Extreme project management in telco industry

Abstract

Managing projects in the Telco Industry requires ability and excellent knowledge of project management. Project Managers have to manage and control work execution while wave rolling planning projects, analyzing new constraints and requirements, compressing time and costs. Team management is time consuming and efficient communication between distributed stakeholders is required. This paper looks at the skills necessary to manage projects in the Telco Industry. The first part of the paper discusses the Telco Industry environment with a focus on Value Added Services (VAS). The second part is about VAS projects management in this Industry.

Introduction

Project Managers in the Telco Industry today are called to face tough times. Strong competition among operators forces business strategy changes, goal shifts, compelling search for competitive advantages (new technologies, new services and offerings, …) while reducing time to market. This means sudden turnarounds in strategies, project scope swings, variations in constraints and shifting project milestones.

Complexity and mutual interdependencies among systems, together with budget compression, cause several rework cycles in order to finalize project scope and requirements, preventing the project manager (PM) from finalizing the project management plan on a consolidated impact analysis and effort estimation. Company changes due to crisis and financial shortage, mergers and acquisitions, consolidations, re-organizations, dismissing of business units complete the picture.

In this precarious context, driving successful projects requires flexibility, thinking forward attitude and a handy knowledge of advanced project management methodologies. PMs in the Telco industry should, therefore, combine traditional and expert techniques, such as change management, stakeholders satisfaction, virtual teams management and, of course, scheduling and cost compression. Efficient communication is mandatory in order to guarantee the alignment between all the stakeholders and the team and to monitor early warnings of issues and/or scenario changes. Cultural differences, geographic distance and different stakeholders needs should be considered. Strong risk management process, war room and review meetings at short intervals throughout the project are a must. This means continuously challenging and verifying any assumption, while pursuing several scenarios altogether in order to reduce change impacts.

Enterprise Environmental Factors

Today’s Telco Environment

In the last ten years many new operators and mobile virtual network operators have entered into competition with the incumbent operators. Competition among incumbent and new operators forces business strategy changes, and goal shifts, compelling search for competitive advantages, while reducing time to market. For this reason, using new technologies, enabling new services and offerings and moving towards next generation networks and datacenters is a must for all telco operators. This also means sudden turnarounds in strategies, project scope swings, variations in constraints and shifting project milestones. In addition, company changes, mergers and acquisitions, consolidations, re-organizations, dismissing of business units create a more difficult environment.

Modern telecommunication involve analogue and digital fixed line services, mobile line services, fixed and mobile broadband, internet and media and Telco & IT Services.

Telco & IT Projects

Among other services, this paper focuses on managing Telco & IT Services, and in particular on the following kind of services:

  • Multimedia Content Services: used to deliver specific content (news, sport, economics, music, photo, sounds, …) to mobile operator customers using Short Messages (SMS), Multimedia Messages (MMS), email, Wap Push and other Telco & IT delivery channels;
  • Advertising: advertising based or not on customer profile information may be delivered to customers on specific channels, like Web, Microbrowsing, SMS, MMS, email. Typically advertising is added on the web or wap pages or added to multimedia content delivery, with a benefit for customer to have services for free;
  • Device Management: includes all services used to configure new capabilities or to install new application on user mobile phone;
  • Location based services: includes all services using user location (based on mobile network or GPS) to offer services to operator customers showing on their mobile phone nearest places;
  • Web2.0 services: includes collaboration and conferencing services, communities management;
  • Value Added Services: includes all other services (i.e. services offered using third party contents or services, self caring, self selling, …);

The entire process cycle, from idea to delivery of new services, used to develop new services lasts from one to three months depending on the complexity of services. (Exhibit 1) During this elapsed time, new requirements, scope changes and stakeholders influence, together with mutual interdependencies with other projects, cause several rework cycles preventing the PM from finalizing the project management plan on a consolidated impact analysis and effort estimation. Services are evolved as soon as delivered, so the PM is involved in closing a project while initiating a new project on the same services.

