VOICES | In the Trenches
How to use your project management skills in operations.
By Deepa Gandhavalli Ramaniah, PMP
ALTHOUGH AN OPERATION is completely different from a project, many project managers find themselves in roles involving operations. The good news is the jobs involve a considerable overlap in skills.
Consider a business operation such as production support, design maintenance or remediation. Here, operations managers focus on executing, monitoring and controlling the business operations so that business goals are achieved. This will sound familiar to project managers, who execute, monitor and control a project's process groups.
Here are three of the most important project management skills needed if you find yourself in operations management:
As a liaison to multiple stakeholders, an operations manager needs to plan communications by identifying all the required stakeholders, then working out the mode and frequency of communication for each of them. For example, an operations manager handling a production support team needs to communicate the list of prioritized activities to the operations team, relate the progress of tickets or requests to customers, and keep senior management informed of operational activities.
Operations managers also need to proactively identify and communicate any potential overdue tasks to the required stakeholders, as well as escalate any non-compliance to service level agreements according to the organization's escalation policies and procedures. Once, while managing a production support team, I handled a highly escalated customer ticket as a small-scale project. Since the ticket had a huge impact on the production environment, the customer insisted on getting an immediate fix or patch. I arranged a quick meeting of the operations team to make sure we understood the issue, its root cause and the impact. When we were unable to identify a temporary fix, we knew we would have to develop a permanent one and release a patch. Considering the customer's business impact, I met with the senior management stakeholders immediately, summarized the issue and explained that it should be handled as a mini project. My communications skills, honed while managing projects, were a great asset at this point.
NEGOTIATION AND INFLUENCING
When an operations manager handles a high-severity customer request or a production ticket, he or she might have to use negotiation and influencing skills to acquire highly skilled technical resources from a project team. Negotiation may also be required to explain to the customer about the complexity of tickets being handled by the operations team and buy additional time, if required. At times, the operations manager might even have to negotiate with and influence his or her team members to get tasks done.
In my operations mini-project, the next step after communicating was to devise a plan and negotiate with senior executives to create a “tiger team” of different resources, such as an architect who could propose a permanent fix, a designer who could implement, a configuration manager who could build the code and develop a patch, and a lead tester who could deploy the patch and test all possible scenarios, with the architect's assistance. But because those people were already assigned to projects, I had to negotiate with project managers. To create a win-win situation, I had earlier negotiated with senior executives that this escalation would be the highest priority, and any other program or project would have to be deprioritized. This meant project managers willingly lent the resources required for the tiger team.
An operations manager must direct, facilitate, coach and lead teams to handle daily operations. He or she should be aware of the competencies possessed by the team and assign tasks accordingly. He or she also must motivate team members through continuous appreciation and recognition.
The operations manager should possess excellent problem-solving and decision-making skills. For instance, when a production problem arises, an operations manager should have a complete understanding of the problem's context, impact and consequences before making a decision on the timeline for resolution. It is also a good practice to meet with the operations team to get its buy-in on the timeline before committing to the customer.
It's common for operational team members to disagree on issues or solutions to problems. The operations manager must take the lead, bring the team members together, get their thoughts, analyze pros and cons of each member's proposal and identify the best-fit solution. It is the operations manager's responsibility to create a problem-solving environment and manage conflict.
Returning to my example: Once the team was formed through negotiation and influencing, we held a brief meeting to explain the background, what was expected from each resource, the project deadlines and so on. As operations manager, I made sure the team had all the required resources, such as hardware and software, to execute the project. I directed the lead tester to get involved during the implementation phase itself, so he could prepare the test cases and get them reviewed by the architect before the patch got delivered to him for testing. I worked to ensure the tiger team was constantly motivated and empowered to fix the issue by the deadline.
It is the operations manager's responsibility to create a problem-solving environment and manage conflict.
But at one point, two members of the team got into a serious argument over an error. I called them to a meeting and, using my interpersonal skills, explained that we were not there to blame but to get the patch to the customer by the deadline. I persuaded them to shake hands and proceed with the next phase. After successful testing of the patch, we were able to deliver it to the customer as planned. Finally, I arranged a meeting with the tiger team and senior executives and made sure the team was recognized for its work. PM
Deepa Gandhavalli Ramaniah, PMP, is senior associate—projects at Cognizant Technology Solutions, Chennai, India.
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