Gaining matrixed areas’ commitment for effective Internet development

Vicki Shapiro, PMP, United Services Automobile Association


How do you gain each matrixed area's commitment to the project plan for an internal Information Technology (IT) project? United Services Automobile Association (USAA) successfully designed and implemented a new Internet Platform using over 20 matrixed areas committed to a fixed cost and schedule. A major factor in the successful planning and implementation of the project was the use of subcontracts.

In the Internet Platform project, each matrixed area's performance was critical to the project's success, and yet the project manager had no formal authority. Signing documented subcontracts with each matrixed area set expectations regarding the project and the matrixed area's other responsibilities. In addition, the collaborative effort of creating a subcontract built relationships between the project manager and each matrixed area.

One Person's Work Package is Another Person's Project

Building the Relationship

A project manager must lead others to successfully complete projects. When beginning to plan a project, the work breakdown structure (WBS) is critical in determining who are the work package managers (WPM). A project manager can only effectively manage to some specified level of granularity in the WBS. In the Internet Platform project, this was the third level of the WBS. However, the project planning could not stop at this high of a level.

The WPM is responsible and accountable for the delivery of the third-level WBS item. In a sense, what is one of many third-level WBS items to the project manager, is a project within itself to the WPM. In the role of the project manager of his own piece of the project, the WPM must breakdown the WBS item into measurable concrete interim deliverables. It is this further breakdown of the WBS item that provides the detail for a thorough and realistic project plan.

The relationship and commitment to the project is influenced in how the project manager approaches working with the WPM. When the project manager builds the project plan in a collaborative effort with the WPM, she is more likely to build a positive relationship with the WPM and gain buy-in into the project's goal and objective. Formalizing the relationship by documenting the project deliverables clarifies and validates what success is for that matrixed area's work package.

Creating Accountability

Experience shows that when problems begin to occur on a project, the project manager may hear the phrase “your plan” more often. Without formalizing accountability in the project planning, a matrixed area may begin stating reasons why the estimates their representative supplied during the planning phase are no longer valid when the project work begins. On the Internet Platform project, each matrixed area's WPM as well as the WPM's supervisor signed a documented subcontract.

The act of signing a subcontract demonstrates that the WPM and his matrixed area accept accountability to complete the stated deliverables within the documented schedule and cost estimates based on the noted assumptions. Creating a formal agreement usually provides incentive for both the WPM and the project manager to clearly state the scope, deliverables, and assumptions for the work package.

The WPM of a matrixed area is usually managing several work assignments in addition to the work that is being subcontracted for the project. By having the WPM and her supervisor sign the subcontract, it confirms the priority of the project's work related to her other work assignments. If the WPM encounters difficulty completing the project's work because of a perception of other work assignments taking priority, the signed subcontract provides an avenue for her to approach her supervisor and resolve the issue of what are the priorities for her work assignments. As a project manager, the supervisor's signature reduces the risk of resources being redirected to other work when the matrixed area's deliverables are on the project's critical path.

To successfully implement the subcontracting process in the Internet Platform project, the project manager needed a champion who could help influence the matrixed areas' participation. The champion agreed that the project manager could escalate to him any matrixed areas that would not cooperate to document the scope, interim deliverables, schedule, and cost budget for their work package.

During the creation of subcontracts for 20 matrixed areas, the project manager did call upon the champion four times. Two of these escalations were a result of requiring the WPM's supervisor to sign the subcontract. Requiring management to sign the agreement to complete specific deliverables caused more attention and rigor to be applied in creating the estimates. Two escalations resulted in the project attending to issues requiring management attention at the best possible time—before beginning to execute the project plan.

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Building the Subcontracts

Exhibit 1 shows the process flow for estimating and documenting plans for third-level WBS work packages tasked to matrixed areas. Documenting the project requirements is shown as the first step to emphasize the importance of clarifying the business requirement before embarking on a technical project.

Training the Work Package Managers and Core Team

The first step in working with the matrixed area was to educate that area's WPM on the goal and benefits of the subcontract. The training focused on how the subcontracting would help him. Benefits to the matrixed area for completing a subcontract with the project included:

  • A clear definition of what the project was requesting be accomplished was documented in the Scope statement.
  • Risks and expectations of what was expected from the project could be documented in the Assumptions section.
  • A priority was established for the WPM of the importance of the work for this project in relation to the other work the matrixed area performed.
  • The WPM supervisor's commitment to meet the schedule and cost shown by his signature gave the WPM concrete data to use with his supervisor if he ever felt he had too many conflicting assignments that prevented him from completing the work defined for this project.
  • The documented assumptions gave the WPM a baseline. He could approach the project manager to reevaluate his plan if any of the assumptions changed.
  • The status reporting for the project was clearly known and centered on the WPM's ability to deliver the concrete deliverables by the stated schedule and budget in the subcontract.
  • The acceptance criteria for each deliverable clarified success for that piece.

