantly adjusting the pieces in the project picture to achieve the overall objectives and communicating to keep the project team members moving toward the finish line.

 I use a status report to communicate tasks on a weekly basis.  It includes the barriers or red flags, work for the week with assigned resources, completed tasks, resource availability, and a high level weekly calendar.  During the status meetings we walk through each section to confirm team members are aware of what tasks should be worked on that week.  We also discuss the completed items, albeit briefly, to give a sense of accomplishment.  I like to go over the weekly calendar to reinforce what is coming up to reduce the number of surprises.  We never look at the project plan as I believe that it is a project manager’s tool.  It is available to team members but generally, no one else actually wants to look at it. 

 The perfect project plan is a project manager’s tool designed with the intention that it will be modified throughout the project.  Resources, durations, end dates, and dependencies can be adjusted to give the project manager a revised sense of what is important on a weekly basis.  In other words, the perfect project plan is flexibly designed to be modified and perfected throughout the life of the project.

January 19, 2012

Carrot or Stick

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , at 7:43 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

What is the best way to motivate project team members?  The short answer is that it depends.  It depends on the individual and as project managers it is incumbent upon us to find out what works for each person and tailor for each. 

 We must get to know the team members and understand what makes them tick.  This takes time that may not appear to be a value-add at the beginning, but it is certainly an investment for later in the project when things really need to get done.  Finding the lever that will get each person moving in the right direction toward the collective goal, helps to eliminate some of the bumps on the road to project success.

 This also means that incentives and rewards need to be built into the project and project budget.  While it would be nice to assume that project team members are intrinsically motivated to do the ‘right thing’, the ‘right thing’ is different for each person and doesn’t necessarily align with the project goals. 

The team can be rewarded or recognized collectively but individual agendas need to be identified in order to increase the likelihood for success. The rewards do not need to be costly and they sometimes don’t cost anything.  For some, recognition is the best reward. Others require cash.  And others, flexibility to work on project tasks at 2 AM. 

Think about what motivates you.  What does it take to get you motivated especially when you’ve been assigned to a project that takes you out of your normal routine and comfort zone.    What would motivate you to work more effectively?  What information or tools do you need or want?  What rewards do you like?  Are you motivated by fear or money or recognition?   

The first step is recognizing that getting your team members motivated to work effectively towards the project goals and objectives cannot be achieved with a one-size-fits-all approach.  The most important and hardest step is taking the time to find the lever that will make each team member a more productive member of the team but it’s worth the effort.

January 18, 2012

Outsourcing to Save Our Sanity

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , , , at 7:27 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

Recently I realized that I will not be the one to teach my children how to drive.  I realized this when my 10 year old was driving the golf cart while we played golf the other day.  It was quite stressful and we were only going 5 miles per hour and no other carts or pedestrians were in sight to run into or over.  Apparently my husband had already given thought to this and was in total agreement.  We have both realized that some things are better left to professionals to save our sanity, increase likelihood of success and reduce likelihood of bloodshed.   

 This got me thinking about my clients and the essential skill sets they need to have on site in their staff versus those that are needed on a periodic basis.  Most of my clients are only able to cover the basics like helpdesk, network, and if they are lucky, database.  Once enterprise or business specific systems are in place, a business analyst is pretty critical.  But IT project management?  The expertise is only really necessary when they are implementing a new system or upgrading and existing one.  This is a function that can be outsourced to experienced professionals. 

 When hiring an external IT project manager for a small company (less than 300 people) in the life sciences industry, compliance experience is key.  Without this experience, the projects can be seriously under planned as validation may not be considered.  Validation is a process that begins at the beginning with requirements definition and vendor selection and goes through system retirement.  Validation is not just documented testing and can add significant time to a project depending on system complexity and risk assessment. 

 Another key element is experience working in small organizations where a project manager has to get his or her hands dirty.  We don’t have the luxury of simply leading and guiding others as resources are generally limited and timelines short.  Therefore, IT project managers in this segment need to step in and act as business analysts, validation resources, and trainers in some cases. 

 Outsourcing IT project management makes sense as projects, by their very definition, have a defined beginning and end.  Once the project is over, it can be closed out and transitioned to on site personnel for ongoing support and your company does not need to retain additional headcount when the project is over.  If done properly, the project-specific knowledge gained by the IT project manager during the project, is transferred to the on site support personnel before the project is closed out. 

 As for drivers’ education, oursourcing makes sense for us personally.  Hopefully the training will be a short-term project beginning with a spin around the block with everyone coming back alive with no bloodshed and ending with a driver’s license.  At this point, as with system projects, once the project ends, or in case of my kids with their driver’s licenses, the real fun and headaches truly begin.

January 17, 2012

Change is Hard

Posted in Project Management tagged , , at 7:30 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

My dad often said that if it weren’t for the clients and employees, his job would be perfect.  The same could be held true with regards to project management.  The system implementation from a technical perspective isn’t hard; it’s managing the people and expectations that is most difficult. 

 We all know change is hard.  We also know it is necessary to grow and move forward.  Why do some of us resist it even when we know intellectually it is good for us?

 I know that from my project experience employees are afraid.  In their minds are a series of questions, especially if they haven’t gone through the process before.  Will I still have a job?  Will I be able to do my job?  What if someone finds out I don’t know what I am doing?  What if someone wants more from me than I can do or that I want to do?  I am comfortable with my discomfort; why do I need to change anything?

 I find that getting affected people (team members, employees, stakeholders) to talk about these issues (externalize rather than internalize) acts as a release valve and reduces the fright associated with the unknown.  We also discuss the benefits associated with the change and acknowledge the discomfort associated with the uncertainty.  This doesn’t happen just once and is an ongoing process throughout the project and through the adoption phase after Go Live.  If users don’t use the system and continue to follow old practices, the implementation cannot be considered a success.

