exploring needs vs. wants
by Mark Rowh
Because customer expectations often exceed the realities of time and cost, reconciling needs vs. wants can produce serious challenges, and project managers often face the need to rearrange resources to meet customer expectations. While this can involve any number of strategies, basic steps can be taken to avoid wasting time, according to Lou Terada, managing partner for Collaborative Design Ltd., a Dublin, Ohio, USA-based design firm.
“Give accountability to individuals to perform their duties,” he says, “and avoid overlap of responsibilities [and] unnecessary meetings…Minimize the number of people invited to those meetings that are necessary.”
Of course the best strategy, when possible, is not to rearrange resources at all. “Juggling resources results in inconsistent understanding,” says Michael R. D’Alessandro, PMP, principal consultant and practice area leader of project delivery at PSMJ Resources Inc., a Newton, Mass., USA-based design and consulting firm.
“Reality being what it is, we do juggle on occasion. The best tool to minimize impact is to develop a project management plan that outlines a customer's expectations. Improved team communication is also critical.”
Those resources directly touching the customer should not be juggled, according to Glenn Strausser, a lead project manager for Auburn Hills, Mich., USA-based Johnson Controls, which operates a facilities controls group and an automotive systems division. “This adversely affects communication and customer satisfaction,” he says. “Background resources can be managed effectively as long as internal team communication is effective and efficient. Utilizing resources over multiple projects can be achieved by careful planning. This planning must include adequate resources to manage a project and communicate effectively with the customer.”
At the same time, managers must determine what resources are essential to a project and protect them from being cut or reduced. “As part of the risk assessment, the project manager should determine back-up or replacement resources for everyone,” says Eric A. Spanitz, president of Spanitz Consulting Inc., Chicago, Ill., USA. “Those that cannot be replaced or substituted—well, it looks like those are crucial. This finding should be recorded in the project definition documents or on the assumptions list.”
Ideally, this process should not be especially difficult or contentious, and planning is key.
“During the planning phase, if the required resources are identified and provided by management, this is usually not a big issue,” says Strausser. “The biggest problem is when resources on a project are lost during execution. I would rather have a less talented resource dedicated for the duration of the project than part-time gurus.”
“Background resources can be managed effectively as long as internal team communication is effective and efficient. Utilizing resources over multiple projects can be achieved by careful planning. This planning must include adequate resources to manage a project and communicate effectively with the customer.”
In following through, Terada advocates several steps. “First, determine the objectives of the project, and then prioritize them,” he says. “Next, analyze customer behavior to determine what is genuinely important to the client. Finally, determine the resources you must have to achieve the prioritized objectives.”
Jim Sloane, PMP, principal of Project Management Explorations, a San Jose, Calif., USA-based firm dedicated to enhancing clients’ project management knowledge and skills, recommends first identifying the tasks to be performed. The skills required to fulfill these tasks are then developed, and critical skills identified.
“For example, say NASA has contracted with you to build a satellite. Structural engineers would be a critical skill because the vehicle must be designed to survive handling on Earth and the vibration and forces of launch,” Sloane says.
Communicate for Success
“Plan, plan, plan,” says Darko Vilotijevic, president of LORE Product Design Engineering and Development in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
“Detailed project plans should address both project critical path and critical design issues. It is important to consider all design and engineering issues which are not straight-forward or which could impact project and product costs.”
Such planning reflects an understanding that the cost of services provided, as well as that of the final product, must be carefully managed. Design issues are often on the critical path, but not always, Vilotijevic says.
“We assign the best people, creating teams of industrial and mechanical designers and engineers in order to address critical design issues at the very beginning of the project.”
As plans are developed, the importance of clear communication grows. “One of the duties of a project manager is to explain the tradeoffs of any project constraint or request,” says Spanitz.
“Too often, project managers just accept what is given to them or told to them without explaining the feasibility of such items. It's better to present the situation as a forced comparison, asking if it is more important to match the budget numbers or to provide a quality product.”
Meeting Client Expectations
Experienced project managers also cite the importance of working with customers to agree on a realistic scope definition. “Effective communication is the critical success factor here,” Strausser says. “Just getting buy-in of the scope documentation is not enough to ensure that you will have a satisfied customer. As the expert, you must work with customers to enable them to fully understand the scope definition so that the customer's expectations match your plan.”
Reaching such agreement often poses challenges. To smooth the process, one strategy is to prepare alternative approaches and then take a cooperative approach in selecting a course of action. “For each proposed design solution we prepare both project and product cost estimates as well as project plans for each alternative,” says Vilotijevic. “Generally we prepare three different solutions, usually with two meeting design goals, deadlines and budget and one solution which will be the best technical solution for the problem. Working with the client, we then decide which way we will proceed.”
Even with plenty of early communication, substantial changes can occur. In that case, flexibility may be the best approach. “Have a good change control process in place that they know about beforehand,” says Sloane. “Also let them know that changes are harder to implement later in the project.”
He also advises the use of “control gates,” or project access points that allow a team to monitor critical or high-risk aspects. “They should be closer together the more complex the project is,” he says, stressing that a change in scope should only occur if approved through the right channels. “The customer must be on the change control board and also be invited to all status meetings.”
It's also wise to keep customers informed about the risks of using less-expensive resources and the cost implications of high-quality project components. “The old adage ‘You get what you pay for’ is certainly true,” says Strausser. “You may pay more up front for a better contractor, but a less productive contractor will often cost more in the long term. Also, the more professional contractor will require less management time by the project manager, improving his productivity. The same rules apply to individual resources—productivity and management time are proportionate to high-quality resources.”
TIPS FOR EFFECTIVE PROGRESS REPORTS
To ensure clients are aware of project issues, you should:
■ Be concise. No one wants a report to thud when it hits the desktop or to require long spells of staring at a computer screen. When possible, keep progress reports short and to the point. If you must include a great deal of data or other material, create a brief summary or overview. Busy readers can key on this info, and then go on to more comprehensive sections if they choose.
■ Share drafts with team members. Before submitting a report to a customer or to senior management, let others on your team review it in draft form. Encourage them to point out possible improvements and incorporate them into the final draft.
■ Add appendices. If you still have more information to share, consider adding appendices. This will allow you to maintain the spirit of brevity while also providing additional details for those who might desire them.
■ Document problems. As you encounter problems, document them in progress reports. Include proposed solutions, estimates of potential delays and other details. Such information will not only alert readers to problems, but also avoid surprises later in the project. If nothing else, such documentation protects against end-of-project criticism that you have failed to keep clients or senior managers fully informed.
Success in reconciling needs vs. wants depends heavily on communication. In large part, this may be achieved through effective reporting to customers and senior management. The project leader ideally serves as primary liaison with the client, according to Vilotijevic. The same person is responsible for reporting on project progress, risk and cost.
“Being personally responsible for the project's success, this person is in the position to quickly redirect it if needed,” he says. “This makes the company more flexible and prompt.”
Along the way, all parties should understand exactly what type of communication to expect. “Agreeing with the customer on your communications plan is the cornerstone to a positive outcome,” says Strausser. “Format is secondary to agreement on how often to communicate, what to communicate, who to communicate it to, and how to communicate the information. Formal methods are best utilized—memos, letters, e-mails, meeting minutes and so forth—that are clear and accurate.”
D’Alessandro recommends frequent and concise reporting such as a one-page summary with the following topics:
- ■ What did we accomplish last week?
- ■ What are we planning to accomplish this week?
- ■ What decisions have we made that may impact scope?
- ■ What is the budget/schedule status?
- ■ What information do we need from the client?
“Focus on the deliverables, not the work, nor the busy-work of reporting progress,” Spanitz adds. “If someone wants to order a pizza and works late, hey, that is his choice. As long as the work is completed on time and with sufficient quality, project managers should not impose their own work style on the individuals of the project team.”
It's also important to keep in mind that clients are not the only parties requiring detailed information. Upper management, subordinates and other team members all need adequate information.
“Communicating objectives is very important,” Strausser notes. “Ideally everyone can help in the planning phase. Sometimes this is not possible, so reviewing the project plan with all stakeholders is a good way to share the vision of the project along with its scope, schedule and risks.” PM
Mark Rowh, a freelance writer based in Dublin, Va., USA, has written extensively for publications such as OfficeSolutions, Consumer Goods Technology, BTA Solutions and Business Advisor. He authored How to Write Dynamic Business Proposals [American Management Association] and Winning Government Grants and Contracts for Your Small Business [McGraw-Hill].
COMMUNICATE WITH THE PROJECT TEAM
Conveying objectives efficiently with the project team poses an ongoing challenge. Technicians, designers, schedulers and estimators, as well as those actually performing the work, must share common information as they work toward stated project goals.
“The key is to define the objectives so they make sense for the CAD operator as well as a superintendent,” says Chuck Williams, COO for Design Build Inc., an architectural, engineering and consulting firm based in Kansas City, Mo., USA. He suggests these measures:
■ Think of staff as a matrix made of rows and columns. “Take the top two or three rows (management- or operations-oriented staff) of the organization and get each of them on the same page,” he says. “Then, ask the rows (functionally based staff) to educate or orient their people in the objectives that they must meet.”
■ Reinforce the objectives regularly. Williams feels a weekly or biweekly schedule is best.
■ Make sure reporting relates directly to the objectives. “If reporting is tied to objectives, progress—or lack of same—can be measured,” Williams says.
PM NETWORK | NOVEMBER 2001 | www.pmi.org