Strengthening Client Involvement in the PRINCE2 Process: Using the ECPM Co-Manager Model
PART 1: Establishing Meaningful Client Involvement
This is the first of a two part article. Part 1 discusses the importance of meaningful client involvement to the success of the PRINCE2 process and its deliverables. Part 2 discusses how the ECPM Co-Manager Model can be the enabler of that success.
Meaningful client involvement and the Co-Manager Model are unique to the ECPM Framework and the infrastructure upon which joint ownership of the deliverables is established and expected business value delivered. This is particularly important because many complex projects are often characterized as journeys into the unknown. A solution to a significant problem is not known and so the best resources available must be used to maximum benefit. The complete solution must be discovered through iteration and must deliver the expected business value in order to be acceptable. For the most complex of projects this can only happen in an open and creative team environment. That places a burden on the project team to embrace an infrastructure that supports and encourages meaningful client involvement and a challenge to senior management is to provide the infrastructure to support that involvement.
Remember that the client is often the best qualified Subject Matter Expert (SME) when it comes to an in depth understanding of the business process or product under consideration. While the client has a prominent role in the PRINCE2 team structure, there are some significant improvement opportunities that can result from incorporating the ECPM Framework Co-Manager Model into the PRINCE2 team structure. Maximizing client involvement in all aspects of the project will be the best strategy.
Not too long ago, client involvement required nothing more than the client signing off on a lengthy and confusing functional specification loaded with unintelligible acronyms. This signing was more an implied threat of project delays than an agreement on content. Fortunately, those days are history. Technology is more user-friendly, clients more technologically savvy, and satisfying their needs requires a participatory process. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that client involvement doesn’t come without challenges. As complexity increases and uncertainties surrounding solution discovery grow, meaningful client involvement becomes a major critical success factor (CSF). The project manager (PM) must be more attuned to the management processes they use and how those processes impact solution discovery and the subsequent generation of business value. The client or their business analyst (BA) must be more attuned to how the product deliverables contribute to business value. Both parties must create an open and honest relationship in order to improve the likelihood of achieving project success and delivering acceptable business value. Synergy is found through those cooperative efforts, and without it, the likelihood of finding acceptable solutions is at risk.
Keep in mind that the client may be the best subject matter expert (SME) when solving unsolved problems and exploiting untapped business opportunities. Beyond their SME roles, they are the owners of the project deliverables. Their meaningful involvement produces a vested interest in the success of the project. In a sense, their reputation and credibility are at stake. Project success is measured first by the business value that the solution delivers and secondly by the successful execution of the process that created the solution.
A QUICK VIEW OF COMPLEXITY AND UNCERTAINTY
Complexity and uncertainty are two characteristics common to most contemporary projects. Furthermore they create a challenge to the success of even the most sophisticated management approaches. To be successful PRINCE2 processes and practices must take full advantage of available tools, templates and processes designed for just such situations.
All of the simple projects have been done. They left a rich heritage of recorded experiences for use in future simple projects. Remaining projects become more complex every passing day. Situations that have never been encountered are more the rule than the exception. As problems become complex, they also become more critical to the success of the enterprise. They must be solved. We don’t have a choice. They must be managed, and we must have an effective way of managing them. Integrating lean artifacts from the ECPM Framework into PRINCE2 is the recommended strategy.
With increasing levels of complexity comes increasing levels of uncertainty. The uncertainty relates to the organization’s ability to find acceptable solutions. Adapting project management approaches to handle uncertainty means that the approaches must not only accommodate change, but also embrace it and become more effective as a result of it. Change will lead the team and the client to a state of certainty with respect to a viable solution to its complex problems. In other words, we must have project management approaches that expect change and benefit from it. Increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty means the project management approaches must allow for creativity, flexibility, and adaptability on the part of the complex project team. That is the new reality. The complex project team must be staffed with subject matter experts (SMEs) who have the deepest understanding of the project situation and can investigate possible solutions.
An intuitive way of graphically presenting complexity and uncertainty  is shown in Figure 1.1.
Figure 1.1 Traditional Projects versus Complex Project Landscape
Quadrant 1 (Q1) is familiar territory as it houses the traditional projects. All types of Waterfall and other linear and some incremental models are used for projects in Q1. Quadrants 2, 3 and 4 are the domain of the complex projects. While a simple taxonomy it facilitates the mapping of project types and requirements to the best fit project management model. In practice it has proven to be comprehensive in scope and inclusive of all known project management methodologies. As project execution continues the project management environment adapts to changing conditions. This approach is a unique feature of the ECPM Framework and has contributed to significant increases in project success and the delivery of sustainable business value.
