The future is here and along with it—the new project management. This paper addresses the emerging shift in focus from “left brain” to “right brain,” driven by value-add activities. It offers new ways to lead and manage projects and people, with enhanced emphasis on communications, team contract, understanding stakeholders’ needs, and navigating the way through value-producing early project activities.
Just over a year ago the Project Management Institute (PMI) introduced the tenth Knowledge Area—Project Stakeholder Management. While there was no specific need to split the Project Communication Management Knowledge Area into two, the new Knowledge Area symbolizes the shift in the thought process around the role of the project manager (PM) and more so—the transition—into the future of project banagement, by introducing the the project manager as the expectations manager.
Beyond adressing the tenth Knowledge Area, this paper expands from the Knowledge Area’s core role of communication, and provides a practical approach to managing those things that matter most for project success—communication, stakeholder expectations, risk, change, and quality, so that the scope, schedule, and cost end up on target as well as the project’s intended benefits for the organization. The paper discusses approaches and techniques that will deliver project success through topics that deal with the importance of proper stakeholder analysis and robust communication planning in building the foundation for a stakeholder engagement management and ultimately for a successful project. The paper utilizes best practices, concepts, and methodologies and leverages them in the context of organizational challenges and project realities, while illustrating the link between effective management of back office aspects (e.g., quality, risk, communication, and change) and delivering value and project success.
In addition, the paper also proposes a series of activities the project manager should perform in the early stages of the project—potentially as early as the initiation stage—to better understand project challenges and effectively articulate the project’s success criteria. These early activities include an assessment and prioritization of project readiness considerations, and its perceived complexity in the context of the organizational bigger picture to ensure alignment with organizational objectives. The topic of time management is also incorporated into the mix of considerations, not in the context of building schedules, but rather about improving project managers’ ability to manage their own time, priorities, and workload in such a way that will allow them to manage their tasks more efficiently and effectively.
Combined with all of the other concepts introduced here, project managers will have a better ability to identify what matters most for their stakeholders and with this knowledge manage their stakeholders’ expectations and deliver value and meaningful benefits.
The Expectations Manager—The Future of Project Management
It becomes progressively more clear that the role of the project manager is shifting from “left brain” to “right brain” types of activities; more on the leadership side of project management, and less on the management side; more on the 80% and less on the 20%; more on making a difference and less on performing technical activities. In short—more on managing stakeholder expectations and less on managing products and deliverables. The shift in this direction has been in the making for several years now, but with the need for efficiency, for cost reductions, for less waste, and for achieving more ambitious results, there is an elevated sense of urgency in completing this shift.
Current Challenges in Project Management
There are several challenges that impact project managers’ ability to deliver project success. They are driven by the prevailing culture of instant gratification and short term wins and by organizations’ cultures:
- Project objectives and success criteria are not clearly defined (SMART—specific, measurable, agreeable, realistic, and time-bound).
- There is a culture of lack of appreciation for planning. As planning is not perceived as a value-add activity, it is common to encounter situations where members of senior management or even the client ask project managers to move forward with tangible (i.e. product-driven) progress, rather than keep planning.
- More specifically, early project initiation and planning activities are often overlooked. With the no product-related deliverables, it is easier to take “shortcuts” and not perform some of the most important activities to their sufficient extent.
These activities include the following:
- Project charter
- Definition of project success
- Stakeholder analysis
- Project readiness assessment
- Project complexity assessment and risk planning
- Assumption planning
- Objectives and targets are often defined or requested in vague terms that are driven by adjectives (e.g., soon, ASAP, urgent), rather than specific, tangible targets (see SMART)
- Lack of leadership and decision making ability in projects, as well as among sponsors and senior management. Too often it is accompanied by a selection of a project manager who is not suitable for the job (relevant experience, leadership capabilities, skills).
- Failing to properly acquire and develop project teams. Once again, failing to spend sufficient time and effort in ensuring team members’ skills and experience are applicable for the task at hand, as well as failing to realize the importance of team building and activities related to team building and development. With the constant push for cost reductions, team building is one of the first areas to pay the price. With that said, project managers and senior management often fail to realize that many team-building activities do not need to cost much, and do not even involve out of office activities; many project-related efforts (led by, but not limited to understanding stakeholder needs, readiness assessment, risk planning, assumption planning, conflict resolution, facilitated sessions, and lessons learned) can serve as excellent and effective team-building activities.
