Do you need to be a system expert to successfully implement it?

mythical_unicornI have often been asked to step into projects where the industry or software are unfamiliar to me. More times than not, the project team has been hesitant at first. A common sentiment among towards project managers of many technical resources I’ve encountered is disdain. After a while, the team gets used to working with me and figures out how I can help. In many cases, I’ve changed the opinions of project managers for these technical resources. But why is that? What is it about my approach to managing data and software implementation projects that enables me to step into any project at almost any stage and help deliver results?

  • Willingness to learn – I am willing to learn. I know when to shut up & listen, take notes and ask later. I try to read the materials I’m provided, and if relevant, find external sources. I follow up with questions and try to make connections but acknowledging that I could have missed something.
  • General understanding of technology – I have a fairly good understanding of software development, database, data, workflow, process methodologies that gives me a foundation of understanding.
  • Resources – I’ve been lucky enough to have worked or socialized with a number of very smart people across a broad range of disciplines. I’m able to engage with my network on an as needed basis.
  • Know what you don’t know – It is imperative that I admit when I don’t know something. I need to engage with the right people at the right time, but yet recognize the dynamics of the situation and adapt accordingly.

I don’t think you do need to be a system expert to successfully manage an implementation project. I think you can develop enough of what you need to know to get involved to the extent you can. You’ll obviously need to adjust your level of engagement, and rely on your project team for the software expertise. You also need to know enough about the project and system to call bullshit when you need to.

Separating sales from reality

Have you ever participated in a conversation about a prospective new project to walk away feeling like the sales team has a very different sense of reality than you do? How do you balance that with defining realistic expectations and success criteria? unicorn, sunshine and rainbowsUnderstanding that it is sales’s responsibility to sell the deal and your responsibility to implement it, you also need to be very conscious to set you, your organization and your client up for success.

A couple of tips for doing this effectively include:

  • Speak Up – while this seems pretty obvious, there are a lot of reasons people don’t. Maybe, the person communicating is a boss or more senior coworker. There are numerous studies that show that senior managers aren’t challenged as much because subordinates are intimidated. As a project manager, you need to be one of the first to speak up. It is not about you versus them, but rather it is about you managing a project that’s going to be successful. It is your job to understand the requirements, the success criteria and level set where necessary.
  • Align to your internal team first – While speaking up is critical to project success, I would highly recommend aligning within your organization first. It can be incredibly alarming to your customer if you and other parts of the project or stakeholder team do not share the same goal and outcomes.
  • Do what’s necessary now to meet the requirements – If you are successful now, there are usually opportunities for dazzling (and/or upsell) your customer later. Data and software integration projects are complex enough. Don’t add another level of complexity by adding that one more thing because you think it will impress your customer. Focus on delivering all the requirements within the time and budget allotted. That said, if there are concessions you can make that have no impact to the requirements, it is ok to throw them in (but only after securing the requirements).

If you are a good project manager, you won’t always pick up a project that all “sunshine and rainbows and unicorns.” More often than not, there are challenges and opportunities you need to work through. Figure out where you are, identify the requirements and success criteria and start communication upward and outward often.

Trust that your scope will change

The Project Management Book of Knowledge defines scope as the project boundaries. I prefer this definition on TechTarget:

Project scope is the part of project planning that involves determining and documenting a list of specific project goals, deliverables, tasks, costs and deadlines.

From a practical project management perspective, what does this really mean? Who gets to define this? How do you manage? Let’s delve into the details of a scope.

A very simple evolution of a project is sales > implementation > support. Scope is relevant in each of these phases, however it may not mean the same thing to the stakeholders key to each phase. A company agrees to invest money in a project to solve a business problem. A salesperson has convinced the company that they have the solution. Here’s the first step of the process where scope can diverge. Can the corporate decision maker speak for all the business stakeholders? Do they really understand the details of the business problem that needs to be solved for each type of user? And how about the sales person? Do they really understand the software? Do they understand the business problems it can solve? Are more technical sales engineers involved in the sales process?

That simple example involving just the corporate decision maker and the sales person is indicative of how scope can rapidly become a problem in a project.

Scope must be managed throughout the entire project. 

Over the course of my career, I have had different levels of involvement in the sales process. Some I was involved from the first demo/sales call with the customer, others I help with preparing estimates and potential timelines, others I inherit after the contract is signed and others I inherit long after the implementation. It doesn’t matter at what point I become involved in a project, my first action is to receive a copy of all project artifacts. And yes, I do read that contract. I want and need to know what was committed.

