The decision makers conference (DMC)
how to gain support, plan and execute a DMC to facilitate functional and technical requirements validation
Project Manager, Army & Air Force Exchange Service
The Decision Makers Conference (DMC) can be one of a project manager’s most effective methods for validating technical and/or functional requirements. Since good requirements are the foundation of delivering a successful project, getting them correct upfront is critical!
This paper looks at the skills necessary to assess the project dynamics and the need for a Decision Makers Conference (DMC). It will help clarify the value of a DMC and how to gain the required support from the project sponsor as well as co-sponsors and senior executives. It also contains information on planning an effective DMC and how to successfully execute the DMC.
This paper is based on the author’s recent experience successfully applying the DMC within a large, complex international project. This project has multiple internal and external delivery offices as well as multinational government oversight. This project had been stalled for several years primarily due to unclear requirements. The approved functional requirements document generated by the DMC moved this project off the drawing board and into detailed planning.
You can improve your success as a project manager by acquiring the knowledge and the skill set necessary to immediately leverage the DMC on your projects to validate solid project requirements.
Summary of the project used for discussion in this paper
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES is under the Department of Defense), our fuel supplier (publicly owned Petroleum company) and the U.S. Forces Command in Germany, in coordination, will eliminate the use of the paper-based petroleum, oil and lubricants (POL) coupons used for tax-free fuel purchases within Germany. They will be replaced by a pre-paid fuel card-based electronic system.
AAFES will own and operate the central ration control system (RCS) for privately owned vehicles (POVs), official government vehicles (GOVs) and short term vehicles (STVs). The RCS will monitor, record and approve all tax-free authorized transaction based on remaining authorized monthly ration. The cards will be useable as payment tender at AAFES gas stations and our fuel supplier’s stations in Germany.
Authorized monthly rations per vehicle will be provided by Registry Motor Vehicles (RMV under U.S. Forces Command in Germany) or Provost Marshal (OPM under U.S. Forces Command in Germany) using the guidelines approved by the German Federal Ministry of Finance (FMoF under German Government). The RCS will provide improved tracking and accountability controls. It will also eliminate many of the opportunities for fraud under the current coupon system.
The fuel supplier will produce the plastic card and fleet PIN. The customer will set their personal PIN# upon receipt of card. AAFES will distribute the cards to authorized recipients. Customers will be required to have a prepaid balance for use of rations at the fuel supplier’s stations, and can use any method of payment at AAFES stations.
The system will be developed within and in support of the guidelines approved by the German FMoF.
Even though this is a government project, which equals a lot of acronyms, it is a great example of how a DMC can be a positive force in moving a stalled project forward. Please read this paper while mentally referencing the type of projects you manage. You will find that all the principles and techniques discussed are applicable to and will work just as well in a civilian corporation. After all, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service is an international retail organization with $8.3 billion in FY04 sales.
The Decision Makers Conference
Simply put, a DMC is just a meeting held for a specific purpose. However, for this type of meeting to produce the desired results, thorough planning, detailed research and flawless execution is required. The point of such a meeting is, first of all, to declare that project requirement decisions must be made and approved by the designated Decision Makers. The DMC allows you a format in which to get the required Decision Makers in the same room to go over the requirements and sign off on the approved requirements for this project. The preparation staff work for the DMC allows the delivery offices and stakeholders to review the decisions pending and prepare their Decision Maker for the DMC in advance.
When is a DMC appropriate?
A DMC is most appropriate for large complex projects with multiple delivery offices, but can also be used in smaller projects since it will always solidify requirements for any project. It can also be used to generate discussion and agreement on a specific issue that needs resolution and approval from all the delivery offices. You could apply this entire article to a DMC for one requirement if that requirement was complex or politically charged.
How long should a DMC last?
The length is highly dependent on the number and complexity of the decisions to be made during the DMC. The DMC for the fuel card project that I am using to frame this paper was scheduled for 3 days.
- Day One - introductions and review of the working document (more details on this later)
- Day Two - small breakout discussions to reach agreement between delivery offices
- Day Three - review the agreements and sign the Approved Functional Requirements (AFR)
What does a DMC do for you?