Because of the large number of matrixed areas working on the Internet Platform project, core project team members helped develop the subcontracts. Each core team member had the role to be a liaison for one or more matrixed areas. The assignment of a matrixed area to a core project team member was based on the relationship of the matrixed area's deliverables to the piece of the project the core project team member was working. By delegating this work to the core project team member, the WPM and his liaison on the core project team built a relationship and clarified expectations as a benefit of creating the subcontract together.

Providing the training to the core team and the WPM was critical for this many people to embark on writing subcontracts. In addition, the project manager and a project management mentor made themselves available to help get people started or past barriers. These barriers included: needing more understanding of what the subcontract should look like, learning how to address risks in the Assumptions section, identifying two-week interim deliverables that were measurable, and applying the PERT estimating technique.

Defining the Work Package Plan—The Subcontract

Exhibit 2 provides the format used for the subcontract. Each subcontract used a standard template that contained five major areas: a scope statement; a deliverables list with completion dates and acceptance criteria; an assumption list; a budget; and sub-contract signatures. This document became the detail support for the overall project plan.

Exhibit 2

Exhibit 2

Writing the scope statement for the subcontract's deliverable to the project ensured both the project manager and the WPM had the same understanding of what was to be accomplished.

The WPM could then use this scope statement to set the direction for the people working together to accomplish the subcontract's objective. Anyone working on the project could read the scope statement for the subcontract they were working on, and then read the project's overall scope statement. This helped everyone understand what role they had in the project's success.

The deliverables list with corresponding completion dates and acceptance criteria provided the structure for the project manager to use when managing the project. To complete this part of the subcontract, the WPM and his team members had to think about how they were going to accomplish what was documented in the scope statement. As with writing the scope statement, working with the project manager and the core project team liaison was critical. Collaborating together allowed everyone to understand the concerns and needs of each other so that the subcontracting team could understand the factors influencing their plan of action. The project manager learned about the risks, dependencies, and concerns to the project. After the subcontracting team knew how they wanted to approach completing the work, everyone worked together to identify two-week deliverables that could be objectively measured to track progress.

Documenting the acceptance criteria for each of these two-week deliverables confirmed everyone knew how success for that item was being measured.

A variety of assumptions, risks, dependencies and concerns surfaced during the discussions regarding scope and how to accomplish the objective. Instead of losing these good arguments, everyone was encouraged to write them in the Assumptions section of the subcontract. Matrixed areas readily agreed to complete the subcontract when they recognized that the Assumptions section was for their benefit. With training, each area saw the assumptions piece as the means to rebaseline their commitment if an assumption was no longer true. While some areas wrote 10 or more assumptions, the project stayed on course. The comprehensive assumptions actually helped the project manager understand the needs of each matrixed area and provided a better understanding of the project's risks.

After breaking down the work effort into smaller tasks and identifying the assumptions, risks and dependencies, the WPM was now ready to estimate the overall work package. The WPM and the project manager reviewed the subcontract plan and estimates together as a quality check.

While the WPM was encouraged to do PERT estimating on the individual deliverables, the project manager required an overall PERT estimate for the subcontract's final budget. Calculating the standard deviation for each of the project's subcontracts provided a measure of the relative risk for the subcontract. Those with a higher standard deviation demonstrated higher budget risk to the project.

Having the WPM, the project manager, and the corresponding next levels of management sign the subcontract confirmed the commitment to accomplish the work described according to the expectations defined in the Assumptions section.

Preparing for Earned Value

Completing the subcontracts provided the information to use earned value tracking and forecasting for each subcontract as well as the overall project. The subcontract's earned value was based on the start date, end date, and hours planned for each interim deliverable. The “% Value” column in the contract showed each interim deliverable's completion percentage towards finishing the overall subcontracted work package.

The subcontract defined how status would be reported on each of the interim deliverables. Blue-Red-Yellow-Green status measurements provided an objective and simple way for the WPM to keep the project manager informed.

Executing the Subcontracts

Each of the subcontracts linked to a specific work package in the Internet Platform project's WBS. Each subcontract provided the detail supporting the overall Internet Platform's project plan. By having a predefined completion percentage for each interim deliverable in the work package subcontract, the work package could be managed at a higher level in the project schedule. To complete the project schedule, the project manager consolidated the overall work package deliverables into a scheduling tool. The assumptions documented in the subcontracts provided many subtle dependencies that could be included in the overall project schedule. Maintaining attention to dependencies at the project level minimized the risk of a small dependency escalating into a larger project issue. After including the subcontracted dates and budgets into the scheduling tool, the project manager included the budgetary reserve in appropriate places as contingency for the known unknowns.

Status Reports

After the overall project plan was completed, it was time to kick off the project. Due to the criticality of maintaining a high productivity level at an efficient cost, the project manager required weekly updates from the WPM. To reduce overhead, the expectation for status communication was clearly defined and standardized. Weekly status focused on interim deliverables due two weeks in the future or past due. For each interim deliverable meeting the criteria, the WPM stated a color indicating the ability to complete the deliverable by its due date. Additional information was required depending on the status color provided.

When educating everyone on the subcontracting process, these status colors and definitions were addressed. In addition, the signed subcontract stated the status definitions. Therefore, during project execution, the status definitions were easily referenced. The definitions used and a short description of the actions required are described below.

