An executive project progress checklist

ExecutiveNotebook

by Joan Knutson, Contributing Editor

IF YOU WANT TO GET what you expect, you must inspect. As an executive in a project-oriented organization, you need to be assertive in determining how the project is progressing and proactive in directing the project from your level. In order to accomplish this, it is the executive's job to inspect what is going on in a project so that you can be assured that you get what you expect.

In performing this inspection, you will want to ask the right questions of the project manager and of the project team. You probably have lots of questions to ask—maybe too many, and maybe not the right ones. Maybe you are not sure of the right questions, and maybe you are not sure how to ask the questions in the right way. I offer here a manageable checklist of a selective number of questions to ask in order to be adequately informed, so that you can make the appropriate business decisions concerning the project.

If you don't like project surprises, know the right questions to ask.

Let's first discuss the series of questions that need to be asked. Then we'll talk about the forum during which these questions can be presented. Of course, problems will be unearthed when asking these questions. The project team will be asked to go away and to create action plans to resolve these problems. Lastly, we'll consider how an executive can ask the right questions to perform a reality check on these action plans.

The Executive Project Progress Checklist that I am suggesting consists of 22 questions. Twenty-two is just about the right number. If you ask too few questions, you probably will not ferret out the amount of information that you need to properly assess the real status of the project. If you ask too many more questions, you will probably overwhelm the project manager and the team and thus not get credible, in-depth answers to any of the questions.

I've divided these 22 questions among the four phases of the project life cycle—Initiation and Definition; Planning; Execution and Control; and Closeout. Let's review each of the questions.

 

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Joan Knutson is president of PMSI-Project Mentors (a part of the Provant solution), a San Francisco- and Atlanta-based project management training, services, and product firm. She can be reached at +888-PROJ-888 or [email protected]. Send comments on this column to [email protected].

In eliciting information during the Initiation and Definition phase, ask:

1. Was there a Business Case with a compelling business justification?

2. Were all appropriate people involved in the creation of the Business Case?

3. Did the correct level of management approve the Business Case?

4. Are all the cross-functional departments prepared to commit resources (labor, equipment, and/or materials) to the endeavor?

5. Is the deliverable or output from the project defined in clear and quantifiable terms?

6. Were relevant risks considered before the project was approved?

During the Planning phase ask:

7. Did everyone on the planning team review the Business Case? Did they understand it? Did they buy into it?

8. Is the plan an integrated solution taking into consideration all the tasks and the effort by all the cross-functional areas involved?

9. Has the plan balanced the triple constraint of time (schedule), resources (cost), and performance (quality)? Has management announced which of the three constraints is the most important variable for this unique project?

10. Is there a standard of performance (quality) criteria defined for each deliverable out of each task on the Work Breakdown Structure?

11. Have major milestones been established to be used for executive-level reporting?

12. Has the project been planned to the appropriate level of detail for the next upcoming planning horizon and for future planning horizons?

During the Executive and Control phase, ask:

13. At the beginning of this phase, is there a Change Control process in place? During this phase, is the Change Control process being followed; and are time, resource, and/or cost impacts resulting from changes of scope being approved before effort is being expended?

14. Are resources being applied to the project tasks as planned; in other words, are the resources working on the tasks as they promised?

15. Are all involved cross-functional departments reporting status on schedule and with integrity?

16. Are variances to plan being addressed and resolved? Are re-forecasted plans being communicated to the project client (and to management) immediately? Is management rewarding honesty?

17. Are events being arranged to encourage cross-functional team communication and ongoing commitment?

18. Are the Risk Prevention and the Risk Response (Contingency) plans being tracked and managed?

19. Are “issues” being dated and tracked? Are these issues being resolved as planned?

During the Closeout phase, ask:

20. Were all participants given an opportunity to celebrate? Were all those people who made special contributions recognized?

21. Was the project professionally “ended” with resources being reassigned and with the product/process going into production? Were any enhancements or modifications initiated as a new project under a new project number?

22. Were lessons learned documented and archived for use by similar future projects?

Reader Service Number 190

When and How Should These Questions Be Asked?

Project management documentation is generated by the project team for senior management on a recurring basis at the end of each cyclical reporting period; that is, at the end of every week, month, or quarter, as the executive requests. Also there are specific project-related deliverables produced during each phase of the project life cycle. Using the questions discussed above, a couple of techniques are available to the executive who must review this documentation and these deliverables.

One approach is to conduct one-on-one meetings with the project manager to review the state of the project. Depending on the phase of the project, the executive uses the list above as the focal point of discussion. In reviewing the project documentation appropriate to the phase of the project, you can ascertain an honest evaluation of the status of the project and of the quality of the deliverables being produced.

An alternate approach is to call periodic project review meetings orchestrated to accentuate the positive aspects of project performance as well as to unearth problem areas to which you, the executive, can offer help and solutions. Each month you need to set aside several hours for project management reviews. The entire management team should attend the review: the head of the organization performing the projects, managers of the resource pools engaged in the project work, and the line management, as well as by the project manager and the project team. The projects, which are to be reviewed, are randomly selected for presentation. Thus all project managers have a chance to present their efforts and accomplishments to senior management. In addition, this approach also puts all project managers on notice that they need to stay in touch with what is going on in the project, because at any time they may be asked to make such a presentation. A word of caution: To avoid excessive time, effort, and expense, don't emphasize elaborate graphic displays for these presentations.

Reality Check

After a solution is chosen or an action step isolated, you, the executive, need to question the person accountable for its success. This reality check can assure you that the correct strategy is being used to resolve the project problem at hand. Asking these questions of the project manager and team will force them into critiquing their choice(s) in an objective rather than subjective way. Below are the questions and an associated guideline.

img Is this choice(s) addressing the result that you are looking for, or is it focused on how you are going to get to the result? Guideline: Prescribe the result, not the procedure to attain the result.

img Have you thought this choice out through its final and ultimate implementation? Guideline: The choice is only valid if you have thought through every “then what” labyrinth and know your plan of action at each turn.

img Have you considered the possible negative ramifications of your choice? Guideline: Consider the ramifications of each solution and only implement those solutions that have palatable ramifications associated with them.

img Are you making a choice for other people without their acceptance? Guideline: Don't make choices for other people; rely on them to get the work done within the framework that you set.

img Is this choice conditional on something over which you are not in control? Guideline: Be sure that you, either formally or informally, are in control of implementing the selected choice.

Depending upon which technique is used, the project manager and/or the team knows ahead of time the key questions that will be asked. And the project manager and the team will concentrate on being sure that each of the questions can be answered in as positive a light as possible.

ALL EXECUTIVES NEED TO demonstrate support of the use of project management in their organization. They also need to inspect what they expect. Inspection prevents unwanted project surprises. The Executive Project Progress Checklist can help executives ask the right questions, at the right time, and elicit the information needed to assure that the projects under their purview are meeting their expectations. ■

PM Network January 2001

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