 As project managers we are always managing…people, tasks, expectations, constraints.  How we help the people in the organization adjust to the change is a major factor in determining the success of the project.

January 13, 2012

Making Space

Posted in Project Management tagged , , , , , , at 7:50 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

During a project it is quite easy to get so caught up in the details that you lose sight of the overall objective.  Periodically it is essential to step back and get out of the details in order to detach emotionally from the daily drama that generally occurs on a project .  This allows you to more objectively evaluate the project and tasks and clears your mind to more effectively focus on problem solving. 

 This can be done with something as simple as getting out to play a sport or run for an hour, watching a movie, reading a book, or, in my case, flying a helicopter.  I find that anything that requires me to focus 100% (like running, playing soccer, flying) gives my mind a mental ‘reboot’ and clears out clutter leaving me space to think. 

Sometimes what is necessary is perseverance.  Sometimes what is necessary is some space.  If you are spending more time getting space, you are procrastinating.  If you are spinning your wheels on an issue, it’s time to make some space.

December 9, 2011

The Rhythm of Projects and Half Marathons

Posted in General tagged , , , , at 11:52 AM by Solutions2Projects, LLC

I recently ran my first half marathon after training for nine weeks and realized that the rhythm of a computerized system implementation project (for me at least) mimicked the rhythm of running a half marathon.
At the start of a race, similar to the start of an implementation, there is excitement, apprehension, jostling for position, and general anxiety. Project team members are excited about solving an existing problem with a new system but are uncertain about how their respective jobs will be impacted by the changes that will be made which causes anxiety. In order to alleviate that anxiety, folks in an organization jockey for position to ensure that they can positively influence the changes or avoid them entirely. Some may put themselves in positions of leadership and control or find a way to avoid completely.
As you move from the starting gate and begin to establish your own pace, you feel a sense of relief that it’s finally underway and a bit of a thrill that it’s finally happening. On a project, the (seemingly endless) planning is behind you and there’s finally progress toward the actual goal. There is cheering from the executive sponsor (similar to my family cheering me on at mile 2) and the project moves on.
Eventually, the excitement and relief fade as you pass the first few mile markers. Yes, there’s been some accomplishment but then there is the realization that there is quite a bit more to go. At this point, it’s extremely important for the project manager to keep the team motivated, focused on the overall objective, and give team members a sense of accomplishment. It also helps to have some cheering from the sidelines to reinforce the importance of the project and provide a sense of appreciation from outside the project team. This is a great time for rewards (even small tokens help) and cheering from the business sponsor similar to the cheering from the sidelines from friends, family members, or complete strangers. The boost takes you through a couple more miles and a couple more deliverables on a project.
A few more miles tick by and you feel like you are in the home stretch. Some of the big miles or milestones have been accomplished and it feels good. You get a renewed sense of energy and purpose and realize that it’s actually possible to meet your goal. It actually becomes possible to visualize the end even though you can’t see the finish line.
And then it gets hard again. For me it was at 10.5 miles. I was thrilled at how far I’d run and impressed I’d made it that far. But then I did some math and realized I still had 2.6 miles to go. I hadn’t trained beyond one 9 mile run and two eight mile runs. I wasn’t going to stop but I knew it was going to be hard. I put my head down and focused on completing the run…one step, one quarter mile, one half mile at a time. I broke it down into manageable chunks and gave myself kudos for every quarter mile. I closely monitored my progress to remind myself of how little there was left to meet my goal.
I do the same with a project team. The project team is tired at this point. While they know the end is near, the finish line seems so far away because of all of the little things left at the end of a project and none of them are fun. This includes data clean up and migration, data set up, work instruction and procedure finalization, training, and closing out documentation. At this point, the little deliverables don’t give much of a sense of accomplishment but it takes the project team closer to the go live date one step at a time. As a project manager, it’s critical to keep the project team members focused on checking these off and not getting distracted by what seems to be an endless list. Cheering from the business sponsor is helpful here, too.
As with every project I manage, once I see the finish line, I pick up the pace and use every last bit of energy to push across the finish line. Sometimes I have to push and pull the project team members along me but we must all cross together. We started as a team and we will finish as a team.
The elation you feel crossing the finish line lasts for a brief period of time before the letdown begins. There’s no longer a focused sense of purpose associated with a project. After the race, I looked back and said to myself, ‘well, now what?’ I walked back to the hotel to meet up with my family and we resumed the day. It is similar on a project. Once the project is over, most project team members return to their day jobs and work to get into a new comfort zone now that the new system is in place. It’s often uncomfortable and takes some time to get used to. Things will not be the same as they were.
At Solutions2Projects, LLC we recognize that computerized system implementations are not easy and that change is uncomfortable for most people. For most implementations, we recommend having incentives, rewards and project tracking and love to center them around a theme. On one project, our theme was ‘around the world in 88 days.’ To keep the company informed (and provide the team with a sense of progress) we had a map with marked destinations and as we reached milestones, we marked them on the map. Each milestone was in a different country and had a reward associated with that company. The rewards were small but the gesture appreciated by the team members. We celebrated the project completion with an America-themed end of project party since our destination was the Bay Area.
As a project manager, recognizing that there are going to be hills and valleys during an implementation helps to remove the surprise associated with the downs. This will provide you with the power to manage through the phases knowing that there is an easier time coming up and that eventually, there will be a finish line. I suppose that’s the great thing about projects…there’s always a beginning, a middle, and an end. At the end there should always be a celebration as the process to get there is never easy. And, once the project is over, as with this race, it’s time to find another one!