The DMC can accomplish many things.
- Better communications among the team
- A clearer understanding of how the requirements from one delivery office affects the rest of the delivery offices and in fact the impact on the whole project is discussed
- New ideas and solutions due to the synergy created at the DMC
- Clarifies the way forward and produces project momentum
What does a DMC deliver?
The deliverable from a DMC is the approved project functional and/or technical requirements.
The 4 “Cs” required for a successful DMC
The following four items are not presented in any particular order as each will be extremely important when it is needed. Combined and done well they will produce a strong positive impact on the DMC.
Concentration – the focus that you as the PM will need to provide. To be effective, a DMC cannot be lost in the weeds of everyday business activity. If it is, it will be seen as just another meeting to attend. You must manage the Decision Maker’s and stakeholder’s expectation that this concentrated time will produce positive results. It is best not to use your normal style when setting up this conference. Handling the scheduling of this conference differently will set it apart and give it a higher level of priority.
On the fuel card project, this was accomplished by sending out individual pre-conference emails to each of the designated “Decision Makers”. It explained their role in the DMC and how critical it was for them to prepare for the DMC. It also noted that their preparation and participation in the DMC was identified as critical path items in the project plan.
Commitment – not only your own commitment to the project, but, more importantly, the commitment and support that you must seek and get from the sponsor and other senior executives.
On the fuel card project, this was accomplished by setting up a briefing for the Installation Management Agency - Europe (IMA-E), Regional Director (RD) in Germany. This provided an environment, in the presence of his direct reports, for me to introduce myself and explain my role as the project manager for the entire project, not just for the AAFES deliverables. It also allowed me to explain how applying the project management processes to this fuel card project could help deliver the project.
This briefing also gave the IMA-E RD the ability to endorse the project management processes and my role and establish legitimate authority for me to work with the other delivery offices as his agent. He issued a requirement for a quarterly progress report directly to him by me. In addition, he directed that critical path issues should be quickly elevated to him. This notified all the delivery offices that I now had a direct communication channel to the IMA-E RD. His demonstrated strong show of support for me and the project processes went a long way with the assigned resources. It also raised the priority they placed on this project.
Of course, this was pre-arranged and facilitated by the Chief of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) for Germany. His office was assigned as the Office of Primary Responsibility (OPR) tasked with delivering the project. The Chief, MWR, was identified as the Program Coordinator. He was also the person that requested that AAFES provide a Project Manager with responsibility for delivering the whole project across all delivery offices.
This created the three levels of true project ownership labeled in blue font on Exhibit 1.
Exhibit 1 – Project Commnication Chart
Cooperation – the professional attitude and open listening skills required of all attendees. This is also supported by the roles and responsibilities presented at the beginning of the DMC. It is critical that all of the attendees see you as the facilitator for the actual DMC. They will need to see you demonstrate the ability to control the discussion and flow of information. This will allow them to focus on the content of the discussion and not the discussion format.
This will put you in a position many project managers find uncomfortable. My experience is that most executives will follow the DMC rules if they know what the rules are in advance. You need to establish yourself as the Decision Maker for when to mark an item for small group solution discussions on Day 2 and move on to the next subject. This will help to keep you on-track to finish the requirements document and get it signed off.
By setting rules of engagement, you will be providing a professional environment where ideas can be discussed and Decision Makers can agree to disagree for the moment.
Compromise – the expectation that their individual and/or organizational agendas can be merged and produce a better overall project. The goal is to get approved requirements. They may not be the ones you start the DMC with but they must end up being the ones the Decision Makers will approve. It is helpful to overtly state the goal of the DMC several times. I do it when we start and after each break.
Most of the compromising I have witnessed happens in the solution working groups. In most cases the compromise solution is far better than either stakeholder’s position going into the discussion. Therefore, it is better to mark an item that you are unable to get quick agreement on for the solution discussions on Day 2. This will enable you to present a solution to the rest of the group on Day 3 and get full approval from the group.
Assessing the project dynamics
What is the current state of the requirements for the project?
