Author: 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]

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


From the Sponsor’s Desk – The Power of Teams

In my last post, Speaking Truth to Power, I reviewed a project that was rescued by a PM that had the courage of his convictions. 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 project that succeeded because the PM went that extra mile to build a great team. That’s why I call this post The Power of Teams!

The Situation

 This organization was a large financial services firm with a large, highly productive sales organization. Over time, with the introduction of new products and services and changes in the competitive marketplace, the sales compensation and recognition programs became less focused and did not always promote behaviours that were in the best interests of the clients and the company.

The Goal

The Vice President of Sales, the sponsor of the venture, announced that a major reworking of the sales compensation and recognition programs was necessary to meet the ongoing and future needs of clients and the company. The new programs were to be introduced effective January 1, fourteen months in the future.

The Project

With only fourteen months to get the job done, the CIO recognized the risk. Prior experience with sales compensation and recognition changes suggested this instance would be in the $5 million range and require more than fifty project staff at the peak. To compound the challenge, there was a corporate system freeze on anything but critical changes which started six weeks before year end.

While the general direction of the compensation changes had been set, the details had yet to be determined. Consequently, a PM was selected who had a great track record with ill defined projects and superb leadership and communication skills. The PM focused on building his IT core team according to the following criteria:

  • The ability to contribute effectively at any stage of the project, from business conceptualization to post implementation support.
  • Proven expertise in all of the technology platforms, development practices and tools involved.
  • Great team and communication skills up, down and sideways.
  • Fast learner and self starter with excellent time management skills.

Fortunately, the organization had an effective Portfolio Management process in place and the compensation changes were given a high priority, at the top of the food chain when it came to acquiring resources. That made it relatively easy for the PM to hand-pick the right staff from across the organization, in spite of more than a few grumbles from other sponsors and PMs. Of course, the staff assigned to the project realized the prestige of being selected and that provided a powerful catalyst to help the team jell and excel. 

Within a month, the PM had assembled his core group of twenty IT staff. He recognized that the project’s success depended on the ability of that group to far exceed the sum of the parts and so he set about shaping those twenty individuals into a high performance team.

The Result

The project implemented successfully just prior to the year end freeze, twelve and a half months after launch. The actual cost was slightly under budget and the quality of the delivered software, processes and services was outstanding.

In fact, the sponsor, who was known for staging extravagant sales conferences and ignoring the achievements of his head office organization, reserved a local, high end restaurant to wine and dine all the project staff, business and IT, as well as their spouses, over 160 people in total. Each team member received an engraved pen and pencil set. Each spouse received a set of engraved wine goblets. When was the last time a sponsor on one of your projects took you out to a high end restaurant and bought you personalized gifts?    

How this Great PM Helped

This project had one significant advantage; the vast majority of those affected by the planned changes reported to the sponsor. The PM leveraged that reality to get the attention of the managers affected and the right business staff assigned. In addition, the PM focused on the following areas to deliver a successful result:

  • He built the capability of his IT team and the overall business/IT group with frequent sponsor encounters stressing the common mission, vision, goals and priorities.
  • He ensured at least one of his core team members was involved with each business area from the start to assess alternatives and develop the final specifications.
  • He developed and vetted team ground rules re operation, communication, confidentiality, sign-off’s, etc.
  • He gave the core team the ability to recruit and add additional IT resources as the need became apparent, and to move team members out if they weren’t cutting it.
  • He allowed the core team to set their own schedules, work hours, days off, vacations and found that they were more demanding of themselves than he would have ever been.
  • He developed and managed a comprehensive risk plan to reduce or eliminate high impact and high probability risks.
  • He refined the existing software development methodology to ensure the quality of each deliverable and reduce the time required for rework.

If you find yourself on a similar project, 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 time, we’ll look at a situation that happens all too often – assigning someone to manage a key project who has no prior PM experience, no formal PM education and no in place mentor. 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


From the Sponsor’s Desk – Speaking Truth to Power

In my last post, The Never Ending Project, I reviewed a project whose estimated costs continued to grow with no end in sight. I also looked at how a Great PM could have 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 project that had a great PM but a remote and uninvolved sponsor. Fortunately, the PM persisted with some critical yet fundamental practices, sometimes in the face of fierce executive resistance, to achieve success. That’s why I call this post Speaking Truth to Power!

The Situation

This organization was a large international financial services firm with world-wide operations. Because it was listed on a US stock exchange, it was required to comply with the provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). The bill was enacted in the US in 2002 as a reaction to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals including those affecting Enron, WorldCom and others.

The Goal

The legislation not only affected the financial side of corporations, it also affects the IT departments whose job it is to store a corporation’s electronic records. SOX required all business records, including electronic records and electronic messages, to be saved for “not less than five years.” The consequences for non-compliance were fines, imprisonment, or both. IT departments were increasingly faced with the challenge of creating and maintaining a corporate records archive in a cost-effective fashion that satisfied the requirements put forth by the legislation.

