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From the Sponsor’s Desk – Create Your Next Great Assignment

Despite all our gains in technology, product innovation and world markets, most people are not thriving in the organizations they work for.” Stephen Covey

How long have you been doing your current job or filling your current role – project manager, change manager, etc.? Are you getting bored with the assignments? Would you like to try something new and different? Would you like new challenges? Then keep reading to see how you can create your next great assignment.

The Situation

A former colleague of mine, let’s call him Terry, was a very knowledgeable and successful technology architect. But he was getting bored with the role. He wanted something different, something new, a bit more stimulating. He needed a change.

As Terry was contemplating new opportunities, his boss, the CIO, handed him a ticket to an upcoming conference and asked him to see if there was anything to the new technology the conference was targeting – artificial intelligence. Obviously, this exchange took place a while ago. But Terry did attend. The timing was right. The subject matter was ideal. And the forum was perfect for establishing outside contacts and building relationships with experts in the field.

Terry returned to the office and mulled over what he had learned. As he was contemplating his next steps, the CIO departed the company. Now he had to sell the VP of Finance, who was not technically savvy and who Terry had never dealt with before, or wait until a new CIO was appointed. Terry decided to charge ahead.

The Search for the Next Great Assignment

As it turned out, the CIO’s departure was a blessing in disguise. Terry had to rework his whole approach. He had to change his focus, from the technology that was initially at the heart of his proposal to the business opportunity that would appeal to the VP of Finance. Instead of emphasizing the various technologies, he would promote Fast Change – delivering real business value quickly with bankable returns.

Terry realized the biggest challenge for his prospective business clients was getting stuff done. There was at least a three year backlog of projects in the traditional system development cycle and the methods and practices they employed meant big price tags and long delivery times. Many of the opportunities Terry wanted to focus on were small initiatives with potentially large impacts that were typically outside the core system development mindset and planning process.

So Terry put together his proposal for the VP of Finance’s consideration. He outlined the burning platform that was at the heart of the proposal – the number of business opportunities that were not being serviced by the major system development life cycle. Terry included a number of examples business managers had provided to him during his research. He proposed a small Fast Change team that would solicit assignments from the across the organization. It would accept projects that offered a 3:1 return, $3 for every $1 invested. It would be nimble and quick, focus on business need and deploy whatever technology and practices were required to support the benefit and cost goals. The business would be on the hook for benefit realization. Terry’s team would be responsible for managing costs in line with the target ratio. Projects that were accepted would deliver benefits within six weeks and would not exceed six months for all phases. All projects would be audited by Internal Audit on a rolling quarterly basis. Each project would go through an internal gating process and projects that failed at any of the gates would be relaunched or go through an early exit. Terry’s proposal also presented some alternative implementation schemes and growth scenarios to respond to the anticipated demand.

Terry reviewed his proposal with a number of trusted colleagues and then booked a meeting with the VP of Finance. He was confident in his material and the value of his proposal but he was unsure how it would be received. He needn’t have worried. The VP of Finance loved the business focus, the emphasis on nimble, fast delivery, the 3:1 benefit to cost ratio, the quarterly audit. He saw it as a low risk, high return venture that would enhance business confidence in IT and compliment the other core IT services. He gave Terry the go ahead for a four person team.

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The Results

Terry wasted no time getting up to speed. He assembled his four person team and together they began to socialize their service. They spread out to the various management teams throughout the company to introduce Fast Change. They conducted Lunch & Learn sessions over the lunch hour, offering sandwiches and crudité as enticements, open to all. Recognizing that their IT colleagues also had numerous contacts throughout the business, they encouraged them to promote the Fast Change service and pass on any leads.

In very short order, there was more work than the team could handle. They negotiated among the competing requests and selected two projects to tackle concurrently.  The initial efforts were light on methodology and documentation, using a project charter-like document as the mandate letter and relying on close collaboration between the team players – business, Fast Change team, IT resources and consultants as needed. Also, some of the initial technology search, selection and integration activity took longer and cost more than anticipated and the VP of Finance agreed to offload some of the cost from the initial project on the proviso that subsequent endeavours would benefit from the work. 

