Selecting and working with a project management partner

Ron Kempf, PMP, Manager Professional Services Project Management Competency,
Compaq Computer Corporation

Whether you face a small, site-specific technology implementation or one with global, enterprisewide reach, a skilled project management partner can help keep the project on schedule and within budget. However, some project managers can become just another expense, siphoning your company's limited financial and personnel resources. Therefore, it's important to choose a project management partner whose approach will deliver the results you want: a cost-effective implementation, completed in a timely fashion.

In this white paper, we'll cover areas in which a project manager can make a substantial contribution to your project. We'll also set out key characteristics you can keep in mind as you evaluate potential candidates. Finally, we'll explain what a good project manager might ask of you, and why.

Using this information should help you select the right company and individual, and then get the most out of the relationship.

Why Engage a Project Management Partner?

No matter how carefully you have planned the technical aspects of your project to ensure it comes in on time and under budget, a host of unforeseen barriers may impede your success. Often these impediments fall outside the realm of technology considerations. Among the most frequently cited pitfalls are:

  • Insufficient end-user involvement
  • Unclear objectives and requirements
  • Changing requirements
  • Insufficient senior management support
  • Poor management of resources and expertise.

A seasoned project manager contracted from a quality systems integration firm as part of an implementation can help you work through or avoid these sometimes-unrecognized matters, resolving them before they have a debilitating effect on the implementation. He or she completes a number of activities and draws on a number of skills to navigate the often-treacherous waters that can surround a project.

For example, the project manager should follow a carefully defined and tested process, use the project plan as a controlling document, set clear responsibilities, establish goals and measurements, ensure management sponsorship and involvement, and provide experienced leadership. By undertaking these activities, he or she will be able to clarify everyone's expectations, track changes, gain support as needed, and make sure the right people are deployed at the right time.

As a single point of contact, your project manager streamlines the process of getting your questions answered and your issues resolved. Look for someone who will work with you to develop the answers in a participative way versus prescribing them to you. You should be able to engage a project manager either as a member of the prime contractor's team, a subcontractor under your direction or a subcontractor to your solutions provider— whichever arrangement suits your situation best.

How to Evaluate Potential Project Management Partners

To make sure you get a quality solution that meets your needs, that provides the business benefit you seek, that falls within your financial expectations, and that is completed on time, you should look at the people, processes, and tools offered by the potential project management partner. What is meant by each of these terms, why are they crucial, and how can you find the best available?

People

A project manager has a number of specific responsibilities. Find out the tasks candidates routinely undertake as part of their project management role. Then, check their responses against the following list to make sure the candidate customarily does all of them:

  • Organize resources
  • Develop and document detailed work plans
  • Authorize work
  • Manage scope, cost, schedule, and quality
  • Manage team performance
  • Manage risk
  • Communicate status and issues.

If you can confirm that the individual considers all of the above as part of his or her assignment, probe to confirm that he or she would:

• Motivate the team to drive toward success, find ways to overcome difficulties, and maintain team focus on project objectives

• Use a rigorous risk identification and mitigation process on an ongoing basis

• Use milestones to control work and costs

• Demonstrate project control through disciplined measurement, assessment, planning, and reporting

• Anticipate and communicate the impact of project decisions and actions

• Ensure that sufficient project team and senior management time is scheduled for the preparation and conduct of project reviews.

Experience

Next, find out about the experience the individual has. Have they successfully managed projects of a similar scope or helped a company facing similar challenges? How will they leverage that experience for you? Have they have been guided by best practices in carrying out their work?

Training

Of equal weight is the kind of training the person has undergone. Have they had a solid combination of exposure to a world-class training curriculum and plenty of on-the-job training? Are they certified through the Project Management Institute (PMI®)? Such certification validates that the individual meets high standards for project management. A well-trained project manager should have completed coursework in such areas as contracting, project leadership management and communication, risk management, quality, and scheduling and cost control. Confirm that your candidates are well trained in all these areas and that they have access to a comprehensive project management development program.

Industry and Technology Expertise

Make sure the potential project manager has considerable experience in your industry. Your schedule and budget are too tight to have to spend time bringing someone up to speed on any industry issues that might affect your implementation. For example, if your company is in the Telecommunications industry, you will probably be interested in a solutions integrator who can bring substantial experience in the integrated management of your networks and services, as well as expertise in the critical area of fraud management technology. If you are looking to implement a major enterprise application such as SAP R/3 or PeopleSoft, you will likely want an integrator who has expertise not only in the application functionality, but also in the complex technical issues that accompany a major client/server deployment.

Worldwide Availability

For global enterprises, it is important to look for a partner whose company offers project management coverage anywhere in the world. A project manager with a global presence behind him or her can deliver in-depth support for your effort. You should expect a worldwide infrastructure that provides support and ensures consistency. Personnel in program offices around the world can:

• Review and audit projects

• Ensure consistency and adherence to standards, methodologies, and policies

• Handle issue escalation

• Provide project support

• Foster program management development.