If you are taking over a project that is already initiated, it is absolutely imperative that you identify the root causes, good and bad, that generated your current requirements. This will be the step that will most clearly identify what action you need to take first.
I was once told by a good friend that to plan a successful journey to any destination, you must first figure out where you are. This was very true on the fuel card project because it had been chartered a couple of years before the Information Technology, Project Management Office (PMO) was formed and I was selected as the project manager to deliver the fuel card project.
Initial discussions with different delivery offices and stakeholders yielded a wide array of opinions on the current status of the project requirements. Once they were all stitched together, a fairly clear picture of the project was revealed. To rely solely on the status according to a single stakeholder would have been a huge mistake. Not one of them individually had an accurate picture of the project requirements.
What factors have put the project in this state?
Each delivery office had someone tasked with project delivery but no one person had ownership for delivery of the whole project. Without a single point of control, a series of emails and meetings between individual delivery offices had not provided a real forum to discuss differences and issues so that they might have been resolved.
Who officially owns and influences the project?
As a prerequisite for any DMC, I needed to identify and get support for a chain of ownership for the whole project. The complexity of the communication channel and organizational relationship drawing above illustrates the need for establishing a clear point of control. The blue bold font indicates the true chain of ownership that was established. (Exhibit 1)
Where are the true influence points within the project?
To avoid unpleasant surprises, take particular note of the true points of influence within your project. They may not be the same as the official points of influence. In the fuel card project a good example of this type of influence is noted in Exhibit 2 below:
- The dotted line between the Provost Marshal and the German FmoF is the official communication channel. The Provost Marshal’s office is the only office legally allowed to interface with the FmoF.
- The Provost Marshal is a non-permanent military active duty tour of duty, 2-3 years
- The dashed line between the FmoF Relation at the bottom right up to the German FmoF is the true point of influence
- This has a huge affect since the person in this permanent position is a German citizen and works daily with the German FmoF
- In addition, the German FmoF holds 51% of the vote on every detail of the project and the FmoF Relations position can strongly influence them to accept or reject almost any requirement or part of the system design. Walk softly in this area of influence or you could lose all the work accomplished at your DMC.
Exhibit 2 – FmoF Actual Communications Chart
Gaining the required support for the DMC
Organizations, stakeholders, sponsors, subject matter experts and Decision Makers will all have an agenda. It is in your best interest to find out as much as possible about their agendas before the actual DMC. I tend toward the direct approach. I usually just call or visit each Decision Maker in advance of the DMC and ask questions and listen.
Some of my favorite questions are:
- What will this project do for you?
- Who do you think will contribute the most to the success of the project?
- What do you see as the most difficult part of the project?
- Who will you need the most help from to deliver the project?
- Who will need help from you to deliver the project?
- Have we missed anything in the requirements to-date?
- Do you believe this project will succeed?
- What do you need from me?
- Do you have any questions about the project process?
Sharing the value proposition of a DMC
Most executives will see the value of a DMC that is well planned and executed. The most common value provided by a DMC is approved requirements that can actually be delivered. Better requirements upfront produce less re-work at the tail end. Clear requirements allow faster delivery. The DMC provides a clear path forward.
For the fuel card project, the DMC was an easy sell. Once it was pointed out, all of the executives agreed that we had no solid process and ever changing and incomplete requirements. A DMC would allow us to quickly address the challenges and move the project off a two-year stall. If we did not schedule a DMC, then the project could remain on the drawing boards for many months to come.
I have often been told that meeting on common ground is always better. However, in a complex project with many delivery offices, you may need the direct support of more senior executives that would not normally attend a DMC but are co-located in the same building where the DMC is held. If you need them, they can be easily accessed to solve an immediate issue.
This actually happened at the fuel card DMC and I was able to quickly access the AAFES European Commander and get executive support on a new direction for providing a requirement.
If this is not the case, some off-site common meeting space may have the advantage of breaking the normal busy routine schedule of most executives and allow them to truly focus on the project at hand.
