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From the Sponsor’s Desk. Anybody Can Manage a Project, Part 1

In my last post, The Power of Teams, I reviewed a project that succeeded because the PM went that extra mile to build a great team. I also looked at how this Great PM leveraged the Project Pre-Check fundamentals of stakeholders, defined processes and a best practice based decision framework to achieve great results.

In this post, we’ll look at a situation that happens all too often – assigning someone with no prior PM experience, no formal PM education and no in-place mentor to manage a key project.  That’s why I call this post Anybody Can Manage a Project, Part 1!

The Situation

A well-known North American financial services company provided life insurance coverage for individual customers through their brokers and agents. They used an illustration package to demonstrate insurance proposals and the related premiums and coverage to prospects and clients. 

The Goal

The insurance company wanted to offer new options and features to the public and needed to make major enhancements to their Illustrations system to support these plans. It was expected that these enhancements would result in increased revenue and market share.  The project budget was $1.7 million.

The Project

The organization had an IT shop of about 150 resources. The CIO decided to promote a Solution Architect to the position of project manager for this project. The business agreed with the proposal. They felt it was a logical choice – she had been with the company a long time and knew their business well.  She knew all the IT and business players and was well respected.  She had wanted to move into a project management position, and this would be a reward for her loyalty and hard work within the organization.

The Results

The project struggled on a number of fronts:

The project manager did not understand project management fundamentals. She had no idea how to manage a budget, a project plan, issues and risks or how to develop and execute a communication plan! What she had thought would be a piece of cake and help her gain more recognition turned out to be a nightmare.

She continued to operate with a Solution Architect mindset, working primarily with a senior staff member in the Marketing organization to design the new features, functions and capabilities of the illustration service.

The sponsor and the CIO were AWOL. They initiated the project with much fanfare and then proceeded to go onto more pressing demands. They put no oversight framework in place. Meetings with the PM were haphazard at best.

The other stakeholders – Sales, Product Development, Actuarial, Administration, IT – weren’t formally invited to participate and didn’t push to be included.

The project was out of control – scope creep, budget overrun, no proper project plan, and no direction to the team. There were project management and software development methodologies available in house with the expertise to support them. The PM did not make use of the methodologies or the expertise and no one requested that she do so. 

After months of uncertain progress, escalating costs and no clear plans to assess the status of the undertaking, the business sponsor asked that the project manager be replaced in order to save the project. The business had lost all confidence in her ability to deliver the targeted solution.

Finally, an experienced project manager was assigned to save the project and deliver the required capability.

The project was delivered for almost twice the original budget, nine months late.

How a Great Project Manager Would Have Helped

In spite of the obvious answer – assign an experienced PM – it is possible for people with little of no formal project management education or experience to be successful in a project management role. The problem in this situation was the assumptions the CIO, the sponsor and the Solution Architect made about her capabilities: she knew the business, she knew the application, and she knew the players. Therefore she knew how to mange the change. Fatal!

When a PM takes on a new assignment, there are some critical questions that need to be answered about the planned change. It doesn’t make any difference whether the assignment is the PM’s first or 1001st. It doesn’t matter whether the PM has been with the company for 30 years or has no prior exposure to the business or industry. The questions great PMs always ask and get answers to include:

Who are the key stakeholders and what are their roles? Who’s the sponsor? Who are the targets? Are there any champions? Are there any other change agents involved?

What are their individual and collective capabilities and levels of commitment? Is this a critical project for them? Do they have a clear and shared vision of what needs to be delivered and how it will realize the expected returns? Are they willing and able to make the necessary decisions to achieve a successful implementation? Have they worked together before and how effective were they?

What do they want? How do they see the planned change tying into to the organization’s mission, vision, values, strategies and plans? What kind of features, functions and capabilities are they looking for and what priorities to they attach to each? How much are they willing to spend? When do they want it delivered? Do they have any expectations about pilot programs, phasing delivery, staging implementation? What kinds and levels of risks do they want to take on? What are their quality expectations?

What is the impact of their wants on the existing environment? Does the planned change alter relationships with external entities (customers, suppliers, partners, etc.)? How does it affect the organization’s products and services, processes and functions, information needs, technology infrastructure and organizational structure and relationships?

How should the change be managed? What methodologies, processes and practices should be leveraged to guide the project through to completion? What kind of oversight practices should be applied? How do we resolve disagreements among the stakeholders? Who else needs to be involved, internal or external, at what stage?

In essence, these are the fundamentals included in Project Pre-Check. Great PMs add to these questions their leadership abilities, a willingness to learn, to seek guidance, to dialogue and to collaborate to achieve success. In this situation, the PM did fail. But so did the sponsor and the other stakeholders. It was a classic case of not so benign neglect!

If you find yourself in a similar situation, put these points on your checklist of things to do so you too can be a great PM, and your sponsor’s best friend.

Next, we’ll look at a similar situation that I call Anybody Can Manage a Project, Part 2. In this case, the project manager assigned to manage a key project had no prior PM experience, no formal PM education but managed to achieve a much more acceptable result with a little help from her colleagues. In the interim, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, past or present, that you’d like to have examined through the Project Pre-Check lens, send me the details and we’ll have a go.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Drew Davison

Drew Davison is the owner and principal consultant at Davison Consulting and a former system development executive. He is the developer of Project Pre-Check, an innovative framework for launching projects and guiding successful project delivery, the author of Project Pre-Check - The Stakeholder Practice for Successful Business and Technology Change and Project Pre-Check FastPath - The Project Manager’s Guide to Stakeholder Management. He works with organizations that are undergoing major business and technology change to implement the empowered stakeholder groups critical to project success. Drew can be reached at [email protected].

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