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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Project Management -- Trust but Verify

One of the most startling things about Project Management is that it demands complete honesty and sensitive diplomacy – both at the same time, and from the same person: The Project Manager.

This refers, of course, to Project Management properly executed, not the inexact and ineffective performance we often see around us in the name of our distinctive art/science.

First, the complete honesty part. What is the most common flaw of damaged projects? Failure of clear understanding, agreement and follow-through on the responsibilities of the various stakeholders. This cripples projects. If they are to succeed, everyone involved must be clear on what is expected, and on commitments as well as on intended payoffs.

In the prelaunch phase of project planning and organization, do all the stakeholders invest the effort required to clarify what benefits they want, and to specify what they intend to do in support of the project? Does this effort most especially include the senior stakeholders, the decision-makers of the sponsoring organization? And do they mean it?

In too many projects of my experience, the executives who control the resources and expectations feel no particular need to clearly and consistently support the Project Manager, and sometimes even to come through with the resources and organizational collaboration they originally agreed to.

And the Project Manager frequently has no way to ensure those start-up promises will be kept. The culture may typically exhibit erratic management backing for projects. Sometimes the goal posts are moved without warning and sometimes resources are arbitrarily reassigned to new priorities.

This unreliability can characterize the participation of other stakeholders throughout the project structure. People assigned to the project team usually have other, unrelated duties, and their functional managers have been known to openly enforce “hometown” needs over those of the project.

Another variant of organizations’ failure to stick with their Project Managers shows up when facilities, equipment and materials aren’t made available, on time or at all. And outside vendors and contractors, of course, have obvious reasons to be distracted and diverted from the project.

All of that is in the context of a complex, risk-ridden integrated process in which any variance can result in significant damage to project schedule, cost and/or quality.

And who is the one party clearly responsible for meeting the project requirements? It happens to be the person who is the most dependent of all – the Project Manager. There may well be good reason why each of the shortfalls occurred when it did. There may be brief moments of sympathy for the Project Manager, and occasional fleeting acts of support, but everyone has other demands to meet.

So, what can make it all work? The answer is in the complete honesty and sensitive diplomacy of the Project Manager. Well mixed, and competently employed, the two apparent opposites result in a professional system for establishing expectations, sharing responsibility and ensuring performance.

The vehicle is “minimum adequate documentation,” recording the outcomes of comprehensive negotiations that rest upon relationships of trust. It is driven and maintained by the Project Manager.

The discussions cover all the foundational issues, expectations, concerns, etc. The basic decisions about the project are known, understood, agreed upon and recorded. Everybody signs up, and is prepared to join in the problem-solving and variance management of project execution. They fully commit to stick with it until it's successfully concluded.

Thorough communication and firm commitment build trust among people who expect their fellow stakeholders to do what they said they would do, and all of them make the internal arrangements necessary to meet the requirements they have accepted. The Project Manager documents it all.

The most revealing – and powerful – document in a solid Project Plan is the Work Package Specification, which details the responsibilities of each stakeholder. The project sponsor and other senior executives are as obligated as anyone else. All parties know what is to be done and when, what it will take, what is the description of “done.”

Nothing is left until later, and there is no wiggle room. Risks are specified and countermeasures are spelled out. All necessary communication is part of the specification. The implications of signed documents are fully aired. Performance will be documented.

Exercising that sensitive diplomacy, the Project Manager initiates and leads the process, coordinating the parceling out of each stakeholder’s share of the complete honesty. It doesn’t make projects easy, but it outflanks the problems that can make them impossible.

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