Processes

Ask candidates about the processes used by them or their company such as program road maps, approval and review boards, and any standardized methodologies. The use of such techniques indicates that the prospect has an effective approach to handling engagements.

The Road Map

The project manager should work within a well-defined road map: a plan that clearly specifies all the stages of the engagement, as well as the activities that should occur at each. If your partner uses a road map, you can feel confident that he or she understands each phase of the project life cycle, all the lines of responsibility, the necessary reviews and assessments, the key deliverables, and the needed approvals. Without a road map, it is hard for the project manager to ensure an orderly process and even harder for you to feel certain that the project manager is guided by a sufficiently comprehensive and well thought out plan.

A Systematic Project Approval and Review Process

Get details on how the project manager's company handles project approvals and reviews. Although this may seem like an internal issue, your project can be adversely affected if the project manager's company does not have an efficient, proven method for evaluating and monitoring projects. Should your partner have to deal with chaos within his or her organization, he or she will be understandably distracted. Instead, you want to feel certain that your partner's company can make prudent and speedy decisions about your project as it unfolds. A board that meets regularly to approve and review projects is one of the surest ways to foster success.

Repeatable Methodologies

To preserve your budget and schedule, you want as streamlined an implementation as possible. Find out if the company uses a perfected methodology for delivering its project management services. To make sure it focuses on your needs as a customer, look for a methodology that's broad in scope, integrative, scaleable, flexible, and measurable.

Broad in scope: When a methodology is broad in scope, it can be applied to the entire process of planning, designing, implementing, and managing your information technology solution.

Integrative: The methodology should be able to coordinate the work of multiple disciplines, organizations, and individuals from the solution provider, your staff, and third-party vendors.

Scaleable: Ask the project manager if their methodology can accommodate an effort of any size. If your project is a discrete implementation or an enterprisewide program, the methodology should be able to work for you. Parts of it can also be used selectively, if your needs are limited.

Flexible: Every project is unique. That's why it's important that the methodology can be tailored to your specific requirements, business objectives, and computing strategies. What will work best for your project? The answer to that question is what should govern the methods, techniques, and tools selected.

Measurable: An effective methodology provides predictable and repeatable results. It should specify processes for defining and documenting quality requirements and for ensuring those requirements are met. To ensure high-quality results, make sure the methodology includes rigorous monitoring, testing, verification, and reporting procedures at every stage of your project.

Don't be misled by a methodology that's attractive in theory but has limited practical application. Consider these guidelines when you evaluate the methodology used by your potential project manager:

• Does it cover multiple approaches to the development life cycle? Development methodologies such as classic systems development, client/server, rapid application development (RAD), object-oriented application development, and package integration should be available.

• Is it based on international standards? These standards include the IEEE Standard for Developing Software Cycle Process and the PMI Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK).

• Does it reflect quality assurance practices? Providing for regular reports, reviews, and audits should enable management to monitor progress and anticipate potential problem areas. The bottom line is close cost control, consistent quality, predictable results, verifiable performance, and measurable success.

Tools

A well-developed set of tools can be invaluable in helping a project move forward smoothly. As with a proven methodology, the presence of a tool set means the people working for you can look to established aids that make the work go faster, and more predictably. In addition to traditional scheduling and resource management software tools there are others that can help the project manager do his or her job better.

Knowledge Management

One particularly worthwhile tool is knowledge management. When you talk to your potential project manager, find out how swiftly and systematically they can put their knowledge to work for you. And find out how they manage their wealth of knowledge. One of the best ways available today is through a web-accessible information repository that makes the accumulated experience of project managers easily available to all others. Such a knowledge library serves as the foundation for a company's information, tools, tips, even solution components—all of which can expedite your project. Also, discuss their use of repeatable solution sets, another process by which previous knowledge can be readily applied to your situation.

Specialized Tools for Frequently Used Solutions

Some companies may have created specific project management tools for areas of high demand, such as SAP or Microsoft Exchange implementations. Others may also have developed a tool that works in concert with their over-reaching methodology. Such a tool can help a project manager plan, propose, and deliver projects. It might contain document templates, template plans, detailed work breakdown structures (WBS) descriptions, checklists, role descriptions, and examples. Using the tool as a source for current methodology content, templates, policies, and experiential learnings from other projects like yours, the project manager can efficiently work out the details of your implementation.

Summary

Consider people, processes, and tools when you evaluate a project management partner. Many companies have demonstrated strengths in one or two of these areas. You'll have to search harder for a partner who can bring all three components to your project. But successfully identifying such a partner will pay off for you at every step of the implementation.

Your Role in the Relationship

Throughout the engagement, the project manager may make certain requests of you, or indicate certain expectations. Here are some of those possible requests and an indication of why your contribution is required or how you'll benefit.

Proposal Development

Even before a project begins, project management issues need to be addressed. Make sure that project management has been identified as a specific task in the proposal. That way, you and your project manager will both know that such services are expected. It is appropriate for your external project manager to budget time to prepare and participate in your quality review. Such participation helps keep the project on track and gives it the best chance of meeting your expectations.