The Project

The organization launched a SOX program that included nine separate projects to address all lines of business and corporate functions. The PM running the Individual line of business SOX initiative departed nine months before the targeted and required completion date and so the company hired a contract PM to pick up the reins and see the project through to completion. All of the nine projects reported a Green status – everything going according to plan – from the inception of the program.

The Results

Before even starting on the job, the contract PM hired to run the Individual line of business SOX project read everything he could about SOX, the motivation, the risks, the penalties for non-compliance and what other companies were doing to address the challenge. On assuming his role as PM and with only nine months remaining, he talked to the project’s stakeholders and project staff and discovered the following:

  • The stakeholders and project staff had little or no knowledge of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and its implications for the organization.
  • Managers were including their own personal agendas and pet projects under the umbrella of the SOX initiative, swelling the effort, costs and risk.
  • There was no believable plan in place, no risk plan, incomplete testing and acceptance plans and inadequate resourcing. In short, there was absolutely no justification for a Green status.
  • To compound the challenge, the program sponsor, the corporate CFO, was not available to PMs. They were required to report through their respective line of business CIOs.

At the end of his first week on the job, the contract PM filed his first status report, with a status of RED. That colour would grace all the status reports for the following ten weeks. He endured pressure from his stakeholders to change the colour – not fix the project, just change the colour – because they were feeling the heat from the CFO. He was threatened with termination. He was berated, challenged and accused of incompetence. But he held his ground. Gradually, he was able to equip the stakeholders with an understanding of SOX, get their agreement on project scope, cut the pork barrel add-ons, develop a comprehensive plan to deliver on target, get the right resources and, after almost three months on the job, report his first Green status.

As the ultimate testimony to his achievement, his project was the only one of the nine SOX initiatives to deliver on plan! Ironically, after all the abuse he took in the first couple of months on the job, he was offered a follow-on contract. He declined!

How This Great PM Helped

This organization, or at least the CFO and his reports, was more interested in the look of things than in actively managing a complex change. That’s a very difficult environment for PMs. Not only do they have to get the job done, they have to battle the corporate or division culture. Also, it’s probably a more difficult challenge for employees than contract PMs. However, great PMs will always speak truth to power regardless of their employment status.

In this case, the PM focused on a few key changes to achieve success:

  • He identified and moulded the key stakeholders into the effective decision-making group he needed for success.
  • He equipped them with the SOX knowledge and an understanding of the organizational impact necessary to make decisions on scope and priority.
  • He adopted a project reporting scheme that objectively determined the colour of the status report and ensured the stakeholders were on side with the criteria used. That took some executive heat off him in the second and third months and encouraged the decision makers to focus on the issues rather than his judgement.
  • He leveraged the CFO’s wrath to secure the right staff, with the right skills at the right time. That some other, concurrent, non-SOX projects took a hit was not his concern.

If you find yourself in similar circumstances, 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 project that succeeded because of the capability of a great team. 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

From the Sponsor’s Desk; The Never Ending Project

In my last post, I reviewed a challenged undertaking due, in part, to flawed incentive compensation. Here’s another example of a project that could have used a great PM. Unfortunately, it grew from a $7 million initiative to more than $30 million with no end in sight. That’s why I call this post The Never Ending Project!

The Situation

This organization provides credit life insurance coverage for financial services companies and their customers. Antiquated business processes and technology restricted their ability to respond to clients’ demands for better products, new services and better integration of the sales and administrative processes to reduce costs and improve responsiveness.

The Goal

To upgrade technology and redesign business processes to enable improved product and service offerings and better integration with their clients’ operations. The plan was to leave the interfaces to existing client services intact to reduce costs and risk. Expected cost was $7 million.

The Project

The organization had a small IT organization and experience with small projects. They were able to acquire an experienced project manager from the parent company and selected third party software to administer the life insurance contracts. A business executive was the project’s sponsor.

The Results

The project floundered on a variety of fronts:

  • They had great difficulty defining project requirements.
  • They had limited ability to test the delivered solution to ensure it met business and client needs.
  • The original project manager was pulled by the parent company, which also pulled the replacement and supplied a third project manager.
  • The vendor reported that it was unable to deliver the requested functionality through the existing client interfaces, significantly expanding the scope of the undertaking.
  • The project returned to the board three times to approve incremental funding. The estimated cost escalated to $30 million, over four times the original estimate, with less functionality and a delayed delivery.
  • The sponsor was adversarial, dictatorial and argumentative with anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the project.