- Collaboration—the term “Culture of Alligators” was introduced in my book in an attempt to illustrate how team members, project managers, and other resources within the same organization often behave toward each other (Schibi, 2013). It is quite surprising to see the lack of basic collaboration in so many organziations, including instances where resources act in a manner that is outright against their colleagues’ needs and priorities. There are no sufficient attempts (to be led by senior management) to ensure that organizational resources work with each other and toward a mutual goal and the prevailing attitude in many organizations is about short-term self-promotion, rather than seeking ways to improve relationships, helping each other, and becoming a better team.
- Prioritization—in addition to the constant pressure toward cost reduction, layoffs are a common sight and project managers and team members need to perform the constantly growing workload with fewer resources. As our work adds up to more than we can handle, there is a lack of guidance and prioritization from senior management that could make it easier to determine which tasks, activities, and even projects need to be performed before others. When giving someone 10 things to do with no clear guideance as to what the most important thing is, it is most likely that the individual will not perform the work in the order that we intended. Setting up and communicating priorities, and within them articulating the sense of urgency of each deliverable and project against all other things that need to be performed within a time frame, will make it easier for resources to perform the work, assess risks, provide realistic estimates, and set expectations.
- Efficiency—like many other people, project managers struggle with managing their own time. It is related to prioritization and the need to put out fires, but it is also related to the ability to plan and estimate what we can and cannot do. In the context of time management and prioritization, we often find ourselves performing activities that do not add value, neglecting to focus our effort on value-add activities. It takes place mostly because most people are constantly overworked and struggle to keep afloat and contain their workload.
- The heavy reliance on tools and techniques—MS Project, Primavera, and other tools can be very helpful in managing certain aspects of projects (i.e. time, resources), but the main focus should be on the people (i.e., the stakeholders), their needs, their ability to influence the project, the interest they have and their overall involvement in what we do.
The challenges listed here are “strategic” in the sense that they do not deal directly with schedules, costs, or requirements, but rather they deal with the underlying causes of project problems and the failure to deliver the extent of projects’ promised success.
The Future of Project Management
The future of project management is here and it requires the project manager to take a different view than the “traditional” one that has brought us to this current state. The future project manager no longer deals with “tactical” and “technical” aspects of project management, but rather with areas that directly contribute to reducing the impact of the items listed above, describing the current state of project management.
More specifically, the future of project management is about turning the project manager from a “technocrat” who sweats over tactical activities that do not add much value to the big picture of producing value to the organization—to become the expectations manager—focusing on value-add activities and on setting and managing the stakeholder expectations.
Exhibit 1 illustrates the shift in the areas of focus for the “project manager of the future,” or the “expectations manager,” from “left brain” focus, to “right brain”:
While the activities on the left side of the table are important, those on the right are more important for delivering project success and organizational value, and project managers of the future must shift their focus to those items listed on the right side of the table. With reference to Pareto’s 80-20 principle, the expectations manager must spend more effort and time on areas related to the following areas (in no particular order), in order to increase the chances of delivering meaningful project results that are in line with the organizational needs and objectives:
- Change control—ensure that the scope is contained, there is no scope creep, and that each change to the scope is fully accounted for and assessed for its impact on the project and the organization. Protecting the project scope and ensuring there are no scope surprises will allow for enhanced product integrity and for better control over costs, times, resource allocation, and overall value produced.
- Quality management—increase focus on measuring the total costs of quality, in order to make an effort to reduce waste and deliver success. Along with continuous process improvement and streamlining, assessing the cost of quality will allow project managers to articulate to senior management the true impact of actions (or lack of actions), as well as the need to do the right thing right the first time.
- Risk management (both project and business risks)—with focus on both project related risks, as well as business / operational risks, project managers can once again illustrate to the stakeholders the full impact of actions and choices that are made throughout the project. In the context of risks, the expectations manager must also closely manage and document assumptions, as they are often a major source of risks.
