If you find project management boring, you might be doing something wrong!

 I saw a recent survey that concluded that project managers are the most bored at work second only to legal employees. I had a similar conversation with my cousin a couple years ago. And similarly, I had another person tell me they found data analysis boring. On one hand, to each their own. Just because I enjoy something doesn’t mean other do as well. However, as I dug into each of these conversations, I realized there was a big difference between the work they were describing and the work that I perform under these same descriptors.

What is it that makes my kind of project management fun?

  • I get to solve real business problems – As an implementation project manager, I get to make sure that the solution implemented meets the business goal, and delivers customer value. I am the facilitator of change in the organization. Yes, there are some tedious tasks that may come with this, like daily status calls, project status documents, task management. But these are small components, compared to the larger component of bridging the gap between the stakeholders, and ensuring the business users get their needs met.
  • Big picture, small details – I get to do both. On one hand, it is my job to understand the big picture of my customer, of my company and then figuring out how to align all the small details to meet everyone’s goals. I am an advocate for the customer, and a feedback collector for my company. To deliver customer value, you really do need to be operating at both levels.
  • I get to be the playmaker – Related to the first bullet, I get to drive us to the end goal. I have to figure out the different puzzle pieces, and figure out how to organize them, in order to create the beautiful picture at the end. Since this is a work in progress from the moment the contract is signed, some times I have draw and cut out the puzzles pieces on my own; other times I’m given a couple of boxes of mismatched pieces and told to sort it all out.

To me, project management is only as boring as you allow it to be. I thrive on figuring out the challenges.

Why is it important to put process first?

…Or if not first, than pretty close to the top. The reality is that the focus is on implementation of the new system, not necessarily on the business process or workflows that make that system successful. It is a known fact among business owners that businesses need defined process to scale, and it is this scalability that allows for long term success. This is true in software implementation projects as well.

https://strativa.com/new-business-processes-and-new-systems/

https://strativa.com/new-business-processes-and-new-systems/

Let’s explore why that’s important.

  • Without process there’s no definition and no roles – In lieu of no direction, nobody has responsibilities and nobody knows what to do. This leads to two issues: 1) everyone doing the same as what they did before the implementation and 2) people trying to be helpful by throwing everything over the fence to the next person (i.e. asking every person who has a remote possibility of understanding what to do), and hoping for a handoff. This just results in frustration all the way around.
  • How do you implement the system workflows if you don’t understand the process? Many software systems (CRM, ticketing, ERM, BPM, etc) have workflows that need to get defined. If you don’t understand what the process is, or what you need it to be, how can you implement the workflows? While many of these workflows are changeable, it becomes more difficult to unravel once you starting using them.
  • Reconciling buy-in – How do you reconcile buy-in from all the different stakeholders if you haven’t figured out what the process is, and therefore don’t know all the people it will touch.

I realize every day how hard it is to put process first. I often get caught up in the minutia of implementation, or other tasks at hand, rather than focusing on the big picture. Process needs to be a part of a project implementation as the software integration itself. Consider this from the beginning of the project and you’ll save yourself and your stakeholders a lot of grief.

When change doesn’t go your way

There are always opportunities for improvement…”harder, better, faster, stronger.” That said, everything you try isn’t going to work out. Cliche, I know but still true. I had an experience outside the corporate environment recently that is having me to reflect on what went wrong, what i would change (or not) and how to recover quickly.

change-all-thingsI have been leading an external effort with a big goal. My team is composed of many volunteers all working towards the same goal. As part of this initiative, we just completed a multi-faceted online/offline marketing initiative. There was a solid group of volunteers working on these initiatives and they really did a good job. Logistically, we pulled off a larger initiative that in previous years. Unfortunately, despite the hard work of the volunteers, the outcomes were not what was expected or hoped for. As I was getting real-time updates during the execution phase, I started to realize that we might not see the results we had projected. We reacted quickly and made adjustments to the execution plan. Even so, the results were underwhelming.

What now? While I was saddened by the results, all I can do, and all I can encourage my project team to do is learn from the experience and move on. Here’s how I’ll approach this post mortem:

Remember that people would effort and emotion into executing change. It’s very important to remember not to point blame. This should be treated as a learning opportunity for everyone. 