Your potential partner can use the proposal development phase to make sure he or she has clearly understood all your requirements. The benefit to you: fewer changes to delay your schedule or erode your budget once the project gets under way. If the project scope changes during the development phase, expect to see such changes accounted for in the document you receive.

If the project manager recommends against certain systems projects or expansion of existing projects, find out why. Armed with a clear idea of the associated costs of these changes, a responsible project manager should discourage you from taking on more than your budget can handle.

Although terms such as “best available technology,”“best efforts,” and “turnkey” easily find their way into conversations, a good project manager will discourage their use in contracts. Why? Because the terms are open to such broad interpretation. Your expectations may differ widely from what your project manager believes the terms mean. It's much safer for you to have all terminology clearly specified. So, if technology buzzwords do not appear in the contract, be glad that your partner has used language precisely so that everyone involved knows what is being delivered.

Managing the Relationship

Your and your implementation team enter into a partnership to ensure the success of your project. As with any relationship, open and frequent communication can keep problems from festering. The following instances do not have to do with prying or overstepping boundaries. If your project manager does them, he or she is fulfilling the obligations of good project management.

Clearly Defining Lines of Responsibility

At the start of the project, a good project manager will want to confirm with you that all parties involved have understood the division of responsibilities. Such clarity at the outset will help you anticipate what will be handed off to your company for completion, and when.

Trying to Anticipate Potential Problems

During a project, if something unforeseen develops, who caused it? And who has to fix it? Though both questions are natural, their resolution can be complicated and even unpleasant. To try to prevent such problems from occurring, expect the project manager to seek as much clarification as possible for every stage of the project.

Resolving Difficult Issues

The project manager may ask for your help in addressing thorny issues that arise on projects. This is not an abdication of his or her responsibilities but is a proven way to make sure that the project stays on track. An experienced project manager will know when to assume full responsibility and when to involve you. Obviously, you don't want to have to participate in every step of a project; that's part of why you've hired a project manager. But when difficulties surface, a request for your help is a sign that the project manager has your best interests at heart. You can be very helpful in forging a solution to personnel, scheduling, or communication problems.

Dealing With Schedule Delays

If a problem arises that will cause a delivery date to slip, you should expect to hear from the project manager. If the impact on your schedule is unavoidable, the conversation shouldn't focus on remedies. Expect the project manager to offer alternatives for how your company can effectively accommodate the schedule slip.

Maintaining a Steady Flow of Communication

If you haven't been communicating regularly with the project manager, don't be surprised to see or hear from him or her. A good project manager recognizes that not hearing from you is not necessarily a signal that all is proceeding well. In fact, quite the opposite may be the case. An un-prompted call, just to make sure things are going well or to find out about what isn't working, tells you your project manager is paying attention.

Transferring Knowledge

When the implementation team completes its work and leaves your site, will your personnel have the knowledge they need to maintain the project on their own? To ensure you can achieve this kind of independence, be sure your project manager is committed to knowledge transfer. Much of the knowledge resides with the technical team members, but look to the project manager to ensure that the implementation team is providing your team members with the information they'll need in the future.

Helping You Improve Your Business

As a project unfolds, the implementation team may discover a number of other ways that information technology can help your organization. A project manager committed to your long-term business welfare will call such possibilities to your attention. Just make sure the suggestions really are apt to benefit your company, and are not simply a way for the partner to sell you more IT solutions to benefit his or her company.

Managing Subcontractors

A number of subcontractors may be required to complete your project. Your project manager will have the responsibility for managing them. Although the management issues required to keep the subs working seamlessly with the rest of the team need not concern you, the project manager will still need your involvement periodically with the subs.

The main way in which you will be asked to be involved is in agreeing to a communications protocol. An orderly plan will protect you from being approached too often by too many players, but will also give you the opportunity to work out how you would like to be kept informed. If the project manager suggests communicating through him or her, that suggestion is not intended to keep you from having access to the subcontractors but only to streamline the process for everyone.

Summary

You and your project manager enter into a relationship that is most productive and effective when you both recognize the nature of the partnership and keep the lines of communication open. By knowing what your project manager is doing on your behalf, and understanding his or her requests, you can take full advantage of what project management offers.

Conclusion

Given the project's importance to your company, and maybe even to your career path, it's understandable that you could experience a high level anxiety—both in how you make your selection of a project manager and how confident you are that you have chosen the right person. By using the suggestions we've provided for selecting a project management partner and by knowing what to expect, you have an excellent chance to get an impressive return on your project management investment.

Project Manager Checklist

Look for:

People who are experienced and well trained

Processes that are tested

Tools that yield efficiency

Worldwide capabilities if needed to ensure global support

Plan to be involved in:

Proposal development to set the stage for a successful implementation

Contract discussions to make sure everything is in writing…clearly

Management of the relationship over time

Managing the subcontractors as appropriate

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

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

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