How to identify the real Decision Makers
For a DMC to work, you need to ensure you have the real Decision Maker from a delivery office present at the DMC. The best way I have found to do that is to send each delivery office an official looking “Decision Maker Designation Form” and ask them to fill it out and return to you. You can also do this by requesting a confirmation email. You will need to include the magic question/statement listed below next to the signature line on the form or email. Let the delivery office know you need the form signed and returned to complete the discussion document.
- The person designated as the “Decision Maker” must be authorized to sign approving the final requirements document for their delivery office on the last day of the conference
- The person designated as the “Decision Maker” must be able to approve additions, corrections, deletions and modifications to the discussion document
- The person designated as the “Decision Maker” will be the spokesperson for their delivery office
Generating the base working requirements document
The working document is the foundation of a successful DMC. The aim should be to make it available to all the delivery offices weeks in advance of the DMC.
- The first step is to fill in the form with all the known requirements to-date and then send the form to each delivery office
- Some of the known requirements you listed above may be constrained by regulation or in fact be non-negotiable. Be sure to mark these clearly. There is no need to waste a lot of time discussing this type of requirement during the DMC.
- Ask them to provide you with their additional requirements by a specific date and time, at least 2 weeks ahead of the DMC.
- Consolidate those requirements into the discussion document and send it to all delivery offices.
It doesn’t really matter what type of format that you use for the working document. The most common that I have used is a simple table chart in MS Word. Be sure to use a consistent item numbering scheme or it will bite you later on during the discussions. I tend to group my requirements by functional area:
- Use 1, 2, 3 etc. for the functional area headings
- Use 1.1, 2.1, and 3.1, etc. to label the actual requirements
- This scheme allows you to add 1.2a, b and c without renumbering the whole document.
The following note on deleting requirements from the document may be helpful: I always line them out but never delete them completely. This will give a historical record that a requirement was discussed and eliminated not just simply missed or overlooked. If the requirement was superseded by a new requirement, I also add that note with the number of the new requirement.
It is also helpful to have a projection system capable of projecting the PC based document up for all to see. I always use this method and make changes directly on the working document as we agree. This way everyone can see the exact change being made to the document without a lot of hand writing on a dozen different hard copies. This provides much better version control.
How to setup the room
The following may seem basic but if overlooked it will have a serious negative impact on your DMC. Eye contact with every Decision Maker is absolutely critical. Most of the Decision Makers will be executives and they are used to being listened to when they talk. They will expect to see your eyes and they expect others to listen when they speak.
You need to also be able to see their non-verbal communication. In many cases, I have called a break because I was observing a non-verbal disagreement that was not being openly expressed. In most cases the person did not think it was important enough but later realized it was very important to the project.
ONLY Decision Makers should sit at the table. (Exhibit 3) Subject matter experts and supporting staff should be positioned in the room but are not active participants except during the solution working session if needed on Day 2. The Decision Makers preparations should allow them to address the items contained in the working document.
It is a good idea to locate and reserve additional small discussion rooms for the solution discussions on day 2.
Exhibit 3 – Seating Charts
In control or ineffective
The DMC is not a free for all discussion. It is a highly structured line-by-line review of the requirements listed within the working document. You, as the point of control, should establish the roles and responsibilities at the start of the DMC.
One way to demonstrate that the DMC is the most important thing on the Decision Maker’s plate at this time and requires their complete attention is to require everyone to turn off their pagers, cell phones and blackberry devices. You will get a strange look or two but it sure makes a statement in today’s multi-tasking world.
Take charge and control the flow. If you get bogged down on a requirement, table it for Day 2 solution sessions and move on. If you get agreement on 80% the first day you have moved the project a huge step closer to requirements validation.
Keep the group focused on the goal of a signed “Approved Requirements Document” by the end of the last scheduled day of the DMC. Make sure everyone knows in advance and at the start of the DMC that no one gets to take the requirements home after the DMC and think about them for a while. The approval day is the last day of the DMC.
Best of Luck
I wish you all great success with your Decision Makers Conference. I have found it to be a great way to improve communications and provide focus among diverse delivery offices working on the same project.
© 2006, Wess H. Bryan
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington