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.

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.

Project plans are your source of truth

It’s been a while since I last wrote about project plans, calling them living, breathing documents. As part of the recent series digging into the critical components of scope and estimates, project plans are the next logical discussion point. Project plans are the manifestation of the scope and estimates. It comes in the form of gantt charts, excel work breakdown structures, calendars, etc.

The project plan, in whatever form, is a combination of tasks (scope), timelines (schedule ), resources and cost (sometimes). They can be high-level or very detailed. They should show dependencies among tasks. However, I would caution you to make them too detailed, as they aren’t set in stone, and making them complicated means it can be painful to update. Give yourself and your project team enough information to see what needs to happen, when it will happen, and discussion points for scope changes, issues, etc.

Most project managers have their preferred tool. My preference is the simplest tool for the project team. In my cases, this is usually a work-breakdown chart in excel. Excel is something that most business professionals know how to use. You also have flexibility in how much detail you provide and it’s fairly easy to update.

Most important is for the project manager to be regularly reviewing and updating the project plan. Always accurately represent where you are in the project. This is something that you should be sending out to key stakeholders on a weekly, or semi-weekly basis. It really does become the point of reference for discussions. Stakeholders may not read it, but you can use it to guide discussions, and point to it as the single source of truth. This is key.

Estimates are just educated guestimates

In my last post, I introduced scope. I defined it, explained how it can go wrong, and discussed the key role of the project manager to manage it. This week, I’m going to dive into some thoughts on scope definition and estimates. With everything I said last week about scope needing constant supervision and management, how is it possible to effectively define project scope?

scope-creep-monsterThere is a reason that we refer to the assignment of hours to tasks in projects as estimates. They are rough calculation, or less eloquently referred to as guesses. There are too many unknowns in software or data integration projects to be 100% correct, 100% of the time. However, there are definitely tips and tricks that we can use to get us a point where we are right more often than wrong (although that is a relative number when you consider that scope creep or changes are to be expected).

So, where do we start? We start with gathering as much information you we can about the work to be done. In the sales process, there are usually some very high level swag timelines thrown out, with caveats (AKA assumptions) that point to the need to fine-tune the timeline as the sales process continues. The next steps is to think about those tasks as they relate to functions and tasks your organization has done before. While it may not be the exact scenario, you can usually assign a relatively good initial estimate.

A common error in estimating is trying to estimate a task that is too broadly defined. Make sure you create tangible component tasks.

If a requirement is totally new, or you are using new resources, or there are quite a bit of unknowns, you need to take that all into consideration. You should look at similar work and then apply some multiple of time to account for your unknowns. This is where documenting your assumptions becomes critical. Like the scope definition, estimates and their corresponding plans (work breakdown structures, project plans, etc) are all living, breathing documents. They need to be reviewed, updated and acknowledged regularly.

A separate issue in all of this is the alignment of scope to project cost/budget. This are two very different things. When you are scoping a project, it is in your best interest to scope it fully. Do not consider the customer or organization budget in that matter. It is a strategic decision by your organization (sales, executive, etc) to decide what is charged to the customer for what scope. Negotiation of fees and scope will happen. Your goal should still be to stay as close to budget and timelines as you can, but understand that there can be other circumstances in play.

The biggest take-away to all of this is, you have to start somewhere! Monitor your estimates, update and communicate regularly and then learn from it. Apply the learnings to the next estimates you need to do.

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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It really isn’t all about the numbers

Sitting at the intersection of business and technology means that I can interact with both groups. As a project manager who specializes in data projects, this often means diving into the analysis of the data, for validation, or understanding requirements, or more importantly to help craft a story, preferably around project success. Companies are becoming more data savvy, hiring Chief Data Officers and data scientists, and focusing on numbers to drive business decisions. I am very supportive of this, but we need to be careful to remember that it’s not just about the numbers.

numbers

More important is how we use these numbers to tell our stories. If your customer presents you with a problem, and a set of data that supports their conclusions, you need to look at it end to end to determine how to approach your story. Here’s a few thoughts on how you might approach it.

  • What were the assumptions made? In lieu of other information, we start with a core set of assumptions. It’s good to recognize and document these assumptions. It’s also good to challenge the assumptions if you have information not previously considered.
  • Evaluate your inputs end to end. Start at the beginning of the process and evaluate each step to understand the decisions made, and how those decisions impacted the outcomes.
  • Evaluate the outputs. There are so many opportunities to introduce uncertainty and inaccuracies into human process (data or otherwise). Was the data entry manual? Is there evidence of irregularities? Does the output make sense in relation to the logic of it’s corresponding process? Systematic logic is still at the whims of the people who write it.
  • Challenge the conclusion. While it’s important not to be defensive here, you do need to consider the “foregone conclusion”  and make sure it withstands probing and prodding. This is where perspective and point of view comes in. Make a conscious determination of the story you are telling based not the facts.
  • Communicate the deficiencies. If you go from one extreme to another extreme, swapping the entire frame of reference, it raises questions and credibility issues. As you are diving in and crafting your story, make sure to highlight deficiencies and inefficiencies of all components. Try to be balanced in your analysis, taking into account the work your customer took before it came to you.

There are lots of methodologies being used for diving in to real root causes (i.e. 5 whys, fishbone, etc). In data projects, it’s about being able to understand what the data is telling you and being able to convey that in a coherent and concise manner. Please don’t give me a bunch of facts, without an explanation of how you got there. This is the story. Understanding that data needs explanations, in the form of stories,  is why I do so well in managing my data projects.

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.