  • Determination of too much or too little – This is the evaluation of the prep & execution plans to determine whether you did too much or not enough.
  • Support – Did you get the support you needed across the organization? Did everyone buy in? Did everyone do their part? Where did the breakdown occur? How could more support have been provided.
  • Eliminate technical issues as a cause – This involves checking each and every one of technical component (software, hardware, etc) that could have had issues. To the best of our knowledge, are they in working order now? were they in working order at the time of execution? “Working order” encompasses both the physical “did it work” and “did it perform its function?”
  • External factors – Were there external factors that could have impacted your plan? Common ones might be weather, mergers and acquisitions, politics, etc. Some times these do just get in the way. The goal is to identify the ones that impacted you this time, and review those risks the next time
  • Get up again – Ok, so this plan didn’t work out. It has no bearing on the next plan, or even the continuation of the current plan. We take what we’ve learned and apply it to the next round.

The success or failure of a project isn’t solely in the hands of the project team members. The entire project team, including the direct and indirect stakeholders have responsibility to provide the support needed. Further, it is the broader stakeholders that need to help pick the team back up and give them the leeway they need to make improvements the next time around.

 

 

 

Choose your words carefully

be-sure-to-taste-your-wordsWe are often reminded that words should be deliberate, and that sometimes words can hurt. In project management, these are applicable. More importantly, we need to be very conscious of the image that our words present. New projects are often opportunities to deepen the customer relationship. If all project stakeholders aren’t careful about the language they use, the customer or team can get the wrong impression.

Project managers need to have a very clear picture of goals of the project, and the nature of the relationship. It is our job to set the tone of the project. This means if any language is being used that might derail the tone you are trying to set, it is critical for you identify it early, and reframe the conversation.

Many of my projects are data related, which means I spent a lot of time validating data and demonstrating our process to the business users to explain how we got from point A to point B. As we all know, users don’t like change so the introduction of a new system brings distrust until you can prove that you’ve done what was expected (specifically the data gets validated). It is not uncommon for me to hear “it’s wrong.” Probing into that phrase usually results in the business users conveying additional information that would change the methodology. “The data is wrong” in the context of a data project is never where you want to start the implementation. Sometimes I will find that there is an upstream issue that gets uncovered during the implementation. Yes, that is a problem that needs to be fixed. But had we not been in the middle of an implementation, you might not have realized you had the issue.

Another example is configurable software. Again, people are very caution of new software systems, especially ones that proclaim predictive or advanced functionality. The easiest way to convince people is to configure a test. However, too often, the response will be the “algorithm is wrong.” Is the algorithm really wrong? The output is exactly what the software tells it to do. So if a test was configured to “show the art of the possible” with limited information about the specific business or use case, there is a high probability that the outcomes will be unexpected.

“Unexpected” does not mean the same thing as “Wrong”

These words should not be used interchangeable. “Wrong” sets the tone with the business users that the system isn’t doing what it needs to do. This creates very negative emotions towards the project. “Unexpected” can be explained, adjusted and resolved. Working with your project team to resolve unexpected results can foster respect, and positive emotions towards the project and the software.

 

What is the nature of this relationship?

dilbert-vendor-relationship

I had some work travel this week that took me onsite to a customer. My colleague and I were brought there to do some training and have some collaborative business discussions. This trip, and this engagement really highlighted the mutual respect the vendor and the customer have for each other, and how much we are viewed as a team.

This is not always the case. There are definitely times where the vendor-customer relationship is much more doctoral than collaborative. I wonder what is gained by this? It seems to me that either side of the vendor-customer relationship being too rigid isn’t a good thing. From the vendor perspective, if I’m always mandating exactly how something gets done, without having any flexibility to truly understand the customer problem, I get to maintain order and consistently replicate process. However, unless I’m able to truly predict where the customers are going, and can react really quickly to changes in the business process, this is not sustainable. At some point the customers will get frustrated that their needs are being met, and that the vendor isn’ work with them. Alternatively, if the customer is always pushing and dictating how things are done, they lose out on the learnings and growth that happens from supporting multiple customers. It can become increasingly more complicated to manage and maintain solutions that are only designed with one customer in mind. A vendor that kowtows to a customer will ultimately end up with both sides being frustrated.

There is definitely some middle ground in the vendor-customer relationship that will be mutually beneficial. The customer has a right to advocate for their business needs. The vendor has a right to try to standardize and streamline process and systems. It’s the details of the relationship that are going to bridge the gap. On the customer side, bring your concerns, share your business drives and let the vendor do the same. Let the vendor also bring their expertise and insights from multiple customers and have a discussion about the best solution. These are the only way that both organizations can grow and evolve.

Do you understand the nature of your vendor or customer relationships? Have you figured out the the right balance of how to make both organizations successful?