- Communication and stakeholder expectations management—As project managers are a hub of communication, there is a greater need for project managers to enhance their focus on communication, including setting up a team contract (a set of groud rules), as well as on managing stakeholder expectations by setting up realistic expectations and managing the stakeholder exngagement. With a high likelihood that the project’s product may not be delivered in its full extent, or on time / within budget, managing the stakeholder expectations effectively may practically be equal to buying more time, or allowing more money. Open, good, and transparent relationships with project stakeohlders (and specifically the client) does not replace the need for delivering on the product’s promise, but can definitely generate more understanding and leniency by the client.
- Project charter—the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition cites guidelines for building a project charter that are quite straight forward: the charter should include certain key information about the project and it should be short enough (2–3 pages) so stakeholders actually read it. The charter should also have a section for assumptions and any missing information should be added to it as soon as possible in the early planning. Once the charter is in place, it should not change, as it serves as the foundation and the mandate for the project.
- Responsibility assignment aatrix (RAM), or RACI chart—most project managers are guilty at not insisting enough on planning for project resources in the early stages of the project. The RAM should be put in place in three to four stages, throughout the planning process:
- Stage 1 – identify the types of resouces that will be needed for the project.
- Stage 2 – narrow down the lift for each resource to include the appropriate experience, skills, and seniority.
- Stage 3 – name the resource to be involved for each activitiy.
- Stage 4 – adjust the resources based on availability and changes in the project.
Managing the scope, schedule, and budget will not be done on its own; however, focusing on these six items on the right side of the table (and the right side of the brain) will free up time for the project manager to focus on the tangible deliverables of the project, and it will also allow the project to delegate some of the technical aspects of managing the scope, time, and costs to business analysts (BAs), project control officers (PCOs), finance people, and other project resources.
Naturally, stakeholders focus on the items that make up what used to be called the triple constraint, as they are tangible and measurable. Moreover, it is easy to overlook any of the six activities on the right side of the table, as they do not directly relate to project deliverables, and they are, for the most part, less tangible. While during the planning, stakeholders want to see schedules coming together, it is rare to see stakeholders pressing for a communication plan, a more clear stakeholder analysis or even a meaningful risk plan. As these are less tangible and there is less scrutiny around completing them, project managers that often take shortcuts fail to perform these activities to their fully sufficient extent.
Early Project Activities and Assessments
In order to better set stakeholder expectations and in turn to deliver project success, the expectations manager needs to realize where to start and where the organzation and the project are standing in regards to the organizational readiness level for the project and the level of complexity the project introduces. To perform these two assessments, the expectations manager will need the help of a business analyst who has been involved in the pre-project due-diligence activities (i.e. business case and feasibility analysis). The readiness and complexity assessments should not be formal or extensive exercises, but rather effective ones.
This assessment can serve as a pre-risk assessment, trying to capture potential areas of complexity in and around the project. The following areas should cover most sources of complexity and should be considered based on the organizational capabilities and circumstances:
- The size of the project – budget, scope, functional, or organizational areas covered
- Duration – the longer the project, the more chances it has to interfere with other initiatives and conflict with other organizational priorities
- The environment – the context in which the project is being taken (market, competition, economic, and geopolitical conditions)
- Technology – this measure tries to provide a read on whether anything related to the technology may pose any difficulties throughout the project
- Multiple objectives and organizational priorities – check whether there is a clear understanding of the project’s priority in relation to other organizational initiatives and whether the project has multiple objectives
- The change – this is an attempt to check how the organization will be able to handle the change the project introduces (people, culture, processes, tools)
- Responsibility without authority – check whether the project manager has the appropriate type of authority for the task on hand
- Stakeholders – whether there is a large number of stakeholders, diversity in their opinions, or an unusually high number of highly influencial stakeholders
Project Readiness Assessment
The readiness assessment comes to provide the organization with knowledge as to whether the organization is prepared to take on the initiative and move ahead with the project. Previously performed business case and feasibility analyses may not be sufficient for this purpose, as they refer to the need and the intent of the organization, more so than to the capabilities and capacity the organization has in regards to the initiative. The readiness assessment does not deal with the intent and there is no question whether the project is the right thing to do, or not.