The first two projects were delivered successfully with enthusiasm all around. The word spread. Two more projects were selected in quick succession, followed by three more, and on it went. The order book was growing rapidly and a backlog developed. At the peak of operation, the Fast Change team had about thirty concurrent projects on the go at any one time and delivered over 150 projects over the team’s life. The full portfolio achieved in excess of the target 3:1 benefit to cost ratio with each individual project delivering a minimum 2:1 benefit to cost return.

Fast Change team members loved the experience. They were working with new and interesting technologies and engaging directly with the business members. They were talking to outside experts about new approaches and technologies that could help them solve today’s business problems. The business participants raved about the experience because they were working directly on and solving their business problems in the short term. The VP of Finance was most enthusiastic for the initiative. He was getting rave reviews from the executive offices and delivering the promised return on investment. And Terry was thrilled as well. He got to create and enjoy a stimulating and profitable experience.

How to Create Your Next Great Assignment

Terry went from a high performer in his technology architect role, to a novice Fast Change artist, to a rapid change master. His team went through the same learning cycle. And they all thrived. There were a few keys to their success – a willingness to learn, to try something new, a supportive and collaborative culture, willing and able business participants, a supportive sponsor and, of course, the golden opportunity.

The steps Terry went through are similar to the approach you’d take to launch a start-up venture. In fact, my previous post, Run Your Project like a Start-Up, covers a similar journey. If you’re keen on going after a new and different assignment, here’s the approach Terry used. Refine it as you see fit:

  • Explore – What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What technologies, processes and practices look interesting from your perspective? This stage is all about changing your frame of reference, from what you have been doing and are doing to what you could be doing in the future.
  • Research – Pick a few items from the Explore stage that appeal to you and do some research. Who is leading the way? What are they achieving? Does the timing put you on the bleeding edge? What’s the learning curve like? What’s the timeframe for delivering value? What’s the approximate size of the investment to get started? Would the field be of interest to your current organization or would you have to move to pursue the opportunity? The Research stage should help you narrow down your options and pick one or two possible directions to focus on.
  • Pitch – Develop your pitch. Target it to the individuals who will decide whether to fund you to the next step. Cover the burning platform/opportunities and the solution/secret sauce you believe will reap the rewards. Present alternatives for your offering and how to get there. Demonstrate market validation (who’s doing what) and include examples. Show the potential market size (magnitude of opportunity). Include the key selling points that address the burning platform and capitalize on the opportunities. Present the value equation – 3:1 benefits to costs in this case – plus other tangibles and intangibles. Cover the metrics, measurement and control practices that will ensure the targeted return. Present your market adoption strategies and options. Address the competition for your job, role, product or service and your and their competitive advantages, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Present your team, either the real people or the skills and capabilities needed. Lay out the next steps to get you on your way and delivering that value you promised. Put all this in a nice slick, short, succinct package with key pictures, charts, tables, graphs and graphics. Socialize your draft pitch with friends, family, your mentors and colleagues and refine accordingly. Finally, make the sale. Repeat as necessary.
  • Resource – In Terry’s case, his new assignment required additional staff and resources. The people he picked would ultimately determine the success of his venture. So he chose carefully. If your new assignment requires additional resources, be very clear on the knowledge, skills, attitudes, aspirations and capabilities your team will need to be successful. And proceed accordingly.
  • Trial – Once you’ve received the go ahead, pick a couple of tasks/projects/engagements – some low hanging fruit if you will – to prove the concepts, provide the training and learning opportunities and demonstrate the value to your clients and sponsors. Refine as needed. Repeat.
  • Promote/engage – Your target audience and your sponsors need to hear about the value you can provide and have provided to others. Use lunch & learn and information sessions, flyers, blogs, Youtube videos, face to face one on ones, whatever is appropriate and effective for your market. Also, tell your success stories. Or let the business partners who reaped the benefits of your efforts tell the stories for you.
  • Manage – This is where the rubber meets the road. Measuring your performance will make you better and your team more focused. Make sure you’re providing the value you promised, like the 3:1 benefits to costs, internal gating, early exits and quarterly independent audits in Terry’s case.

So, ask yourself what you’d like to do for your next assignment. As you consider that question, consider Terry’s challenge and the path he followed to a stimulating and fulfilling new assignment. I hope you too can create your next great assignment.

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].