All good students know they have to get their homework done on time— or else. It's not all that different for Aaron Hall, PMP. As vice president of program management at K12 Inc., he has to make sure the virtual curricula projects are ready for the 70,000 students—from kindergarten through 12th grade—enrolled in the company's online courses.
“School generally starts at the same time every year, so we don't have the luxury of shifting a delivery date by a few weeks if we fall behind schedule,” he explains. “We need sufficient course material to be ready to go two weeks before school starts—which means we often end up crashing the schedule and applying additional resources to meet our deadlines when something unexpected occurs.”
That's where his experience as a project manager over the last 15 years—in sectors from telecom to the military—comes in handy.
“I've learned that you can apply fundamental project management concepts in various industries and they are wonderfully portable,” Mr. Hall says.
How do project management methodologies help K12 meet its deadlines and make tough decisions?
My primary focus has been to professionalize the project management role and implement common approaches to how we manage projects in the company. It begins with early scoping, and includes everything from defining the rationale for a project and choosing the content levels to making a business case, developing the marketing, and comparing costs to potential revenue or cost avoidance. And then we have to actually execute the project itself.
How do you decide which projects to pursue?
We develop a 24-month product roadmap each fiscal year, which is the result of a formal portfolio management process that considers all potential ideas for courses that we have. This year we had 99 potential initiatives, and over six to eight weeks, we reviewed the value proposition of each course against a list of desired attributes. The courses that delivered either a significant revenue increase or cost savings, filled a gap in the catalog, gave us a competitive advantage, or offered a game-changing innovation were the top priorities.
The key is taking the politics and emotion out of the discussion, and looking at which projects are best for the business.
Is it difficult to find project managers who can make those kinds of decisions?
Our team has project managers who have come straight from the classroom with little project management experience up through Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification holders who've never worked in an educational environment. We try to take advantage of both skill sets.
We build ownership and empowerment by making sure each project manager speaks for his or her own project. Once a month we have project reviews with the senior vice president of product development to review budget, scope and risks for each initiative. The project manager delivers that information so that the senior management team knows who is responsible.
I also post project, program and portfolio health, and budget and schedule indicators in our office and on our wiki so everyone can see what's going on. At first people were uncomfortable with that, but I prefer transparency and awareness over hiding information. If they see their project is 8 percent over budget, they understand what the project manager is focused on. PM
JANUARY 2010 PM NETWORK