Executives to project manager
get a plan!
Project Management in Action
Joan Knutson Feature Editor
Erwin V. Martinez
The genesis of most projects is fairly typical: An organization identifies a need. It decides to organize a project to respond to that need. If they heed the advice of project management professionals, the company's top management forms a Project Steering Committee (PSC). The PSC then names a project manager. Now what?
If they want to increase their chance for success, executives should first realize the difference between operations and projects. Projects differ greatly from regular business operations. They are more dynamic, involve more constituencies, introduce new methods and technologies, and involve major work phases that are outside of an organization's core competencies. For example, there is a substantial difference between designing and implementing a computerized accounting system and using one in support of a business operation.
Unfortunately, when charged with overseeing a project, executives often adopt an approach that works well in the management of business operations: delegation and empowerment. The problem is, the familiar response— “This is your operation, Ms. Jones; You run it the way you see fit”-is much less effective with projects than it is with running everyday operations. Project oversight requires a bit more “care and feeding” to ensure that the project manager understands and can meet the project objectives.
Erwin Martinez is a partner in the San Francisco office of Waltham, MA-based CSC Consulting, the consulting and systems integration unit of Computer Sciences Corporation. He has worked in systems development for 17 years, the past 12 managing large-scale information technolgy projects. His experience spans numerous industries and functional areas, includes work with a variety of technologies, and encompasses all aspects of the systems development life cycle. He is a graduate of Yale University and a member of the Project Management Institute.
But just how far should PSC executives go-without involving themselves in the details of project management—to ensure that the project is well managed? Many organizations focus on project start-up and project planningas the critical points at which executive involvement should be the greatest. It is here that an organization creates a project plan that will be used as the blueprint for all future project activities. If an activity or event is not anticipated in the project plan, it may not be dealt within an effective or timely manner.
Clearly a key to success, therefore, is for the PSC to direct the project manager to prepare a project plan. However, the PSC should not stop here. Too often, executives will merely look for the existence of a plan and perhaps a brief presentation as evidence that the project is under control. Such action is understandable, as executives' busy schedules and the need to stay focused on the strategic aspects of management are powerful distractions. But this behavior is not excusable. In its role of executive project leadership and oversight, the PSC must do more than order a plan to be developed. The PSC should have a hand in the plan's creation and perfection.
PROJECT PLAN WALK-THROUGH
In overseeing the project plan development, the PSC must strike a balance between inefficient meddling in project planning details and rubber-stamp approval. One effective approach is to orchestrate a project plan walkthrough, which occurs in three stages:
- Discuss plan contents.
- Prepare project plan.
- Review plan.
By working through these stages with the project manager early in the planning process, the executives can ensure that their concerns help shape the plan and are not just tacked on after initial reviews. The benefits of this approach are many:
- It communicates to the project manager that the executives view proper planning as vitally important.
- It creates an atmosphere of partnership between the executives and the project manager.
- It creates early executive buy-into the project plan's implications in terms of resources and schedule.
- It allows executives to understand the potential project issues and bottlenecks so that they may help resolve them during the project.
- It facilitates quality improvements in the project plan through the “Hawthorne Effect” of executives taking an active interest in project planning.
Stage 1: Discuss Plan Contents
Perhaps as early as when the selected project manager is assigned, the PSC executives should arrange a meeting to discuss the plan contents. The primary purpose of this meeting is to exchange ideas and brainstorm about the plan's contents. It is advisable for the project manager to have time to review the relevant existing project documentation, as well as to have informal “get acquainted” meetings with the major players and constituencies.
The meeting to discuss the plan contents should be structured to cover all project planning dimensions, The emphasis should be on what major areas require planning and who should be involved in their development. The PSC should resist delving into the more detailed aspects of the planning, such as questions of which tools, forms, or formats will be employed and which team members will be asked to perform the planned tasks. At this stage, the PSC executives can add greatest value by shining broad spotlights on the required planning areas and letting the project manager and the project team deal with the details.
Typical agenda items for this meeting include the following:
- High-level scope definition (business and technical)
- Target project objectives and benefits
- Project schedule and interim milestones
- Major project phases/tasks
- Business issues and problems to be ad. dressed by the project
- Ways for the PSC to measure project progress
- Ways to report status to the PSC
- Major PSC checkpoints.
Typically, this meeting would require an hour or two at the most. It is important to remember that the goal of this meeting is to generate ideas that provide direction to the project manager in the preparation of his plan.
Stage 2: Prepare Project Plan
At this stage, the PSC executives must ensure that the project manager accepts responsibility for and ownership of the resulting project plan. This plan will be used to manage the project and measure and report progress. If the project manager does not accept ownership, the plan will be worthless as a management tool.
Good project managers will draw on previous experience, available methodologies, colleagues' similar experiences, and other sources in preparing their plan. The details of the actual plan preparation will not be discussed here, as the focus of this article is on the role of the executive.
Stage 3: Review Plan
Members of an executive-level Project Steering Committee are Occasionally required to commit blocks of time to ensure that the projects under their stewardship are given the appropriate level and quality of guidance and attention. Conducting a review of the plan for a new project is one such time. Depending upon the size of the project, such a walk-through can take anywhere from two to four hours or more for large-scale projects. To minimize interruptions, it is advisable to conduct the review off-site.
The review agenda should be established by the project manager. The PSC executives' role is to ensure that the plan is complete and considers all reasonable contingencies. The project manager should be allowed to walk the executives though the plan with a minimum of interruption. It is most effective to leave the questions and lively discussion for the end of the review, since the PSC executives would then have a complete understanding of the plan on which to base their questions and points.
Furthermore, the PSC executives should avoid nitpicking in areas such as format, style, or other detail. For example, if the project manager plans to conduct status meetings every other Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., there is little reason to recommend a “better” day of the week. However, there may be a good reason to recommend weekly rather than biweekly meetings.
PSC members should establish a constructive atmosphere at the review. The meeting is not a trial, but a checkpoint where valuable input is received from those executives charged with project responsibility. The verbal interplay should be one in which the executive and the project manager work as a team to ensure that the plan is thorough and complete. Questions should focus on the “what ifs” and “whys” of the plan.
Finally, PSC members may wish to develop a checklist of subjects and items they would like to see covered in the plan; for example:
- Risk assessment and management
- Staff planning
- Definition and purpose of major phases/tasks
- Understanding and recognition of the critical path
- Team member training in new technologies or methods
- Periodic business use status and issue-oriented meetings
- Development of prototype solutions before the final end-product
- Management of complex logistics such as the order and delivery of outside components
- Mechanisms for dealing with issues and/or disputes
- Contingencies in schedule and budget for dealing with unknowns
Executive responsibility for projects is most critical at the project start-up stage. Projects that go astray or have difficulty meeting their objectives usually develop their troubles at the very beginning of the process. Unfortunately, it is often through the omission of critical tasks or contingencies that failed projects encounter their fatal flaws. Therefore, it is incumbent upon PSC executives to, at the outset of the project, ensure that the project will be managed to the best possible plan.
The ultimate product of the approach discussed in this article is a project plan that is reality-based and meets the objectives of the project. PSC executives following this approach will play a key role in emphasizing the importance of planning and in providing useful input and feedback throughout the process of plan development. ❑
Reader Service Number 220
PMNETwork • October 1994