Re-igniting a stalled project by integrating organizational development concepts for project success

The project had all the earmarks of a good start. There was a project charter developed by the project office in conjunction with a sponsor at the top of the organization. A very talented team was in place, and there was optimism that this time this project would be successfully completed. Somehow the project had stalled, no one knows why. After all everyone knew that the improved process addressed by the project was key to the company's business and would yield benefits in the millions of dollars.

As the consultant looked at the beautifully bound Project X binder, he noticed that all the tabs were there—from project charter and scope through project closeout —all the PMBOK areas were present. Some sections had data essential to project completion, and there was a collection of meeting minutes assembled in chronological order. He leafed through the charter portion not sure of the impressive words. Was the mission clear? Perhaps. The sponsor's name was there along with a list of stakeholders. He leafed further through and took a look at the project team. WOW! There were over 25 people listed as team members, and they were spread out all over the country at seven locations. Fortunately, most team members were in the local area. But even the “out of towners” could attend “a must attend” meeting. For the most part the team was connected through a weekly telephone conference call. A further review of the meeting minutes confirmed that the previous PM hosted the meeting and that there was lots of discussion. Attendance, however, was spotty. What happened to that PM? Gone! That's right, the consultant mused, you got all you are going to get about this project right here in your hands. You're on your own now, and that is how it should be. Now to jump-start this project.

First stop, see the client. Done. Almost immediately. The client wanted the meeting even more than the consultant. “What exactly are you going to do for me?” was the gist of the meeting. “How will I know that we are making progress? You can manage this project, but I know what I want and I want you to be a buffer between the team and me.” “OK,” the PM said, “I can serve that function and I'll keep you informed, but I want to interview all team members before I go along with anything that's gone on before.” With that understanding the project began.

The consultant realized that he was in fact the project manager for Project X. He reviewed the charter: “to create a service team that served as a broker between service providers and service users, using the latest technology to attain corporate goals and customer satisfaction.” Pretty broad; must know more to proceed.

Relying on past experience as an Organizational Development (OD) consultant, Project Manager X decided that he would rely on some of the underlying principles and models he had used as an internal OD consultant. The principles are shown at Exhibit 1. These principles simply boiled down to giving the people charged with completing a task, the opportunity to use their time and talent to do so. OD is predicated on the idea that the people doing a job are best equipped to make changes necessary to improve operations. The PM believed that Project Managers would do well to accept these assumptions and then verify that assigned team members are the right folks for the job. In this case the PM had inherited a project under way and a team in place. Well, if this were an OD consultation, one designed to help a client bring about change, he would rely on the four-step OD method to facilitate change (Exhibit 2).

In this case the process was the project at hand: Project X. The client had said that he wanted the project completed in six months, but he did not fully explain where the team was. There was ambiguity about the scope, but no lack of clarity about the fact that the PM had to get the project moving again. To complete the assessment of the project, the PM decided that he would use two basic OD tools: the interview and observation.

Exhibit 1. OD Principles

OD Principles

Exhibit 2. Four Step OD Method

Four Step OD Method

Exhibit 3. A Typical OD Interview Form

A Typical OD Interview Form

There is plenty of information in management and communication literature about how to conduct a good interview. The key for the OD practitioner is to use the interview technique to get to know all the members of the team and some of the key stakeholders. Most use interviewing to understand how people see their role on the project and to assess their attitude about the whole undertaking. Another benefit of the interview is that it allows the team members to get to see the PM in a less formal setting than a project meeting. Hopefully they will see how committed the PM is to the project, since the PM has taken the time to get their expert views. Along with the opinions the PM is gathering, he is also learning the terms that are most frequently used in the industry that he is working in. One other thing that's also important is that each interview should be made up of the same questions. This uniformity enables the interviewer to balance responses against each other and allows those interviewed the peace of mind to say, “He asked me those same questions” and conclude, “he has a clear purpose, a plan and he knows what he is doing.” It might also lead those interviewed to believe that the interviewer is simply gathering information and that he is not on a witch-hunt. With all these considerations in mind the PM made up an interview form (Exhibit 3).

He secured a list of all 25 team members from the client and made 30 copies of the interview form. He filled in the interviewees’ formal name from the official company roster as soon as he made the interview appointment. He told all on his list that the interview would not exceed 30 minutes. Then he went to the interviewee's office and reintroduced himself to them as the outside consultant charged with managing Project X. He asked each if he had recorded the name correctly and what prefix they preferred if female. Then he asked them how they like to be addressed. Even though most businesses operate on a first name basis, he asked this question to humanize the relationship with the team members. He told them the story of Miss Smith the middle aged woman who was always addressed as “Miss Smith” until she told him she preferred to be called “Emily.” From that day on everyone in the office called her “Emily.” Some older workers still stand on ceremony and go the “Mrs.” or “Miss” route. Amazingly, almost everyone appreciates the fact that they are asked. In this case all team members were content to go by first names including the client's boss. One person told the PM one name she particularly disliked and from that point on he had to be careful not to use that derivative of her name.

Question two “title/position in the company” looks innocent enough, but the answers help the Project Manager in many ways. It allows the PM to listen early on in the process and learn more about the company, its culture and where the interviewee fits into the organization as a whole. It also allows the PM to ask some “dumb” follow up questions about acronyms and interactions that may not be clear from organizational charts. Some titles are really deceptive; a vice-president in one company has enormous power; a vice president in another has almost none. This question also allows the PM to identify the potential Steering Committee members. The Steering Committee will be discussed later. Question two showed that: one team member designed service solutions and bid for work; there were people from operations who aligned the service providers with the users (customers); there was the client's boss—a VP who was to benefit immediately and directly from Project X success; there was a female accountant who knew the impact of the project on accounting; there was a man who had the big picture on marketing; there was a service “rep” who had direct service responsibility for some key accounts, and finally there was a group of people in distant cities who served different industries and thought that their processes were equal to or better than the improved process the team was undertaking. Not bad for a simple question and even better was the information that was volunteered about overall company operations and interfaces.

Question four was “What Project X tasks are you working on and when are they due?” The PM asked Question four to determine the roles team members saw themselves fulfilling and to find out if the due dates made sense. The people in the cities far removed from the project site responded that they were providing information about how they had improved service processes and were sending formats that would help with ISO certification. Clearly they were selling their system, but there were no due dates for their contributions. They were happy to say they called into the phone conference when they could and that they kept informed by reading the minutes. The service “rep” said that the was in the process of defining “the program.” By this the PM learned that the “rep” was determining the business requirements for Project X. This man had flow-charted the proposed process, making sure the process would satisfy the customer's needs. He mentioned that whatever was developed that it would have to satisfy ISO standards. He expressed the need for a pilot program before full implementation. His responses to question four showed this man to be a senior member of the team with a vast knowledge of customer needs and the service industry. He was not being held to any deadline but was willing to do whatever had to be done to improve service to his customers and all the customers of the organization.

The marketer told the PM in response to question four that he had not been assigned any specific tasks and that he was a representative of the marketing VP. He saw that Project X was clearly related to two of his boss's projects and that he wanted to make sure that Project X interfaced well with them. He said he believed in meeting deadlines but had not been given any.

The accountant said that she was involved in determining how much it would cost to implement the solution and in measuring benefits the project would bring to the organization. She had a charter to work with team members to get some of this information and was of the opinion that to do the task properly she would have to interface with others through out the organization. Although she was not sure she had the authority to do this, she believed that it was essential to completing the task. She did not have a due date for her work but knew it had to be done early in the project.

The client's boss, the VP for operations, told the PM that he had not been given any tasks or due dates for Project X. He considered himself to be the principle stakeholder “since 86% of the activity for Project X happens here.” He said he would cooperate with the Project Manager fully and do anything needed to successfully complete Project X in six months. He also said that he traveled extensively for the company but that he would try to attend as many meetings as possible.

The PM interviewed five people from operations. These folks were responsible for making sure that service providers were doing the work they had agreed to do for their customers. They were the individuals who would design and implement the necessary actions to complete Project X. At the time of the interview each operator spelled out what his organizational responsibilities were and showed how he could contribute to the completion of Project X. One was the boss of the other four and reported directly to the PM's client. He said he knew what had to be done and bore a great deal of responsibility for the successful completion of the project. His folks would actually implement Project X and benefit from it the most. His people were looking at statistics to categorize providers by percentage of service by type each provided to the organization. His people (some team members, some not) were analyzing the service providers’ total service capacity and their data processing, communications and e-commerce capabilities. Although it was important to complete Project X in six months, he noted that he headed up the ISO certification project due before Project X's completion date. Operations had no Project X due dates.

The individual from service solutions admitted that he had sat in on some of the meetings but that he was too busy as an analyst to give any real time or effort to Project X. He said he was “time constrained” that “his role was unclear” that he had “no major function, tasks due or due dates.” He saw himself as a support person who could offer his opinions when asked. The PM saw him as an individual who was either unable or unwilling to make a substantial contribution to the effort. Although he had no agenda like the “out of towners,” he was not a key player.

Question five, “Are there any other aspects of the project you would like to work on?” allowed the PM to discover where personal interests aligned with project interests. The OD principle that prompts the question says alignment of individual goals with corporate goals enhances the chances for corporate success. The client said he wanted to work the whole project from behind the scenes and have the PM as a buffer between him and his people. The client's boss simply said, “one third of the people on this project are mine; they are the real doers. All have a stake in this endeavor; this new process has ‘gotta happen’ and it can serve as the future model!” The service solutions man said that he could serve on a subgroup in a limited capacity, something to do with market studies or service provider analysis. He did think, however, that there were others better qualified to do such tasks. The operations leader said, “I would like to help in designing a realistic time line and put the whole project in place; previous attempts in hyper-diagram formats were not real time lines.” He envisioned a service provider handbook that would set forth criteria for service providers. He saw the need for an operations manual, reflecting in ISO format a more standardized service provider methodology—one that benefited the all. He was especially interested in rewarding service providers who did a great job for the organization's customers. His operators said they could crunch numbers, develop service provider and customer profiles and work to implement improvements.

The accountant's response turned out to be most helpful. She said that her real skills were in analyzing monetary issues and providing reports. She would like to do the cost/benefit analysis that would show the value of Project X in terms of results. While willing to do her part and more, she said her attendance at all the meetings and sub-meetings was unnecessary. The marketing professional said that he was open to suggestions and that Project X would in some respects be a foundation for other marketing endeavors. He would be willing to design and present briefings about Project X and how it fit into other projects.

The service “rep” volunteered to develop from a hyper-knowledge chart a more detailed sequence of events and said that he would use his knowledge of customer needs to explore the development of a pilot program. He felt a special obligation to his customers who were already under the impression that the results sought from Project X were already being achieved. The “out of towners” responded to question five by saying that they had improved service provider performance across the board and would only be too happy to show the results of their efforts.

Question six “Is there anything I should know to help move the project to successful completion?” is designed to alert the OD practitioner to the risks in the project. As all good PM's know, risks are both threats and opportunities. The “out of towners” said, “if we did it, you can do it. How will your approach affect us?” The client service “rep” said that the PM had to maintain a perspective and that he would help him to do so. He added, “the whole object of the project was to achieve leverage to maximize service and profits.” The marketer advised the interviewer to bring structure to the endeavor with deliverables. The accountant said she was worried about scope creep. At the same time she was concerned that the project team make progress. She wondered if there were enough “doers” on the team. The client's boss was thinking as a VP should and suggested that identifying the top 20% of the service providers would give the company enough critical mass to improve the process across the company. The operators dug right into the details and said that the PM had to know the structure in operations and how the service providers interacted with the company. Some drew charts and diagrams; others explained who was who at the top of a very complex organization. The service solutions man said that whatever package is developed get the creative department to make it look pretty.

Exhibit 4. Conclusions


The final question was based on an OD dictum that says when one is using an interview to assess the situation pay close attention to the last thing the interviewee says. It's usually very important. To apply this precept the PM framed a wide open question, which in this situation went like this, “Please add any comments you might have about any aspects of this project.”

The service solutions man said, “I know you need involvement but big gets bogged down; break off into subgroups.” The operations folks said that consolidation of service providers was a good idea but operations always needed to have extra providers available. They also added that some team members were on the team “by direction of the client” for political reasons. They said that operations does all the work and will make or break this project; don't rely too heavily on the “out of towners” who have their own ideas about how this process should be improved. The client's boss offered no parting comments; he had already sketched out the big picture. The accountant said that this is a very important project because a multitude of service providers overload the accounting staff, delay invoice payments and cause numerous communications and information technology (IT) interface problems. The marketer said that there was inconsistent participation and unclear responsibilities. The client service “rep” said getting past the IT piece should be an initial goal. He suggested that the vacant IT space on the team be filled as soon as possible and that we use the latest technology to rid us of antiquated practices. Ultimately, he felt that by establishing a process that would benefit service providers we could “shape demand” and reduce costs.

