In one organization (names withheld to protect the innocent and guilty) a large complex program to modernize business operations required that business unit staff attend requirements definition sessions, training events, and take part in testing. There is a fairly constant flow of random questions from the corporate parent. Each question requires research and response by the same subject matter experts who are also required to do their normal operational work and take part in improvement projects. Subject matter experts (SMEs) cancel meetings, just don't show up, and have their minds elsewhere when they do show up.
Operational work is their highest priority, though, even that takes a back seat to responding to demands from above. Project work is the lowest priority, even when the project is critical to the future health and growth of the organization. Therefore, projects are delayed, project teams are frustrated with what seems to be a lack of interest, caring and discipline on the part of operational staff and management. Operational staff are equally frustrated by being taken away from their work. In the end, the project team takes the blame for not meeting deadlines and life goes on as usual.
This problem can be resolved with a concerted effort, courage, better planning, and persistence.
Track, collect metrics, analyze interruptions, and identify their causes. Create increasingly robust inquiry and research capabilities to enable quick response by the requesters themselves, administrators or help desk people rather than operations and project people. Create or enhance the process to manage project initiation.
The effort is motivated by the understanding that 1) the requests will not go away, 2) it is unlikely that the people who make them will think ahead sufficiently to give the responders adequate time to respond in a non-disruptive way and 3) it is possible to improve the situation. Once that is understood, then there is a need for a commitment to make a process change. The first part of the change is to cultivate the disciplines, procedures and systems to identify, catalog, and analyze the interruptions. Based on the results of the analysis, the action to address the situation can be planned and executed.
That action might be the creation of an easy to use inquiry capability supported by a business data dictionary that enables access to data that has been "hidden" in operational databases and files. In many organizations, this is a heavy lift, requiring data analysis and the implementation of data management tools and procedures. Take the effort to minimize the research and inquiry response time while getting project people out of the process. Make the data available before it is required and give analysts and administrators, or even executives easy access to it.
Another kind of effort is also required. Create or fix the portfolio management and project initiation process so that interruptions and constant priority changes are brought to light and that their causes are known and addressed.
In other words proactively take control of the environment.
Since most interruptions come from above in the organization's hierarchy, it takes courage to push back. It is hard to say no to a senior executive who calls for a piece of information that they need for a meeting that is to take place in an hour. The call sets off a scramble for data and then to the possibility that the data will be poorly presented, leading the executive in the wrong direction. The courageous will inform the exec who does this chronically that they are disrupting operations and projects, risking misinformation and costing the organization money. This is where metrics about the number and type of interruptions comes in handy.
Emergency projects and changes are a bit easier to handle than requests for information, simply because the need is not as immediate and because they are more disruptive and more costly. Here the courage and ability to provide quick feedback about just how disruptive and costly the change will be is important. Often these requests come down from the executive's staff. Maybe, the exec's request is nothing more than a nice-to-have misconstrued as an immediate need. It is important to get validation. How? By being clear about the impact making the change will have on existing projects, its cost, and the real duration. Make sure the message actually gets to the executive.
Make the cost of unbridled inquiries and ad hoc changes clear to the executives and their staff. Replace knee jerk reaction with a measured response in a reasonable amount of time. Have the courage to push back.
The more you plan, the less courage you need. The more effort you take to capture and analyze metrics, the easier planning is.
Skillful planning considers past performance. Consider interruption time when scheduling. It should be obvious by now to all project managers that when there has been a history of regular interruptions that they will probably continue. It is quite possible to estimate the resource requirements for handling interruptions and take that into account when scheduling. If twenty percent of the resources per month have been called upon to handle interruptions in the past, if nothing has been done to change that, then only schedule for eighty percent availability. If, by some miracle, there are fewer interruptions than normal, you will come in ahead of schedule, which is much better in the eyes of just about everyone than coming in late.
If people complain about the lengthy schedule, explain why you are expecting the project to take longer than it should. Be ready to show your metrics to back up your explanation.
Don't give up. Keep pushing back, using your metrics to highlight the cost of interruptions and continue to recommend the projects that will reduce the burden on project and operational staff. The requests for information and the new ideas and needs for new projects will not go away. But, through persistence, the effort to make them less disruptive can be authorized, planned and executed.