3 factors that contribute to products not delivering business value

A couple of weeks ago I explored the idea of when work is done. This week, I’d like to extend this idea to product management. We have all seen too many products where they promote they do X, but once you start using it you realize that it doesn’t quite do X, or X is so complicated to execute that it defeats the purpose. But how do we really get here? It’s unlikely that a product manager simply decided to push out a bad product. Or that the quality assurance team didn’t actually QA it.

Adobe-blog-product-meme-tell-me-more-extensive-testing-one-client

I think there are probably 3 contributing factors:

  1. Lack of customer feedback – Sometimes businesses truly are on the cutting edge in the development of something new and therefore there is no way to get the feedback needed on your new product (think iPod). However, this is usually not the case. We all need to make sure that we are engaging with customers and getting feedback on the products we are developing otherwise we pose serious risk to missing the mark.
  2. Misunderstanding of the business context – A common factor that occurs as a result of the lack of customer feedback is missing out on the customer context. You can think you know what problem you are trying to solve, and develop a product that solves that problem, but you’ll still have adoption issues if the workflow or functional assumptions don’t align to the business context of how the users will engage with it.
  3. Making assumptions about whether it will work without actually vetting the assumed changes – Too many times we get in trouble for being wrong based on an “I think” rather than an “I think, but I’ll verify and get back to you.” All products are built based on a set of assumptions. It’s usually these assumptions that drive how it gets QA’d. We can’t then assume that because the assumptions change (no matter how small they are), that all will work well. These new assumptions need to be vetted as well.

Product management and project management aren’t exact sciences. They do take a level of art and skill to be able to navigate the chaos and deliver on the business value. However, we can take steps to mitigate these factors, ultimately increasing our probability of success with our customers.

When are you done?

it-compiles-ship-itAs a paranoid project manager, I will conduct my own validation before communicating to customers. There have been too many times where I have not done this extra validation and sent it to the customer who immediately identified obvious issues. That doesn’t help anyone during a project implementation. And actually, it can cause serious credibility issues with the stakeholders.

For me, a task is done when I can demonstrate that the requirements are met or the issue is resolved. I’m not talking about the detailed nuances that are found the stakeholder does their deep dive into the solution. I’m also not talking about the scenarios where we have set the foundation early on that the validation would be collaborative in nature. However, I’m finding that the ability to follow through and conduct basic validation before communicating it’s done is a skill. And it’s one definitely not found in my teenage daughters and in many adults. I’ll walk through two quick examples, before I set some guidelines.

My husband pays my teenage daughter, Cayla, to do his laundry. Every week, I over-hear the same conversation. “Is my laundry done?” from Carson to Cayla. Once Cayla confirms, the follow up is either “so why don’t I have any socks (or whatever)?” or “then where is my basket (as it hasn’t been returned to our room)?” For the most part, Cayla has done the majority of the work, she just didn’t fully follow through. This could mean the laundry has been washed, folded and put away but the baskets not returned; or just washed and in a pile downstairs; or some other variation on an incomplete status.

In the workplace, I’ve seen lots of examples of this. A project team member will hand over what is supposed to be a complete deliverable, but I can’t get it to run, or it doesn’t meet the basic requirements. I’ve heard all sorts of excuses as justification throughout the years: “it’s done but not complete”; “it compiled so I thought it would work”, “I installed it but didn’t configure it”, “I finished one piece of it”, “it works if you do x, y and z  (even if that’s not the logical use)”

So, when are you done? I think there a few critical components that project team members should be consider before marking something as complete.

  • Available – The solution must be available in a form to distribute to the business user. Even if it’s something you are developing and installing on their behalf, there should be a tangible output to show for it.
  • Configured – Having a solution installed is often not enough. Is the solution configured as required to meet the customer needs? or in a state where the customer can configure it themselves?
  • Validated – Have you followed the steps the user would use to interact with the solution? Have you ensured the workflow makes sense, the solution does what it needs to and produces output that is as correct as you can determine (sometimes it is just doing a gut check on the output or making sure the user interface works for the inputs).

This is one of the most frustrating components of projects from a customer perspective. We all need to take ownership of the work we do and make sure we are doing some form of validation against the requirements and against basic usability. Does your solution do what the requirements define it should. I understand that not everyone has the business context, but own the functional requirements of whatever you’re developing.

3 differences between Customer Success and Project Managers

I had a recent conversation where I was challenged in my use of the term “Project Manager” to describe myself versus “Customer Success Manager”, the prevalent description for people doing similar work in their SAAS organization. This week’s blog post will explore the key differences.