Quite by chance the PM got two special opportunities to work a second OD skill: observation. In addition to walking around and attending briefings, he had a chance to sit in on a subgroup meeting made up of the marketer and some of the operators. The client was there, too. Even though the client tried to minimize his influence over the group, he forced his position on them anyway. Then the former Project X Project Manager showed up unexpectedly and asked the new PM to observe the way he ran the weekly Project X meeting. To his credit the former PM distributed last week's meeting minutes, printed an agenda and set up the conference call. When the team had assembled, however, there were only four of the 20 possible team members in the room and only two “out of towners” on the phone. The meeting addressed approaches to the problems in Project X but did not focus on deliverables. People seemed genuine enough, but there did not seem to be a clear idea of what was expected of each participant. The meeting ended cordially and the next one was scheduled for the same time, same location, a week later.

As an OD practitioner and Project Manager rolled into one, the new PM felt compelled to do a quick assessment of what he had learned from his interviews and observations. The conclusions were as shown in Exhibit 4. The PM discussed these general findings with the client who was absolutely amazed that the PM had learned so much in so short a time. The client was not surprised by the content; he simply asked the PM what he was going to do next. The PM said that first he was going to form a Steering Committee to start planning. When they met the PM gave them his views and asked about how they saw the scope of the project: “What would the results look like when we were finished?“All agreed that the end result would be a set or procedures in ISO format that would enable the organization to set service provider criteria and ultimately reduce the number of providers. These providers would be the technological best with the best capacity and capability. The Steering Committee arrived at these conclusions by answering the what (do we want) question on flip charts. Then all worked together to break the large tasks down into smaller deliverables. One such deliverable was to identify the 20% of the technically proficient providers who possessed 80% of the capability. Another deliverable was a compelling business case, which consisted of a feasibility study (can we actually attain the results we want?) and a cost benefit/analysis (do the benefits derived from the results justify the time and money we are putting into the project?)

At this point OD and PM tools and technologies were blending together. OD compelled the PM to gather information in an assessment phrase, analyze it, plan, implement and evaluate. Project Management said proceed from a concept, develop the plan, execute (and control) the plan and finish the whole thing off. The PM and Steering Committee broke the work that had to be done down into smaller tasks, and assigned these tasks subgroups that were not only able to do the tasks but actually wanted to do them based on what they said to the PM in their interviews. Some members were allowed to disengage from the team agreeing to just stay informed for political reasons an IT expert was added. The Steering Committee further agreed that the tasks would have delivery dates and that the primary purpose of the weekly meetings would be to report (and measure) progress against these dates. To prepare themselves for the meetings the subgroups would have to work on their own. One other activity the Steering Committee would perform was to review the content and accuracy of the deliverables themselves. This is typical OD in that the organizational talent is used to evaluate products.

PETERS &company Project Management and Engineering, the project management company that this PM is affiliated with uses an approach to project management, which is very similar to that of the PMBOK®. It is called ProjectMAGIC® and consists of the steps shown in Exhibit 5. Applying these steps to Project X, the PM found that the concept was already created. During the interview process and follow on meeting with the Steering Committee, results were defined and success criteria were agreed upon. Although there were scores of things that could have been included within the scope, the scope was limited to only those tasks that consolidated providers, cut costs and improved service to the organization's customers. The operations team under the guidance of the Steering Group did planning to establish the requirements. Tasks were broken down and the amount of effort estimated. The consultant costs were worked into previous estimates and the six month due date was affirmed. Working backward from the due date, the work was scheduled using the resources within the organization. The subgroups were given clearly defined deliverables due dates. The monthly meeting was established to measure progress and control the quality and quantity of the effort.

So Project X restarted using a blend of OD and Project Management approaches. It advanced by capitalizing on the OD principle that most organizations have the talent in the ranks to improve their own operations. Through interview and observation the PM found the talent and ultimately empowered the team members. By breaking down Project X into manageable deliverables the PM and Steering Committee channeled activity into doable tasks with clear delivery dates. As team members completed their deliverables, the Steering Committee was in place to evaluate them. On some days the consultant sat in between Steering Committee members and simultaneously reviewed the deliverables with them. On other occasions when the deliverables were lengthy or complicated (as was the cost/benefit analysis) each Steering Committee member got a copy and a review meeting was held. Ultimately the team, client and Steering Committee determined when the consultant's work was done. When deliverables were finalized and documentation completed, there was a closeout and a celebration.

Exhibit 5. ProjectMAGIC Methodology

ProjectMAGIC Methodology
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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA



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