Blue Status

The interim deliverable is complete and has been accepted by the project. The first time a deliverable is listed as complete, the WPM provides a completion date. After the completion date is provided, the deliverable no longer appears on the weekly status report.

Green Status

The interim deliverable is completing on schedule and cost budget. No further action required.

Yellow Status

The interim deliverable is expected to complete two or fewer days past the scheduled completion date. The WPM provides the new due date and indicates whether the slippage will impact the overall delivery date for the subcontract. In the Internet Platform project, the project manager responded to a yellow status by checking informally with the core project team liaison for that matrixed area to see if there were concerns.

Red Status

The interim deliverable is expected to complete more than two days past the scheduled completion date. The WPM provides the new due date and an action plan of how the subcontract will recover to maintain its overall schedule and cost commitments. The project manager begins to work closer with a WPM having a red status interim deliverable. In the Internet Platform project, the project manager would meet with the WPM and rebaseline the subcontract's interim deliverable dates based on the action plan and the deliverable's impact on other subcontracted project deliverables. If necessary, the project manager used some of the budgetary reserve. However, before using any budgetary reserve, the project manager and the WPM first shared the project issue and impact with their next levels of management. The next level of management is defined in the subcontract as the supervisors who signed the document. By raising the issue to the next level of management, management could engage to help resolve the issue. At a minimum, the next level of management became aware that risk was increasing on the project and the amount the project's budgetary reserve was being reduced.

Project Manager Involvement

The status of the overall subcontract determined the project manager's level of involvement with the WPM and the matrixed area. The involvement of the project manager in any specific subcontract was intended to be limited based on the premise that the WPM was intimately involved and in control of the day-to-day efforts of the subcontract. The following definitions described the conditions that warranted various degrees of project manager involvement:

Subcontract Within Original Commitments: Passive Involvement

The project manager's involvement under these conditions is a passive one of accepting progress reports and verifying commitments from the WPM.

Subcontract Outside Original Commitments: Proative Involvement—Integration Issues

The project manager's involvement under these conditions becomes proactive. Because each subcontracted work package has a relationship with other work orders, any change in expectations (quality, time, or cost) has an impact on others. It is the project manager's role to integrate all of the work. Any change in expected commitment is therefore a potential impact on all remaining work and the project manager must feed that information down the line for assimilation into the remaining plan of action. It is the project manager's responsibility to determine the impact of any change on the other aspects of the project and then determine an appropriate response. Many times the project can absorb the changes in time and cost, seldom on quality. Recovery within the work package is always the preferred approach.

Subcontract Outside Original Commitments and Impacting Project Commitments: Intimately Proactive Involvement—Project Commitment Issues

The project manager's involvement under these conditions becomes an intimately proactive one. When the subcontracted work package is on the critical path or there is a quality (deliverable) issue, the project manager not only has to integrate the impact with other work packages, but he must also share the impact of the potentially revised project delivery dates with the Project Sponsor. Any potential change in project commitments requires escalation by the project manager to the Program Manager and/or Sponsor and most times even higher. The project usually cannot absorb this type of change, and the project manager has to attempt to help the WPM compress the remaining work package effort as much as possible. The alternate approach requires Program Manager approval and automatic escalation to that management level. If approved, all remaining subcontracted work packages are rescheduled—a major project impact.

Earned Value Tracking and Forecasting

By defining the preset completion percentages and subcontracting budgets, the project manager performed earned value analysis at a subcontract level as well as the overall project level. This provided an objective means to focus on the project schedule when a matrixed area missed a deliverable date.

Early into the project, a matrixed area began missing its dates and providing revised completion dates that were more than two weeks past the original completion dates. The project manager used the forecasted SPI based on the revised date to address the issue with the WPM and the WPM's manager. By approaching the subcontracted area with a visual chart forecasting the negative impact of these revised dates on the overall project, the conversation remains focused on the project and not the people involved. With some additional communication, the WPM and the project manager were able to work out the issue without impacting the overall project.

Performing earned value tracking and forecasting at sublevels of the project also provided valuable insight into potential project issues. Earned value data and graphs were posted each week so anyone in the company could view them.

The Project is the Boss

Highly successful electronic commerce channels present a one-company image to the Internet customer. Subcontracting provides the USAA IT project manager the ability to focus the many comprehensive features of USAA's IT into a single direct access channel for its customers. To achieve success, employees with varying organizational authority must work together collaboratively as a team. Projects succeed when everyone remembers the project is the boss when making decisions. Achieving the final project goal is more important than any one area achieving its deliverable at the expense of another area.

In today's society, there is an increased demand to accomplish more in a shorter time period. Successfully collaborating as teams across departmental lines is essential in meeting this challenge. Setting a focused goal and facilitating clear and open communication is vital. Subcontracting can be a means to build positive relationships and allow team players to choose how to complete their objective within boundaries. Measurable interim deliverables provide the structure to manage the project while giving the team members the freedom to creatively innovate how to accomplish the goal at hand.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA