No surprises program management



Companies are striving to enhance the performance and predictability of their projects, in support of their profitable growth initiatives. They are faced with increasing amounts of change and uncertainty while being asked to deliver sound business results on a sustained basis. Establishing representative metrics and practical tools to monitor and control enterprise project portfolios thus becomes a key enabler to higher rates of project success leading to sustained business performance and reduced organizational stress. Participants will have the opportunity to take part in a discussion on the “what”, “why” and “how” of representative metrics, scalable tools and essential soft skills. Some of these considerations are outlined below.

Key Metrics

Getting things done consistently on-time, on-budget and in-scope can be a challenge in fast-paced high-technology environments. Projects have dynamic requirements and are subject to severe time and budget pressures, in an effort to deliver enhanced value. Some of the vital signs of overall program health include customer satisfaction, financial, schedule, resource, contractual and delivery performance metrics. Knowing who the customer really is, establishing appropriate financial and schedule baselines are essential pre-requisites to overall project success. Appropriate core team resource selection and the ability to finalize contracts early in the project lifecycle represent additional key enablers to success. Having clear and complete scope definition and related acceptance criteria is the foundation of a healthy program.

Barriers and Challenges

Poor estimates tied to the unknown nature of deliverables being produced for the first time are often cited as the root cause of negative impacts to project baselines. This is often compounded by time and competitive pressures. Scope creep and inadequate acceptance criteria, i.e. not tied to original deliverables, contribute to negative performance further. Differing expectations due to poor communications are often to blame for worsening results.

Risk Management

Risk management and what if analysis has emerged as an essential tool for initial quantification and mitigation of potential deviations from desired results. Establishing risk severity (high, medium or low) based on probability and impact is key in establishing focus. Some powerful mitigation strategies include impact quantification and risk deflection. External dependencies and resource constraints should not be overlooked. Risk Management plans should be reviewed and updated throughout the project lifecycle. In addition, “politics” can derail an otherwise successful project and should be considered, particularly for large strategic programs.

Estimation Techniques

Poor estimates are often the single most important root cause of project failure. Good practices include basing estimates on deliverables associated with work breakdown structures or activity lists. Taking into account history of similar efforts is also key. Asking for a range of values for individual efforts is a powerful way to overcome inherent uncertainty in complex deliverable estimation.

Rules of Thumb

Project manager involvement in order to get things done will depend on a variety of factors, including project size, criticality and complexity. The project management portion is typically 10 to 20% of the overall implementation effort, depending on size, type and complexity. Incorporating external dependencies into the project schedule, specifying interim milestones and outlining roles and responsibilities of the extended team, including key participants from the customer environment will further contribute to overall success. Keeping in mind that in many cases, “work expands to occupy the available time”, it will be beneficial to keep an internal team schedule that is a little more aggressive than the external schedule that is shared with the customer. Conditional acceptance is yet another powerful tool in the experienced project manager toolkit.

Issue, Change Tracking and Escalation

A simplistic view of project management would be to define scope, plan associated delivery and manage deviations from established project plan. Managing issues, changes and escalations are thus an integral part of a project manager's life. The use of a disciplined yet scalable and flexible approach will go a long way towards enhancing overall success while reducing organizational stress. Establishing a regular review schedule that involves key stakeholders, to monitor and control deliverables is the foundation for a successful project. Appropriate notification and escalation of issues as they arise will allow appropriate efforts to be deployed to minimize negative impact.

Change Management

Scope changes are an integral part of any project. Disposition of these changes should be based on the established scope, schedule, quality and budget baselines and result in approved changes thereto. Contested changes are an integral part of the project management world and will typically involve negotiations and account management for ultimate resolution. Scope creep is yet another manifestation of change. It is typically handled through explicit agreement on and strict monitoring of “limited giveaways” or by charging incremental fees. Requirements expansion is yet another manifestation of change and is best handled by grouping a new set of deliverables into a separate add-on phase.

Status Reports and Financials

Internal status reports are the foundation of sound program management. These should be scalable and focused on deliverable completion and associated progress, versus enumerating activities or listing issues. Updating “estimate-to-complete” financials and associated risk considerations should be a core element of status documentation. One could tolerate a certain amount of ambiguity in the early stages of a given project but should expect financial estimates to converge with time, resulting in a reduced range of uncertainty and a higher probability of overall success.

Program Dashboard and Related Practical Tools

Establishing and maintaining focus on key project metrics is an essential part of project portfolio management. Formality should be adjusted based on size, complexity, trends and expected impact. The ability to see the “big picture” as well as that of being able to zoom in on lower-level details are essential to a sound monitoring and control program management strategy. Various tools ranging from spreadsheets and web-based reports to sophisticated enterprise-management systems are available and should be applied based on the fundamental need to add value, while providing flexibility and scalability.


Variance, which measures deviation from a baseline, can be a useful and powerful project performance metric. It can, for example, be applied against gross margin, defined as revenue minus cost divided by revenue. Margin variance is defined as the percentage difference between target margin and estimate at completion margin. Overall program margin variance, encompassing the aggregate results of individual elements of a project portfolio can often be used as a simple yet powerful indicator of overall program performance and trends.

Project Implementation Reviews

Regular project implementation reviews help support overall quality control. They provide a forum for status updates and issue identification, involving key stakeholders in order to find appropriate solutions. They also provide a mechanism for ensuring that core expectations are met. Uniform layouts, such as methodology templates and scalable content are highly recommended. A systematic review schedule, including action item tracking, should be enforced in order to obtain consistent and representative data. Peer reviews can supplement formal reviews that are typically conducted by the program management office, in coordination with line and executive management.

Knowledge Management

Standards for project initiation and closeout can greatly enhance project management maturity of the organization. Project initiation reviews should focus on successful handover from sales to delivery, ensuring that the statement of work and contractual terms and conditions are fully understood by all parties concerned. Core elements of the project implementation plan, including deliverables, schedule, budget, resources, risk management, issues and change management, communications and quality plans can also be reviewed here allowing for infusion of best practices on a pro-active basis. Project closeout reviews should focus on what went right, improvement areas and future recommendations.


Risk quantification based on what if analysis and knowledge based estimating are some of the best practices that allow proper expectation setting with key project stakeholders. Scalable issue, change tracking and escalation processes are essential for enabling a control tower project portfolio management model for the enterprise. Decision support tools are only part of the equation as a “no surprises” project culture based on recognizing negative trends and seeking help early is essential in developing pro-active solutions to problems before they produce project overruns. Recognizing that every project has unique requirements, being able to draw on others' previous experience and lessons learned is essential in reducing uncertainty and risk.

John Yanacopoulos – PMI Global Congress Europe 2003



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