I’ll first begin by providing some basic definitions.

Customer Success Managers (CSM) – According to Teresa Becker, CSMs provide “a proactive, real-time sales approach consisting of building relationships with existing customers, understanding in depth their company and product goals, and helping the customer meet those goals through day to day contact. Each customer has different needs and uses for your product, so it’s up to the Customer Success Manager (CSM) to thoroughly understand each customer and to be their champion throughout their entire customer journey. The role of the CSM is a value-add and is usually not a fee-based service.”

zombie-customer-success

Implementation Project Managers (PM) Webopedia defines an Implementation Manager as “an IT project manager who focuses on implementing information systems into a business environment. The implementation manager oversees the task, ensuring the project adheres to budget and time frame guidelines.”

From my perspective, there are 3 core differences in the two roles:

  • Longevity  – Implementation PMs are generally involved on a short-term basis for the duration of the project, while CSMs are closely tied to the customer for the length of the customer engagement (or pending other customer alignment decisions).
  • Technical Skills – The technical skills required to do a complex integration or implementation are higher than those required to maintain the customer relationship. CSMs do need to understand the product, the implementation and how to apply the product towards achieving customer goals. However, the depth and breadth of technical skills needed to navigate the implementation process is usually much broader in scope.
  • Project Management Skills – Typically CSMs take on basic project management tasks in the process of deriving & delivering value to the customer. Implementation PMs are often required to dive into the more advanced project management tasks (detailed requirements analysis, project plan definitions, risk assessments, etc).

As companies continue to evolve, we’ll continue to see blurred lines between roles,  responsibilities and titles. Both of the roles will continue to exist, but what you call them really is dependent on the organization, the product and the implementation lifecycle.

Resetting project expectations isn’t a bad thing

dream-catcherThe project I’m working on is perfect. I have the all the money, resources and time I need to be successful. The stakeholders are really engaged, the success criteria is clear and we are moving along on the project timeline exactly as we originally defined it.

Yes, that was a lovely dream. Unfortunately, we all know that most projects don’t go like this. I was working on a project that should have been a quick implementation, but immediately after the kickoff it became apparent that the scope defined in the sales process didn’t align to the requirements of business stakeholders. This made for some interesting project discussions. A couple of weeks in, just as the project was on the brink of derailing, we were able to have a very honest discussion and reset the project expectations.

This was a necessary step in making this project successful. There was definitely a miss in the early scoping process, but as a result of the communication among the business stakeholders and the project team, these issues were identified early. It also helped that this was a case where we didn’t lose any time working on unnecessary components. All the work that had been done before the project reset was still a valuable contribution to the project. Too often, project teams are hesitant to have these very honest conversations. Instead, time is wasted dancing around the problem, or implementing solutions that don’t meet customer needs.

To enable recovery from a project that is going awry, you need

  • Business stakeholders who are involved and advocate for their needs from the beginning
  • Project manager and leadership that is open & honest about the existing scope
  • An entire project team who (project implementation team, decision makers, business stakeholders) want the project to be successful and are willing to re-evaluate and reset the project scope and timelines accordingly.

 

3 Signs you over-thought it!

How often are we faced with a system, process or application that leaves you frustrated and confused? Based on my own experiences this week, and that of many of my friends (thanks social media), it occurs pretty frequently. Feeling inspired by all this disfunction leaves me thinking about how we can quickly assess whether we have made it overly complex.

over-engineered-system

  1. It’s difficult to maintain – A well designed process or system is one that is easy to understand it’s purpose, and intuitive enough (or simply documented enough) for someone to maintain it. Our environments are not stagnant so we can expect our processes or systems to be.
  2. Users complain about it (or just don’t use it) – Processes and systems are designed to solve a business problem. If we make them so complicated and cumbersome users won’t use it, and if there is no other choice, will complain relentlessly about doing so. If the system or process requires more people to enforce it, then it’s time to take another look.
  3. It’s not delivering the quantifiable measure of success you thought – Again, you implemented this to solve a business problem. Hopefully, you defined a measure of success. If you are only seeing marginal improvement, or even a decline in performance against the business problem, this is highly indicative of having over-thought your solution. It’s may be time to start over.

I don’t think overly complicated systems or processes come from a malicious place, however they can be detrimental to the overall success. Be conscious of these warning signs and be aggressive if fixing these. It will make for a better overall user experience improving morale and positively impacting the bottom line.

To read more on this topic, see these blog posts by Gregory C. Smith, Code Simplicity, and David Meehan.