THE COMPLEX PROJECT TEAM
One aspect of establishing meaningful client involvement begins at the team level. The collaborative efforts of a development team and a client team working in partnership creates a synergy. This collaboration begins within the management structure of the project team. We begin this discussion with the structure of a typical complex project team (see Figure 1.2).
Figure 1.2 Complex Project Team Overview
The Complex Project Team is fully discussed in Part 2 and not further described here. For now it is sufficient to know that the Co-Manager Model to be discussed in Part 2 is unique to the ECPM Framework and in it are features that are easily integrated into PRINCE2 that will improve process performance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANINGFUL CLIENT INVOLVEMENT
The complex project landscape is populated with unsolved problems and business opportunities not yet exploited. None of these are easy projects. Some have been worked on before with less-than-satisfactory outcomes or no usable outcomes at all. If these projects are critical to the business, they must be successfully executed and produce the results for which they were undertaken. So the best approach for an enterprise is to utilize a complex project management approach that brings the appropriate parties together into a true team environment and turns them loose to find the sought-after solutions. The team must be self-sufficient. It isn’t sufficient to just put them together in the same room and hope for an acceptable business solution. There must be guidelines, tools, templates, and processes from which they craft a “recipe” to manage such challenging projects. That is a role for the complex project co-managers supported by an effective complex project management framework.
In its 2013 CHAOS report, the Standish Group cited lack of client involvement as the second most critical factor for project failure. In fact, without meaningful client involvement from the start of a complex project, failure is certain. It’s not just important to involve clients — that involvement must be meaningful. Simply getting a sign-off on an implementation, some arcane specification, or confusing test plan is not meaningful involvement. For over 20 years I have utilized a simple homegrown practice in my consulting practice that fosters an ownership position and encourages the client to do whatever they can to make the project successful. Remember that an ownership position puts reputations on the line to deliver business value just as the project manager’s reputation is on the line to create and manage an effective process. Meaningful client involvement is an acquired practice and is purposely designed into the entire complex project lifespan.
Meaningful client involvement begins before the complex project has even been formulated. It begins at the point where the enterprise defines the desired end state and extends through to implementation planning and execution. In other words, meaningful client involvement is an effort that extends across the entire complex project from conception to birth to maturation. To get the continuing full benefit from these projects, the enterprise must commit to this effort. For most organizations it will be a complete evolution of how they approach the management of their projects, programs, and portfolios. It is one of the enabling factors for the strategic plan of the enterprise.
THE CHALLENGES OF CULTIVATING MEANINGFUL CLIENT INVOLVEMENT
Early in my career as a project manager I invited my client to work with me on a particularly complex software development project that my team was ready to start for them. The solution we sought had been elusive for a number of years and had reached the stage where it affected the business. The need was now critical, and something had to be done. Despite our best efforts, the risk was high that we would fall short of meeting the sponsor’s objectives and their expected business value. We knew that we may not be able to create the best solution, but as a minimum, it had to be an acceptable solution. Later solutions could improve the original solution. We faced a particularly high-risk assignment due to the complexity of the business processes involved. If I was going to be successful, I knew I would need the participation of the client far beyond the common practice of the time. So I extended an invitation to the client to get meaningfully involved with the development team. I didn’t know what reaction I would get.
The client’s first reaction was that they didn’t know anything about software development and didn’t understand how they could help. They balked at my invitation, and it took some reassurance from me that I would need their expertise if we were to be successful. Fortunately, I built a trusting relationship with them from previous project successes and at least I convinced them to participate. It was clear that I was in a “show me” situation.
What If You Can’t Get the Client Meaningfully Involved?
This is a tough situation to face and history is not on our side. Not having meaningful client involvement in a complex project is a show-stopper. In my earlier days, I might have said I would find some work around and do the project without the meaningful involvement of the client. Now with several years’ experience to draw on I just wouldn’t do the project until the client was willing to be meaningfully involved. I’ve tried both the workaround and the delay strategies and had a few successes but left a lot of blood on the trail. I often won the battle but lost the war. In general neither strategy met with my satisfaction. Now I tend to follow a more diplomatic route. The success of the project is critical to the continued operation of the business and is beyond your authority to cancel or postpone. On the assumption that the project will go ahead what would you, could you, or should you do? Of prime importance is finding out what barriers to meaningful involvement exist in the mind of the client and put a mitigation program in place. Two barriers come to mind, but there could be others.
What If the Client Was Burned by Prior Project Experiences and Is Hesitant to Get Involved?
