How to prepare and conduct a project review
At the end of 90 days plus one month, a program manager conducts a Project Review. Why 90 days plus one month? Well, the project has been under way for three months (one quarter) and it takes one month to prepare the briefing. The program manager makes his report at the Project Review meeting and one or more of the following occurs: a new schedule is distributed; a new design/technical approach is recommended; the status of the first deliverables has been changed from complete to “preliminary” or they have a To-Do list attached; and/or it is announced that the first milestone has already been missed.
Sound familiar? With a complex project, aggressively bid, it isn't a matter of whether you'll get into trouble, it's a matter of how soon you'll get into trouble—and how fast you can get out of it. Typical pitfalls that portend trouble for a project are:
- Excessive optimism (or pessimism) when estimating the job
- Ignoring early danger signals (a project does not into get into trouble in one day)
- Hoping things will “work themselves out”—the ostrich approach
- Suppressing bad news/problems. As Uncle Remus said in Joel Chandler Harris’ Plantation Proverbs, “You k'n hid de fire, but w'at you gwine do wid de smoke?”
- Submitting to organizational politics rather than doing the correct thing
- Relying upon secondhand inputs rather than digging in yourself where there are major problems
- Not asking for help
- Fear of hurting peoples' feelings or becoming unpopular. Project management is not the place to make a bid for the congeniality award.
Don't Lose It. Don't wait for trouble to surface. At the end of the first week, conduct a Project Review meeting. At this meeting, the key question should be: Were the milestones met? If the answer is “Yes,” review the deliverables in detail. Have they been quality controlled? Of prime importance is whether or not the people/functional area that will use these deliverables find them acceptable.
Slippage can create disastrous delays and backlogs. Assume the project has ten milestones that have to be met each week, and on week one you have missed five of them. Consequently, the next week 15 milestones must be completed, the ten required for the second week in addition to the five that were not completed the first week. Run this scenario out, and you will have a pyramid of delayed milestones. It does not take an advanced degree in math to figure out that this project is in deep trouble.
Preparing for a Review. When milestones are not being met, the program manager should be focusing upon why it is not done; the impact of it not being done; when it will be done; if a work-around is needed; and the earliest date to get the project back on schedule. These problems should be resolved at the Project Review meeting.
Clearly Define the Objective of the Meeting. Each Project Review briefing cannot cover in detail each issue and every aspect of the project—schedule, budget, resource utilization, quality, technical and design considerations. The objective should be determined by the participants who will attend.
As an illustration, if the attendees are the management committee and/or the customer, they will want to concentrate on problem isolation and resolution. They will want to know about what has gone wrong, what you have done to fix it, and what, if any, support you need from them. If the audience is the project team, you will be concerned about the fundamental nitty-gritty areas. You/they will want to know what has been accomplished, what slipped, what impact the slippage had on the project, what is being done about it, and what is coming up in the near future. With these issues in perspective, you have the basis for a renewed recommitment to completion.
Prepare a Well-Thought-Out Agenda. Allocate your agenda time wisely. Cover the most important topics early, when people are alert and will address them with vigor. Later in the meeting people may get tired and become preoccupied and may make commitments that are not well-thought-out. Future problems and misunderstandings may result. On your copy of the agenda, insert the scheduled time for each topic in the margin. Allow some buffer time in case the topic takes longer than expected. Preview the agenda with the appropriate people to ensure that you have not omitted anything, included anything extraneous, or neglected to clarify the objective of each topic.
Invite the Essential People. It serves no purpose to have all team members attend every meeting. Of course, a “core team” should always be present. Beyond that, the balance of the team members should be encouraged to attend only when they have something to contribute or have a need to be kept informed. A Project Review meeting on the first Monday of each month could become tedious if the agenda has no relevance to the current activities of the attendees.
Dry Run “High Risk” Speakers. The program manager should not always make the entire presentation. For example, an engineer may report on a technical design, a marketing representative on a sales strategy, or a computer programmer on a new automated system. Before the presentation, request your speakers to walk through (talk through) their presentation, both for their benefit and for yours. It is too late to make modifications when they are in front of the audience, presenting erroneous or inappropriate data.
