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.

Make sure to write the weekly status report!

TPS_Report_MEME It really doesn’t matter how often you communicate with the project team, don’t forgo the weekly status report. I can, and do often think of several reasons why I “can’t” get to it, but having that status report has several key benefits.

 

  1. Aligns everyone to progress and issues – Many times progress and issues can get lost in the smaller, tactical project team. However, a software implementation can be quite a big investment and therefore impacts people outside the immediate project team. The weekly status report provides that source for where we are now, and where we are going.
  2. Ensures broader audience keeps your project in mind – While lots of people may need or want to keep the pulse on your software implementation project, other priorities can get in the way. By distributing your weekly status report you are managing multiple layers of stakeholders, and ensuring that your project isn’t forgotten.
  3. Credibility – building on the theme of the last blog post, status reports build credibility. If done in a way that gives an honest account of where the project is, regardless of whether it is going well or where there are opportunities for improvement, you are building credibility to you as a project manager and your organization (vendor, department, etc) as a partner.

I generally am on the side of streamlining process, and reducing administrative nonsense. In the case of status reports, they really are a critical tool in keeping everyone in the loop about where you are. If the stakeholders are new to you as a project manager, you may need to redirect people to your status reports, but generally, people jump on the bandwagon and like the more formal approach.

 

Building credibility one step at a time

bricklayerIt doesn’t matter if this is the first project with the customer, or the whether you have done tons of projects with them, each new project provides an opportunity to further build credibility (or lose it). From a project management perspective there are several tools that can be used to help facilitate this. The 4 critical ones I’ll dive into today are:

  • Requirements
  • Action Items
  • Issues log
  • Validation Sign Off

Requirements

I talked extensively in the last 3 blog posts about scope, which lays out the tasks that need to get accomplished. Requirements take this a step further, defining the business rules, and needed or wanted criteria. These are the nuances and details upon which the customer is benchmarking your solution. As a project manager, make sure you have these clearly documented, and understood by the entire project team. If there are questions or concerns, raise them early and often. If the requirements change, capture the details of the change and the decision (who & when).

Action items

Action items is a simple list of follow ups for the team. This are usually pre-requisites to accomplishing scope and requirements. This is less about a task list for the project development team, but more of a way to capture dependencies. Sallie can’t start working on X, until Tom provides Y. The resultant action item is Tom to provide Sallie with Y before she can begin working on X. These action items should be reviewed during the regular status call.

Issue log

An issue log captures open issues. Ideally, the development team could act as a perfect proxy for the business users and a project wouldn’t be required to go through user acceptance testing “UAT.” Unfortunately, the reality is that no matter how close a development team is to the business problem, nuances and use cases get missed. The issue log is the means to captures issues identified by project QA or business UAT. It tracks who, what, when, where & how.

  1. who reported the issue?
  2. what is the issue?
  3. when did this issue happen?
  4. where in the system is the issue?
  5. how can the project team replicate it?

Validation Sign Off

It is imperative in a project to receive validation from the business users. It is also important to capture who did the validation and any special circumstances that may have existed. In many projects, anomalies or unexpected results are identified but they don’t change the implementation. They merely need to be acknowledged by all the project development team and the business stakeholders and documented for future reference. These details can be useful in training and rollout as well.

Each of these tools are helping build credibility with the customer. They see that you are hearing them, acknowledging them and documenting the findings each step of the way. At no point should anyone be blindsided by the details of requirements, dependent action items, open issues or signed off results. These are fundamental to project management, and what a project manager needs to do to be successful.

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 put 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.

 

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.

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.

misplaced-meme

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.