The following are the areas to be considered as part of a readiness assessment. The results of the assessment cannot be compared with diferent organizations and they will be specific to the context and situation of the performing organization:
- Alignment – there is a need to verify that the project objectives align with the organizational strategy / objectives and that the project represents clear value for the organization
- The change – is the organization ready for the change the project is going to introduce? This is one of the areas that need to be assessed both from a complexity and from a readiness points of view.
- Organizational priorities and culture – check if the organization has a genuine intent to provide the project with sufficient priority in resource allocation, budgets, approvals, and dependencies
- Leadership – from the appointment of a project manager with the appropriate level of seniority, leadership skills, charisma, subject matter knowledge, and authority, to the senior management of the organization and their ability / desire to provide sufficient support for the project
- Track record – this meaure tries to check the track record of the organization, senior management, and the project manager in delivering success and in regrds to their approach toward supporting areas for the project, including, but not limited to, planning and estimating.
- Success, objectives, and quality – this area partially overlaps with the track record, and in addition it checks whether the project objectives are properly defined and communicated, whether clear success criteria has been defined and what the sponsor and the project manager’s views are toward the importance of quality, standards, and the cost of quality.
- Resources and the team – from the allocation of a project manager through the resource allocation – check whether sufficient capacity, availability, skills, and experience are in place for the project. A situation where there is no team in place and a promise to hire the resources for the project can generally serve as a red flag as for the organizational readiness. This area also looks at the organizational approach to resource allocation and along with the track record area, it provides an indication regarding the level of commitment there is for resources and deliverables.
- Risk – this area comes to measure both the risk level the project is facing (one of the input for this is the complexity assessment), as well as the risk tolerance level the organization and the stakeholders have toward risk events the project may be facing.
Even if any one of these assessments’ results points at a complex project, or at the fact that the organization is not ready for it, it does not mean that the project should be called off. Under extreme circumstances it might be the case, but otherwise these assessments should serve as a warning sign and a trigger for the organization to take action to alleviate some of the compaxity and/or to take measures to become more ready for the endeavor.
Kick-Off and Pre-Kick-Off Meetings
Project kick-off is an important activity that is straight forward to plan and perform. An added value can be obtained from a series of Pre-kick-off meetings that the expectations manager needs to conduct. These one-on-one meetings need to take place at the very early stages of the poject, soon after the project is initiated and participants should be the three to five most influential stakeholders identified at that point. The goal of the meetings is to establish a rapport with the stakeholders, establish relationships, and get to know them. The meetings are not about solving problems (it is too early to even realize that there are problems), but rather about identifying areas of potential friction, gaps, and early issues.
Even if the meetings do not produce any tangible results, they serve as an early opportunity to reach out to these stakeholders, hear what they have to say and give them the feeling that the expectations manager is interested in their needs and opinions. While it may be challenging to find time to conduct those meetings (hence the one-on-one, which are easier to schedule), their format allows stakeholders to genuinely deal with the merits of the project with no egos and power struggles. The investment of 30 to 60 minutes per meeting will pay off later in the project with more productive relationships with the major stakeholders and a better understanding of their needs.
Stakeholders Analysis, Objectives and Success Criteria
Stakeholder analysis is one of the most important activities in the project, yet often it is not performed to a sufficient extent, or even at all. Along with stakeholder analysis, project managers often fail to establish a clear set of success criteria, or articulate the project objectives. Project management has dramatically advanced from the days that each project’s objectives were to complete it on time, budget, and with full scope. Our demanding reality requires us to clearly define how the competing demands will interact with each other and what stakeholders need us to do about these tradeoffs.
The task of defining and articulating the project success criteria is an extension of the stakeholder analysis, as an attempt to define what type of trade-off among the competing demands the stakeholders are willing to accept.