Organize the Meeting to Your Best Advantage. As the first speaker, you will present an overview of the meeting, the objective to be reached, and a quick preview of the agenda. With this effective form of introduction, you both set the tone and alert the participants to your major concerns.
Conducting the Review. Once the agenda is set, follow it! It is essential to follow the logical sequence of topics and not to stray from the format. If an attendee attempts to circumvent your game plan, use the agenda to bring the subject back into focus.
Don't overrun your agenda. Since most schedules are tight, people allocate just so much time to your Review Meeting. Since there is a prevailing feeling that too much time is spent in meetings, make the briefing concise and stay on target. Record time allotment on the margin of your working agenda. Maintain your pace and move on when you need to. When appropriate, carry the discussion over to the next meeting. Assign to team members the responsibility of investigating subjects and reviewing the results before the next meeting. Remember the rule-of-thumb: People can be productive in a meeting environment for approximately one to one-and-a-half hours. After that, it's all downhill.
Don't lose control of your meeting. If you can't manage a Project Review meeting, what does that tell your boss, customer, or your project team members?
Typical Agenda. An agenda for a Project Review briefing might include:
- Major accomplishments since the last review
- Schedule status (actual vs. plan)
- Financial status (actual vs. plan)—including a clear explanation of variances from plan
- Major issues (problems) and actions plan. Indicate specific assistance required from management or the customer as well as from any of the functional areas within the matrix. These action plans must include deliverables and deadlines.
- Plans for the next period
- Special topics (just the ones with a sense of urgency)
- Review of Action Items generated from this meeting and a time and place for the next meeting.
Questions to Ask. A list of questions, beyond the obvious ones on time and budget, to ask the project team members at the briefing include the following: Do you foresee any future problems? Is your labor force in jeopardy, i.e., people being pulled off projects? Is there dissatisfaction among your people? What's bothering them? How are you dealing with recurrent problems? What sources of input are you lacking to do your job? Have you made preparation for long-lead deliveries? Are you accepting substantive changes that should be addressed in a Change Control (change of scope) Process?
Reviewing Specialists. Nearly 200 years ago, French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord noted, “War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the generals.” Today's project management corollary is: “The success of your project is too serious a matter to be entrusted solely to specialists.” You can't afford to lose control of your project by permitting the experts to function beyond their area of expertise and beyond that which makes common sense to you. No matter how competent the specialist, many lack your breadth and perspective to envision how all the pieces fit together. However, you must endure the pain and invest the time to gain an insight into specialized areas of expertise.
If you are a program manager for the engineering group and have never been on the manufacturing plant floor, or if you are in the construction world and rarely go to the site, or if you are in the information services area and haven't recently visited either the computer room or the user's location, you are making a big mistake.
You have two means of survival when reviewing specialists who possess an expertise in a highly specialized area: (1) Do your homework so that you have a working knowledge of their area, and make them aware of your efforts to familiarize yourself with their world. (2) Break the work packages into small enough segments with short enough time frames and clearly defined deliverables so that you will then be in a position to ensure quality and maintain overall control.
Focusing on Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. The program manager must monitor and control the project from the outset—the first day would not be too soon. Your sense of urgency and commitment will set the pace from the beginning. As a means of establishing control, arrange for a formal Project Review briefing at the end of the first week. Prepare thoroughly for every briefing. This means more than just creating beautiful overheads or flip charts. Think through the objectives of the meeting and the strategies that you will use to reach those objectives through professional management of each meeting. Some obvious issues must be addressed: Is the project meeting the baselines? If not, what factors are involved? What is the future impact? How will we get back on track? But there may be other, more subtle issues; you must flush out the underlying people and/or political conflicts or small unresolved problems that could grow in magnitude. Direct your attention to the future through your concern with projection/trend analysis, forecasts, as well as the current environment—your focus should simultaneously be on yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Direct special attention to the review of those people on the team with a special expertise. Projects have been adversely impacted by the well-meaning optimism of a technocrat who did not understand the effect of their slippage on the balance of the project.
For you, the program manager, a wellrun Project Review is the forum in which you can accomplish many of your key objectives: improve communications, motivate the project team, maintain control, evaluate status, isolate problems, institute action plans. Use this opportunity well!
Joan Knutson is president and founder of Project Mentors, a San Francisco-based project management consulting and training firm.
PM Network • October 1996