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The HOW of Project Management

In his book, How. Why How We Do Anything Means Everything in Business (and in Life), Dov Seidman lays out a very compelling narrative of why the HOW of What we do is the new differentiator for success. It sounds confusing, but stay with me. In essence he says that in the past, it was WHAT people invented or manufactured that made them successful. Today, the product alone isn’t enough, it has to be coupled with HOW it is made and delivered. Similarly in Project Management, success will come from HOW projects are delivered as well as WHAT is ultimately produced.

Part of Seidman’s argument speaks to the idea that in a commoditized society, where inventions can be quickly reproduced throughout the world more cheaply, and often with little regard to intellectual property rights, many can produce the same or equivalent item. Not only are the same items available from many sources, but buyers are no longer confined to purchase items from local markets. The Internet and global distribution channels have vastly extended buyers purchasing options. Extending the analogy to project management, we find skilled project managers throughout the world and people willing to buy project management services from where ever they feel their needs will best be met. More and more, what will distinguish one project manager from another is HOW the outcome was achieved and HOW much value was added beyond the product, system or service itself.

As Seidman points out, one of the principal drivers for this change is our increasingly transparent society, where people today don’t just want to buy a product, they also want to know its source (i.e. in fair labor markets, politically acceptable countries) how it is made (i.e. environmentally friendly, without animal testing, safety tested components) and even who makes or sells it (big box stores vs. local merchants). These factors, along with things like customer service and a customer relationship (part of the HOW) make up what he considers the total customer experience. Hence, the value to the customer is not just the end result itself (the WHAT), but is the result of multiplying the WHAT by the HOW yielding a new value; the overall customer experience.

The other push towards HOW lies in the opportunity for innovation. If many can quickly duplicate the WHAT, then there is little long term competitive advantage in just making a new widget, since many others can quickly duplicate it. So HOW the widget is made and HOW it is delivered and HOW we interact with the consumer are all areas open to innovation to distinguish us from our competitors. Innovation in HOW may also be more difficult to copy since, in many instance, HOW relies on individual attitudes and behaviors, something which isn’t so easy to replicate.

The HOW of project management thus represents the best opportunities for project managers to innovate and distinguish themselves in the way they deliver projects to their customers. To illustrate this concept better, I’d like to use an example in IT project management, although the concept works equally well in other project management areas.

IT projects typically consist of:

  • Hardware and/or software (the WHAT)
  • Installation and configuration services (a combination of WHAT and HOW)
  • Integration of the ‘system’ into the business process (HOW)

As project managers, we may not have control over the hardware or software used (which by itself affords little competitive advantage, since everyone can acquire similar equipment), but we can influence the installation, direct how the system is rolled out to the user community and how it is integrated into the business process. Thus IT project management has a significant opportunity to improve project delivery by focusing on HOW we deliver projects to the users and stakeholders and HOW we enable those products so they in turn can be utilized by the business to innovate and gain competitive advantage.

Let me repeat this point. There are two ways that project managers can win by focusing on HOW:

  1. Emphasize the process of delivering projects which includes; behaving ethically, building relationships, collaborating and providing exceptional customer service
  2. Implement ‘complete’ solutions which enable business users and stakeholders to utilize the system in innovative ways.

Project managers by definition are suppose to be ethical as stated in the opening lines of The Project Management Institute’s Code of Ethics:

“As practitioners of project management, we are committed to doing what is right and honorable. We set high standards for ourselves and we aspire to meet these standards in all aspects of our lives-at work, at home, and in service to our profession. “

Therefore, I won’t delve into the ethical aspects of Seidman’s HOW, but instead will focus on HOW project managers can improve the total customer experience. By building relationships, collaborating and maintaining customer focus, project managers improve their ability to deliver projects with the support, backing and collective vision of the project team and stakeholder community. The project isn’t just a necessary means to an end, but a collective vision of a better future. In this scenario, the likelihood of success improves as people contribute and feel vested in the process. Project managers, too, begin to differentiate themselves from others who may primarily focus on getting the project done. In addition to on-time and on-budget, it is the relationship and value added services which set these project managers apart from others and makes them the provider of choice.

The second aspect of HOW deals with what is delivered into the hands of the users when the project is over. The quality and completeness of the solution is what determines whether stakeholders and users will be able to utilize the system in new and innovative ways. The goal is not only to provide a working system, but also to provide a robust solution with opportunities for people to utilize the system to its full potential.

Here, success is also measured by completeness and an agreed level of quality. Too often, these aren’t clearly defined in the course of the project and, invariably, project managers and end users have different expectations. Good project management specifies good requirements management, but it is the techniques of relationship building, on-going collaboration and customer focus that are essential in narrowing the expectation gap between the project team and end users. Project managers and project teams need to shift their thinking from ‘getting the solution up and running’ to ‘how is this going to be used,” not just on day one, but over the entire life span of the solution.

Quality and completeness are relative and are likely to vary from company to company, and from application to application. But again, it will be HOW the project manager interacts with users and stakeholders to define these parameters that will distinguish the project outcome. Even with the best of intentions, project managers and users may miss requirements, but with a strong collaborative effort behind the project, energies become focused on fixing the problem instead of laying blame.

The business world is becoming more and more competitive and this in turn is placing more demands (and expectations) on project managers. From a business perspective, companies are now also asking HOW project managers deliver projects and HOW they are assuring completeness and quality. On-time and on-budget are still important project criteria, but they no longer stand alone as the primary determinants of project success. From a selfish perspective, those project managers who recognize the importance of HOW, will create competitive advantage for themselves. HOW we delivery our projects and HOW we enhance their utility to our stakeholders, distinguishes us as project mangers and enables our businesses to fully utilize these investments.

Building ‘Complete’ IT Projects

IT Projects run the gamut from simple hardware upgrades to global application implementations. Most bring about some degree of change to employees, suppliers, customers or all of the above. Whenever there is change there is opportunity for apprehension and confusion. A good place to address these changes is in the requirements and planning stages, but project teams and users don’t always anticipate everything that will be needed.

One way to capture completeness is to ask the technical team to assume the role of the end user and run through various processes, transactions, etc. For each step in the process, don’t just consider the expected result at each step in the process, but ask. “What if I didn’t get this result, what would/could I do next?” Project managers can also check for completeness by seeking out all business integration points and asking questions about what effect the new system will have on these other users and systems.

The following are some of the areas the project manager should consider when looking to deliver a complete IT solution:

  • Up and downstream integration into the business process
  • System governance
    • Who is responsible, what will they do and when does it get done?
    • How are exceptions handled
    • What is the Business change management process
  • Support and Service Management integration
  • User training, appropriate training materials and post implementation assistance
  • Organizational readiness and user adoption plan
  • Has the old system or temporary storage been removed?

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David Moutner, PMP is a Program Director at Glacier Interactive Services, an IT consulting firm specializing in end to end project delivery and organizational change. He can be reached at [email protected].

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