In project management, we generally group our processes under the heading of “methodology.” For some reason, I think methodology brings a more formal connotation than process. Either way you slice it, the way we do our work is what those of us in the profession are all about. The PMO is the corporate manifestation of the need to improve the way we work. So, what did we learn about how to work together on this particular project? I think five of the top 10 lessons were process related. The list and discussion follow.
1. We left management and planning unattended for too long.
Bet you never heard that one before! Without going into a rant, essentially we began the project with a boilerplate project schedule and methodology that was designed for small projects of this type. The schedule called for a 16 week step by step implementation. That went down the drain almost immediately and now 17 months later – TA DA! We go live. If you are going to plan – do it! Do it right, do it often, and don’t let convenience dictate how long you are going to plan. On my other project, we have a two-day planning session coming up this week. Guess how long we are going to plan? Not until we have a good plan, not until we have a shared understanding – two days – that is it for a 12 month multi-million dollar project the entire leadership team is getting together for exactly two days to plan! Boy, are we good! ---- ooops I’m ranting – suffice to say, my opinion is that planning may not always be perfect, but I’ve never been on a project where I didn’t see a lesson learned like the one above – and I’ve never even heard of a project where people said that they wish they hadn’t spent as much time planning.
2. We had the most success when we were all informed.
Communications! There is an interesting story here, and while it is not the only communication situation that helped us, it is one worth telling. Since about mid-December, the project has been hanging on by a thread with looming deadlines and a lot of nail-biting. We gave one of our weekly reports to the board, and someone suggested that we might benefit from a daily call – touch point, stand-up, type of thing. Well, that went over like you might expect – “I’m too busy to take time out every day for a call”, or “I know what I need to do” “That would just slow me down” and so on. We decided to adopt a method that I think I stole from scrum. First we scheduled the call for 15 minutes. During the call we went through the roster and each person said what they did yesterday, what they planned for today and any situation that might be keeping them from accomplishing their work. For the first week or two we had abysmal attendance, of about 15 invitees we were lucky to get 5. We persisted and elevated to the board asking that they “encourage” their team members to attend. That ultimately worked and for January and February we had great attendance. Some times the calls went long, some times we were less disciplined that we would have liked, but the #1 positive feedback I got for lessons learned was on how much the daily call helped. Almost every participant in the call mentioned it as one of the 3 things they would do again. It was really rewarding to see that popping up so often as I got the responses.
3. Once engaged and informed, management responded quickly and helpfully.
Yes, “once engaged and informed” are the key words here. We had a real problem being succinct and persistent about our needs. Of course without a schedule or a good understanding of the work, that was hard. However, every time we were able to say what we needed, for how long and when, we experienced great responsiveness. This then is the key. Don’t raise vague complaints – the team was working long hours and making little progress, but they were unable to clearly express the need. Once we sat down, thought about it and gave a clear definition - we needed an Access expert who had some product knowledge for about 3 – 4 weeks at least 50% of the time. The executives fell all over themselves getting the right person, and while it was a bit more than 4 weeks and quite a bit more than 50% of the time, everyone hung on and we got through it. Moral – know what you need before you ask.
4. We did things right, wrong, and mostly late
This is typical of every project. We made a lot of mistakes in how we approached the work, in how we solved some of the problems, but I think these were all exasperated by our lack of clear objectives. We did not have critical success factors or a good schedule initially, so we were not able to keep the project on target. Everyone had a sense that things were going bad, but we often waited or delayed either through optimism or ignorance. Then when it got really bad, it was too late to recover by any normal means and we had to call in the cavalry. Only long hours and additional people allowed us to pull though – the sign of bad planning and waiting too long to acknowledge (recognize?) a problem. There was a lot of good work late in the schedule that if done earlier would have been higher quality and easier on everyone.
5. A great customer relationship got us through many challenges
There are a lot of ways of looking at this. My favorite metaphor is the “open kimono” one. Doing business with full transparency in my book is the only way to go. That doesn’t mean giving up the company secrets, but it does mean keeping the customer informed and if at all possible making them a functioning part of the team. Too many managers try to censor the information that goes to the customer so that they are giving the customer a specific contrived view of the project. Everyone sees through this and it does little more than cause distrust. You may be able to control the information flow, but the customer will know that something is being held back. How they react to that differs among customers and people, but it is rarely a good reaction. In our case, we had weekly meetings and discussed any level of detail that the customer wanted. We discussed our process and schedule, and when we were late, we talked about that too. The customer knew that we has their best interests in mind and they trusted us – not blindly, but because we were open and honest. The customer team was exactly the same sharing their challenges – all this lead to better understanding. When we hit a rough spot we hit it together, and that is a partnership – no hype or glad-handing, mutual respect and trust.
There you go, only one left for next week – tools – maybe I’ll cover it now. We didn’t have the skills and tools needed. Make sure these are lined up and immediately available, or you will be left scrambling. My father in-law is a wonderful mechanic, electrician, plumber, you name it, and he ALWAYS has the right tools – and that makes all the difference. When you can’t seem to get things to work right, find an expert and ask – they will have the right tools – which reminds me that my new hand-built computer still refuses to power up – time to have granddaddy over to visit the grandkids and maybe take a look at my project :-)