If this is the problem, the technical professionals have inherited some significant baggage from their grandfathers. In those days, the customer wasn’t really encouraged to get involved. Just get the requirements document written and approved and turn the project over to the development and delivery teams. The prevailing attitude was that the client would only slow the process down. Fortunately, that attitude hasn’t survived but the memory of it has. The client is much more comfortable minding their own business and leaving technology to the technical folks. The client gets involved but only when the development and delivery team offers them a comfortable way to get involved.
The burden is on the project team to change this attitude. Depending on the particular circumstances that the client faces, different initiatives on the part of the project team can be employed. Workshops, seminars, site visits, conferences, and other venues are productive. One strategy that I have had excellent results with is to engage the client in concurrent workshops and seminars that are imbedded in their complex project and to use actual project team exercises based on the project. This is an effective twist on the “learn by doing” principle that underlies all successful complex projects.
What If the Client Wants to Get Too Involved?
Yes, I have encountered this situation too — but not very often. Taking a cue from the days of end-user computing, there will be clients who aggressively promote their solution. They want to get too involved. They push hard to get their own solution on the table and are reluctant to consider other ideas. You don’t want to discourage them from sharing their ideas, but you don’t want to risk missing a better solution. They can be an effective team player and the best SME you might have, but their eagerness must be channeled.
I have borrowed process ideas from prototyping and brainstorming as appropriate. For example, you might start solution design with their solution and discuss ways it might be improved with other features and functions. Often, the client will not be aware of other systems and processes that can be used to their advantage. Both prototyping and brainstorming can be used here to include these systems and processes in the client’s solution with good results. Assuming the client offers good suggestions, exploit this with discussions about more sophisticated solutions that cause them to generate even greater business value than their solution affords. Capitalize on the knowledge that the client displays through their input.
Clients come in all sizes and descriptions. Some are a veritable fountains that spew ideas and changes. This may seem like an enviable situation, but don’t overlook the need for convergence to a solution. Their behavior can cause the team to spend too much time on non-value-added work as they do their analysis of the scope implications and contribution to business value.
Others don’t seem to have any ideas to share or maybe the project manager hasn’t created the open and honest team environment that is needed. This is a dangerous situation and calls upon all of the skills of the project manager and the development team. Change is critical in every complex project. Here is the list. It is explored in the forthcoming book (see NOTE at the end of the article):.
- Always Use the Language of the Client
- Maintain a Continuous Brainstorming Culture
- Use a Co-Project Manager Model
- Establish an Open and Honest Team Environment
ESTABLISHING AND SUSTAINING MEANINGFUL CLIENT INVOLVEMENT IN A PRINCE2 PROJECT
The complex project is a high risk project. The Client is the best SME for an overall mitigation plan to manage and contain that risk. Integrating agile practices such as the ECPM Framework benefits PRINCE2 in a number of ways:
- Improved scope planning and requirements management at Client Checkpoints
- Early realization of business value through Incremental product/service delivery
- Leverage client product/service expertise and create client ownership of deliverables
- Efficiently support iterative solution discovery and maintain a lean process
The lessons I learned from the projects discussed in this report are clear. No one can claim a corner on the knowledge market (i.e., more than one SME may be needed), and the client and every team member must be given a chance to contribute openly in a brainstorming fashion to the solution. Creativity is a critical component and must be openly encouraged and practiced. The development team and the client team can form a formidable team, if given the chance, and exploit the synergy that results. Ownership of the resulting solution can only come from giving all of the stakeholders an equal opportunity to meaningfully participate in the development of the solution. I also learned that through ownership of the solution, comes ownership of the implementation. Since it was their solution, they wouldn’t let it fail. The Client took the lead. How often can you claim that?
Implementing these practices takes project manager leadership and courage. For some clients, that requires selling the idea because they were the ones who responded to my request saying they were not technical and couldn’t contribute to a technical project. My selling proposition is that even though they may not be technical, I am not an expert in their line of business or business function. So by combining our separate expertise, we can produce an effective solution and create the expected business value that justified approving the project in the first place. They bring the business knowledge and experience to the table, and my team brings the technical knowledge and experience. Together, we create the synergy needed to find creative solutions in the midst of a complex project world.
The best way I have found for establishing and sustaining meaningful client involvement is by using the ECPM Framework Co-Manager Model. That is the topic of Part 2 of this article.
A more complete version of this article will be published in a forthcoming book:
Combining the Best of PRINCE2 and Agile: Using Selected Artifacts from the ECPM Framework (Wysocki, Robert K. and Colin Bentley, J. Ross Publishing, forthcoming summer 2016).
- The Standish Group. “Chaos Manifesto 2013.”
- Wysocki, Robert K. Effective Complex Project Management: An Adaptive Agile Framework for Delivering Business Value. J. Ross Publishing (forthcoming 2014).