Stakeholder Analysis—Take it Up a Notch
Performing the stakeholder analysis involves the basic stages of identifying all stakeholders involved, learning about their ability to influence the project, their stake and interest in it, their level of involvement and support, and about their needs and their potential reaction to various situations. This information can be captured by the Influence-Interest Grid and afterward by enhancing the grid to additional dimensions.
The desired result of the stakeholder analysis should be an understanding of the items listed above, so that the project manager can put together a communication plan, along with a stakeholder engagement plan. In addition, the goal of the analysis is to avoid wasting resources on collecting and reporting unnecessary information and using inappropriate technology for the stkeholders’ needs. In order to achieve results that are relevant and useful for the situation at hand, the expectations manager needs to seek additional information about stakeholders, especially about those who have been identified to have potentially high influence. There are additional questions the project manager should pursue and find answers for, as listed in Exhibit 2.
While it is not expected to gather answers for all the questions presented in Exhibit 2, the expectations manager should make a genuine effort to pursue as much information as possible (about high profile and influential stakeholders), to ensure the stakeholder analysis is meaningful. Similarly to the previously described parts of the stakeholder analysis, this information gathering needs to be done through informal conversations, research, and investigation.
Communication Planning and Ground Rules
Directly related to the stakeholder analysis is the communication plan and the stakeholder engagement plan. As most project managers provide a very basic communication plan that revolves around a table—stating who gets what and when—there is a need to plan for and address other aspects of communication, which for the most part fall under the heading of ground rules. The expectations manager needs to ensure there is one set of ground rules for communication in the project, to be applied to all communications—from requirements, to expectations, reports, risk, and change. Setting up the ground rules (or a team contracti) will provide all project team members, as well as other stakeholders, a set of exepectations for handling communication and conduct for interacting with each other. Team contracts have been proven to be very healpful in streamlining communication, achieving consistency, and reducing friction and negative conflict in project environments.
For every organization there is a need for specific guidelines based on the organizational culture, the project environment, the project velocity, and the personalities involved. However, those team contracts provide standards and guides under three main headings:
- General communications – typically providing reference to use of currencies, time zones, appropriate use of communication channels, and quantification of requests (as opposed to the use of adjectives; e.g. please send me the report by Friday at 2:00 p.m. EST, versus please send me the report ASAP).
- Email communication – to achieve consistency in the use of email, set expectations for response times and email structure, as well as guidance regarding email administration and overall reduction in the use of email.
- Meetings – set up expectations for meeting organizers, participants, and for teleconferences, as well as meeting times, agendas, use of electronics and general conduct.
“Owning” the project communication—both formal (via reporting and the content of the “traditional” communication plan) and informal communication (through the ground rules)—will allow the expectations manager to take effective steps to manage the stakeholder engagement. This includes setting expectations, managing the relationships, providing information, receiving guidance and feedback, adjusting expectations, and ultimately delivering success to the extent needed and expected by the project stakeholders.
An important ingredient for project success is project managers’ ability to control their time and to manage it effectively. Time management (time in the context of priorities and daily agenda; not in the context of project schedule) is a key consideration for both professional and personal success, yet most people have little control over their time. Project managers need to not only gain beter control of their time, but also to act as a role model for team members and other stakeholders and even serve as a mentor in helping others manage their time more effectively.
Like money, time is a resource, but unfortunately it never stops and while most people have an idea of how their day should look like, by the end of the day it does not like anything like they thought it would. The best way to address this problem is to be proactive by setting up a daily plan and taking measures to achieve its goals. The daily agenda needs to budget for all sorts of emergencies and interruptions (urgent things) but also to allow sufficient time for individual goals (important things). Balancing the two is key for gaining control over our schedules. In addition to making a realistic daily plan, project managers need to also check what their time is spent on and determine how to adjust their plans to accommodate, or overcome the interruptions.
Controling our schedules and setting up an example that helps team members in doing so is part of “managing what matters,” by focusing and helping others focus on activities and tasks that add direct value to our day, rather than things that serve as a distraction. It is part taking initiative and becoming a leader and it directly contributes to managing those things that matter, as previously discussed in this paper, and taking control over them.
