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Ensure Success Before the Project Begins

October 21, 2010

Tips for a New Project Manager

Most project management books tell you how to organize and manage a project, keeping track of tasks, assignments, milestones, and deadlines.  The general assumption is that the project manager’s job is to ensure that the project is completed on time and on budget.  If a project manager also wants to minimize resistance and maximize user satisfaction, I would recommend doing some homework – and legwork – before the project begins.

Here’s why.   In project management, success is probably due less to managing a project plan and meeting deadlines and more to understanding who will be affected and how, as a result of project implementation.  The most poorly documented and managed project can be a resounding success if the key stakeholders are engaged and supportive.  I am not suggesting that projects be undertaken with anything other than a fully professional approach, but I am saying that the best project plan may be doomed to failure if a respectful partnership is not established before the project begins.

The process of determining who need to be your partners can be daunting, and if you are a new project manager in a company or industry, it makes sense to make your first partnership with an experienced project manager who is willing to be a mentor and advisor.  If an experienced project manager is not available, try your supervisor.   At a minimum, before scheduling your first project meeting or developing a project task list, ask yourself:

  • Who is going to be my primary business partner among the key stakeholders?
  • Who else needs to be involved (departments or individuals) in determining project priorities (particularly important in agile development), scope, specifications, timing, testing, communication, training, post-implementation review, and support?
  • What vehicles are available to facilitate project meetings and communication (e.g., email, voice or video conferencing, intranet, project management software, gatekeeper calendar, corporate communication packet)?
  • Who is not going to like this project and why?  And how do I overcome their objections and address their concerns?

Once you have the answers to these questions, the next step is to meet INDIVIDUALLY with everyone you now know will be involved.  When requesting the meeting, provide a high level overview of the planned project, indicate that you would like expert advice on assembling a project team, and request that other department members be included in the meeting, as appropriate.  In advance of the meeting, be willing and prepared to answer initial questions as many times as they are asked.  These initial questions should be documented, along with answers, to be used as the source for Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) later.

Generally, initial questions focus on:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • What is the target completion date?
  • How much of my time (or my department’s time) will be needed?
  • Do we have the option NOT to proceed?

Your objectives for this initial meeting are to:

  • Document any initial concerns and address them on the spot or as soon as possible after the meeting.  If any issue remains open, be sure it is part of your issues list or becomes a feature on your release backlog list.
  • Determine who will join the project team, either as an active participant or in an advisory role.
  • Establish open communications and a feeling of inclusion and respect.
  • Share your list of key stakeholders and ask if anyone else should be added.

Always send a follow-up message to all attendees after each meeting, documenting concerns and responses and clearly stating any outstanding issues.  After you have completed these individual meetings, you are ready to schedule a kick-off meeting with your project team.  You also know initial issues that need to be addressed, and you have a list of people who should be copied on meeting notes, given access to the project plan, provide back-up support to the project team, and provide expert advice, as needed.

Let’s look at a real example of this approach.

Overview of the Project

While they are common now, signature pads were once new technology.  Substantial savings were anticipated by the elimination of “hard copies” of charge sales – not only the reduction of paper but also costs associated with the assembly, transportation, and storage of this media.  More importantly, by capturing signatures electronically, it would facilitate the retrieval of transactions and provide proof of authorization when a sale was disputed.   Because of capital spending requirements, it was critical that the equipment be installed on 3,000 registers before the end of the fiscal year.  The project kick-off was planned for mid-June.

Key Stakeholders

The primary business partner would be the Store Technology team, who were responsible for all customer-facing technology.  Other key stakeholders included Store Operations, Human Resources, the Training Department, the Legal Department, and Visual Merchandising.  The representatives from all of these groups had a vested interest in making sure that signature pads were installed with:

  • the least interruption on the sales floor
  • the knowledgeable support of sales associates and store management
  • an understanding of ADA guidelines
  • aesthetics that did not detract from the clean and purposeful appearance of the wrap stand

Individual Meetings

A meeting was held with each group, where concerns and issues were discussed.  These included:

  • The need to avoid major sales events and complete all installations prior to peak season.  These restrictions collapsed the installation timeframe, resulting in a need to increase the number of installations per week and the number of technical resources needed.
  • A desire to have equipment installed and tested after store closing, which would require scheduling lighting over-rides and on-site security.
  • Addition of the Store Maintenance Team to the key stakeholders, since it would be necessary to run cabling from the registers to a countertop where the signature pad would be located.  The cabling would need to be covered and secured to avoid being a tripping hazard, and the cable would need to have some “play,” so that the signature pad could be handed to a customer in a wheelchair.
  • Training materials that would need to include information about signature privacy and protection, in order to address customer concerns about their signatures being stolen or electronically applied without their permission or participation.

The Result

New issues and concerns, of course, came up during the course of the project, but these were addressed only if they were considered a priority (“show-stoppers”); otherwise, they were added to the issues list for future consideration.   The project plan, schedule, and assignments, along with all issues, were communicated to the project team and extended stakeholder community via email, as well as being posted on the company intranet.

Because individual meetings had been held in advance of the project kick-off meeting, the project team was more engaged in the process and understood not only their roles but felt that they had significant parts to play in the success of the project.

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