How a Great PM would have Helped

There’s nothing worse for a PM than an out of control sponsor. In this case, a great PM could have leveraged Project Pre-Check’s building blocks (see my May 12, 2010 post) to address and remedy the obvious warning signs early in the project’s life cycle:

  • A strong, fully resourced stakeholder group including the vendor, target stakeholders from other affected organizations (possibly including client representatives) and a champion or two could have offered balance to the sponsor’s belligerence and provided effective early oversight to manage the scope.
  • There are a number of Project Pre-Check decision areas that, had they been addressed, could have resulted in an entirely different outcome:
    • Worth is a decision area that is seldom tackled in project operations yet can provide huge value. Knowing what a change is worth to the organization, and going through the effort to determine that figure, influences the alternatives that are considered, the approaches taken and the oversight applied on an ongoing basis. In this case, was the value to be delivered worth $30 million? Maybe not. Should the plug have been pulled early on? Perhaps.
    • The decision areas dealing with an organization’s capability for determining and managing requirements are critical for project success. If these had been considered and addressed by the stakeholders early in the project’s life, the outcomes would have been much more palatable.
    • The decision areas that address stakeholder capability, planning and managing risks, phasing and staging delivery, among others, could all have helped guide the project to a more successful conclusion.

Projects with revolving PMs are never easy, especially if you’re the last in line. If you find yourself in this situation, put the above 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 project that was in deep trouble when a contract PM took over and by speaking truth to power, was able to deliver successfully. In the interim, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, 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

From the Sponsor’s Desk; You Get What You Pay For

In my last post, I reviewed a most successful project, the Interface Initiative, and how the PM leveraged the Project Pre-Check fundamentals of stakeholders, defined processes and a best practice based decision framework to achieve great results and gain recognition from the stakeholders as a great PM.

Here’s an example of a project that could have used a great PM. Unfortunately, it was a challenged undertaking due, in part, to flawed incentive compensation. That’s way I call this post You Get What You Pay For!

The Situation

This organization provided pension administration services to clients and their employees. Its obsolete technology and obsolete application software along with a large manual work load resulted in high error rates and less than desirable service to its customers. There was about 150 staff at head office.

The Goal

To modernize the administrative and service processes including a technology upgrade to provide internet access for customers, improved quality, more automated function to reduce costs and improve responsiveness. Expected cost was $50 million.

The Project

The organization reviewed available alternatives and selected a vendor based on a comprehensive review of its capability. The company decided to co-source the operations, where the organization’s employees would use the application software operated by the vendor, rather than totally outsource administrative processes. A unique requirement was to be able to manage the pension records for staff that moved from one participating employer to another and could also work for more than one participating employer at the same time.

The organization had two managers in place to run the project, one from the internal IT organization and one from the vendor. They also contracted with an independent third party to provide oversight on an ongoing basis.

The Results

The project progressed well up to the planned implementation of the first release with costs of $20 million on target. Both the internal and vendor project managers reported solid progress and the external third party agreed with their findings. With these glad tidings, the organization planned a first release celebration to recognize the achievement.

In actual fact, the implementation was a disaster. Nothing worked. The changes were pulled out. There was no contingency plan so the reversion to the original systems was messy and time consuming. The review found the following factors contributed to the failure:

  • The product from the selected vendor had two major deficiencies – their systems needed major modifications to handle individual pension records across organizations and they had never co-sourced a solution before. The latter fact did not come to light until the first phase implementation failed.
  • The vendor and internal managers were to receive substantial bonuses based on making their delivery target. They covered up the problems, hoping that they could clean up the issues after implementation and still be entitled to their bonuses.
  • Why didn’t the third party consultant discover the problems and blow the whistle? The consultant used two sources for input to the periodic reports – the internal and vendor managers. Their definition of an independent review differed significantly from what was expected.
  • The estimated cost to complete the project ballooned to $70 million, 40% greater than originally forecast.

How a great PM would have helped!

There are a number of actions a great PM would have taken to ensure a successful outcome.

  • Formation of an effective and representative stakeholder group would have exposed the two project managers and the external consultant to decision makers representing the organizations and staff affected by the planned change. These stakeholders would have been very vocal in their demands for project results that demonstrated the integrity of ongoing operations.
  • It’s clear that this was a huge undertaking for such a small organization and the stakeholders lacked experience in this size of project. A great PM would have provided the stakeholders with the required insight or brought in additional help to provide the required oversight.
  • There are a number of best practices that would have undoubtedly been deemed relevant and given appropriate attention by stakeholders over the course of the project including risk management, quality management, performance management (including incentive compensation), and project tracking, control and communication.
  • The use of appropriate stakeholder processes would have provided senior management with a broad decision making foundation and an ongoing scorecard independent of the project managers’ reports.

I also expect a great PM would have negotiated an incentive contract that was based on the stakeholders real needs, not on hitting some arbitrary date. On your next project, 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 project that just kept going, and going, and going. In the interim, if you have a project experience, either good or bad, 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