Unfortunately, I’m not done there. I take the details I can find in the contract and communicate those out as often as I can. If this is a large project with multiple business teams, I will review the scope with each team. This is the opportunity for your customer, and more specifically the business users, to vocalize their agreement (or not). Either is fine, but it is imperative to align expectations. If there is disagreement, it is the responsibility of the project manager to sound the alarm to the corporate decision makers, and the services and sales organizations. Misaligned scope results in 1) unhappy customers, 2) stalemate of customer and company or 3) mutual agreement to realign scope. Note: The scope doesn’t necessarily have to be immediately changed. It is sufficient for the new work to be phased in after the initial scope implementation.

This is definitely a rinse and repeat process. Business are changing on a daily business, and implementing data and software projects means your environment is constantly changing. Time doesn’t stand still during implementation projects. This means new inquiries and requests come up constantly. Each time, you need to figure out how it fits into the work you are already doing. Some requests can be easily accommodated, but others need a deliberate approach to determine how it impacts existing goals, timelines, budgets, and overall commitments.

Do not fear the scope. The scope is your friend. It provides guiding principles for the work you are doing, and the goals you are accomplishing.


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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 professionals. 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 others 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.

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.

 

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.”

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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.

 

The impact of sales context on project management

domino-effectData or software projects are usually purchased in one of two ways: as a part of a large, enterprise level deal that impacts multiple teams and has overarching corporate goals or as a stand alone purchase for a specific purpose for a specific team. This sales context can make for very interesting project management moments.

If we take the scenario where an organization makes an enterprise level implementation decision, you could have some additional levels of complexity. For example:

  • The project team may have to “sell” the project to the individual teams of users within the organization. The teams will likely have different levels of familiarity and maturity with the business process or solution.
  • Where there are varying levels of maturity, you have to be careful to effectively set expectations and cater differently to teams based on their desired engagement.

In another scenario, one part of the organization makes a purchasing decision with dependencies on other parts of the organization. This will often result is some interesting yet awkward project conversations. For example:

  • If you need to engage with another part of the organization to make the project be successful, it’s important to lay out all the facts and deciding factors. Too often project conversations must occur to relieve stakeholder concerns without those stakeholders having all the facts. Those seemingly minute details can totally shift the tone of conversations, making or breaking success.

And last, let’s consider the scenario where a specific team is looking at a solution. In this case, there can be additional considerations both in the sales process but in the project management as well. For example:

  • Does the team control the purse strings? Or are there other dependent groups or players? Make sure you fully understand the landscape of stakeholders & stakes.
  • Does the pain points being discussed align to what you do best? Just because you can sell your solution, doesn’t mean you should.
  • How does this sale fit into the overall goal of you both organizations? Is this a one-off purchase by a team without any broader organizational support? or are there opportunities for growth for both parties?

Project management in itself is a fairly straightforward undertaking. Your job as project manager is to deliver on the project goals. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” You need to quickly assess the lay of the project land. Who are the key players involved in the project? Who are the key players not involved directly in the project? What are the potential pitfalls or landmines you need keep on your radar (not necessarily on your horizon as you should be working to mitigate these as much as possible)?

Mislaid project intentions

If you managed a few projects, you eventually come upon one with mislaid intentions of some sort. I’m specifically using that word because it comes bearing a sense of temporary-ness, and lacks a sense of malice. Both of which I think are what’s at play in these situations.

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Sourced https://memegenerator.net/instance/66917865

What do I mean by “mislaid intentions?” For me it’s those situations where things just don’t seem to add up. The actions of the stakeholders or members of the project team don’t align to the published project goals. It might be the subtle (or not so subtle) withholding of information or the constant flux of sidebar conversations or even the lack of follow through.

So, what do you do? Do you put your tail between your legs and run away? Do you whine to the powers that be? I rarely shy away from a chance to show my scrappiness and use this as an opportunity to insert myself into the process. I’m not too concerned about what others think of me. My goal is to execute on a project so I need to use all the resources I have at my disposal and pursue those goals (sometimes quite aggressively, if that’s required).

But, what’s the point? To me this is actually the more interesting question. If we are all working towards the same goal of delivering on the project goals, what’s the point in mislaying intentions? This is where the organizational and personal dynamics come in. Usually the reason for this behavior has nothing to do with you at all. It usually has to do lack of knowledge or understanding (of your role, value, or even the mechanics of the project); or it could relate to broader project issues that originated before you arrives; or it could have to do with personal insecurities.

It’s really not necessary for you to spend too much time speculating on why this is occurring. Remember these are “mislaid” intentions with implications of benevolence and a lack of permanence. Your job is to figure out how introduce your role, and work you way into the dynamics of the project often changing it as you march towards your goal of execution. Don’t stop fighting the good fight.