Effective communication, less email-related distractions, shorter, fewer, and more effective meetings, clear and focused reporting will end up to and lead to time saving. Even if it totals one hour per week, from a project and an organizational perspective it can lead to significant gains and productivity improvements.
Project Integration—For Real
One of the areas that inherently introduces challenges in projects is integration. Few project managers know what the word integration really encompasses, and how to perform a meaningful and effective project integration. Integration is about ensuring that that impact of everything that takes place in and around the project is measured and realized in the context of the project objectives and success criteria. In addition to all activities mentioned in this paper, integration activities as part of managing stakeholder expectations include the following activities:
- Managing assumptions – documenting the conditions, their potential impact and their “expiry” date
- Managing dependencies – ensuring all cross-project dependencies, as well as those within the project are taken into account
- Scope and change management – perfoming change control in such way that deters stakeholders from submitting unnecessary change reqursts and ensuring all changes are accounted for and their impact fully assessed.
- Project Health – relatively few project managers utilize set quality assurance (QA) measures that can provide a read on project health. These are a series of interim measurements about the project performance to proactively identify interim performance, trends, and the direction certain aspects of the project are heading toward. Project health measures do not deal with major deliverables, but rather with performance related to the project, rather than the product or service produced:
- Results and deliverables – identify a set of interim deliverables and items produced that can provide indication regarding various aspects of the project
- Scope and requirements – track the number of changes per requirements, the number of defects produced per requirement (or per change) to provide an indication regarding the scope stability
- Issues and risks – measure the number of issues / risks / assumptions at given milestones throughout the project and compare them to previous, similar projects to check for associated trends
- Human factor: conflict and team dynamic – while this is a tough measure to quantify, both the project manager and the business analyst can provide inputs from their specific points of view regarding team cohesiveness and dynamic
- Estimating and scheduling – assess the quality of estimates and their accuracy and completeness
- Customer satisfaction – establish measures to track customer satisfaction, measured by escalations, urgent calls, ongoing reporting, and issues raised
- Cost of quality – in an effort to curb costs and to reduce areas of waste, there is a growing trend that attempts to better measure the cost of quality. It is still a surprisingly underserved area; however, an increasing number of companies try to track all the costs associated with achieving quality, including the “hidden” costs of quality—indirect costs that are incurred as a result of quality issues. The expectations manager can use this information to provide additional information to stakeholders, articulate challenges and trends, and ultimately manage their expectations more effectively.
- Lessons learned – One of the final project activities and the last one to be discussed here is the area of lessons learned. Listed below are the steps for the most effective way to collect and apply lessons in projects:
- Collect feedback on an ongoing basis throughout the project
- Perform a lessons learned exercise before the end of the project, presenting relevant feedback collected throughout
- Identify a handful of items for immediate implementation
- Produce a report for senior management discussing short term and long term recommendations
This paper has dealt with activities that can be labeled as “back office” areas that naturally tend to fall between the cracks, but it turns out that the project manager must not only deal with them, but rather focus on them. Although it is easy to skip over some of these activities and take shortcuts, as many of them do not have tangible or product-related deliverables, these activities are some of the keys for managing stakeholder expectations and for delivering project success.
Early stages of the project should include project readiness assessment and complexity assessment, in addition to putting together a proper project charter and conducting a meaningful stakeholder analysis. Done properly, these items can serve as a foundation for the expectations manager to understand what it should take to complete the project successfully. Later on, the expectations manager should focus on items that fall under the umbrella of project integration and while they do not include any newly introduced concepts, they need to be performed as originally intended, rather than the insufficient way they are often handled. A partial list of areas covered in this paper to focus on the change control process, communication, risk, and quality management.
The expectations manager should develop a more holistic approach to project management—ensuring that leadership, organizational objectives, the big picture, and the stakeholders’ needs are addressed—as opposed to the “traditional” areas of focus, referred to as tactical —scope, time, and cost (i.e. “left” brain activities). Focusing on the “right brain” activities, will help the project manager turn into what the future of project management is about, becoming the expectations manager, overcoming most of the challenges that currently pleague the profesion of project management, and in turn helping achieve the desired level of project success, as expected by the project stakeholders.