Telco & IT Projects

Exhibit 1 – Telco & IT Projects

Environmental Factors

Enterprise environmental factors refer to both internal and external environmental factors that surround or influence a project success. These factors may enhance or constrain project management options and may have a positive or negative influence on the outcome. Main environmental factors in VAS Project Management are:

  • Telco Industry standards: main Telco & IT application should be developed following standards in order to ensure interoperability with other operators solutions;
  • New technologies: arising technologies and availability of new third party application and terminals influence the development of new services;
  • Marketplace conditions: strong competition among operators forces business strategy changes compelling search for competitive advantages (new services and offerings) while reducing time to market;
  • Stakeholders: many stakeholders including internal marketing, end users, other operators, government agencies, third parties, manufacturers and their risk tolerance may influence the project;

Extreme Project Management

The choice of the project management model

In order to characterize the most suitable project management model related to the project scenario, it’s important to remember some easy questions :

  1. What is the main project goal?
  2. Is it clear what sponsor/initiator wants?
  3. Which is the requirements stability degree?
  4. How much time we have to work the project?
  5. Do we have a consolidated budget for the project?

In Telco VAS environment, the main project goal is a benefit, an added value for the customer and not a well defined product. It is not clear what the sponsor/initiator wants, but it becomes clearer during project execution. If it isn’t enough, requirements stability is an exception and the time is so compressed that, ideally, it is comparable to pizza baking time. Strategies and requirements are changed due to competitors and stakeholders influence. Budget constraints are reviewed throughout the project and business simplification should be considered frequently. Therefore, the unique project management model that is allowed to survive is an agile one: the project manager is a facilitator and an integrator more than a manager, the technical and the project management are different even if related in terms of business, cost and quality impact. Moreover, it is not possible to consolidate the activities plan, it should be useless in a changing scenario, but it is possible to plan only predictable and strictly next activities and a daily stand-up meeting plus conference call or video call if the team is distributed, is the only way to have a sufficient control on the project and to know the problems to solve before it is too late.

Customer Organization

The project is initiated with the marketing in the role of initiator. Engineering line and marketing line works together in order to define a project charter and then collect requirements, define scope, identify stakeholders and develop project management plan.

VAS projects are managed using a balanced matrix organization in which the functional managers manage both the project manager and project team. (Exhibit 2) The project manager manages the supplier (through the supplier PM) and the other lines involved. So he has authority on the project, but may only influence the functional manager in rewarding (or not) project team member in some way.

Project organization

Exhibit 2 – Project organization

The PM is involved on many projects at the same time, all influencing each other. Therefore, PM should keep in touch with other PM working on other projects, because of mutual influence between projects. The most important activities the PM should manage are:

  • stakeholder management;
  • time planning and control;
  • cost planning and control;
  • team management;
  • communication management;
  • risk management;

PM spends quite all time in rolling wave planning projects, monitoring and controlling projects, and communicating with different stakeholders. Quick and easy communication is a must in order to minimize reworks and impacts on cost, time, risks.

Principal stakeholders are: functional managers, staff, suppliers, sponsors, initiators, delivery manager line, testing line, operations line, marketing line, technical security line, and other engineering lines. Time and cost management is the most difficult activity for PM involved negotiating with marketing trying to keep changes with the least possible impact, negotiating with suppliers trying to keep costs within budget and keep scheduling meeting all milestones. Team and communication management is essential, in order to communicate changes as soon as possible and to track mutual interdependencies between projects. Efficient communication is managed using different tools and methodologies: email is used to broadcast information not needing an immediate acknowledge; audio and video call are used to communicate information that need an immediate acknowledge between geographically distributed teams; collaboration tools are used to keep track of documents and registries; distributed agenda is used to plan reviews; war room is used for urgent brainstorming; and an every-day “goodnight call” between customer PM and supplier PM is used to share issues, rolling-wave plan next day activities, manage risks, agree a common strategy and share reporting information. The perfect PM should always have a “Piano B” (second choice) in order to minimize risk impacts.

Supplier Organization

In order to meet customer and market needs, the supplier company performed an adequate organization that, from a high point of view, include several independent business units and competence centers coordinated from research and innovation department that guarantees expertise osmosis and information exchange on cross-market projects and activities.

The business unit which Telco projects are managed has a balanced matrix organization: the functional managers manage both technical staff and project managers. In this type of organization the project manager has a medium authority on the project and on the financing and he has a few levers in human resources: he cannot give a ranking or benefit, he cannot give a penalty and, therefore, notability is the most important factor to motivate the team and to led it to the success.

By drilling down, a working team is a subset of one or more Competence Center teams and includes both project manager and several technical and support roles (for example: technical responsible, quality assistant, software configuration manager, etc…).

Since in VAS Telco environment requirements stability is an exception, it is very difficult to perform the staffing phase and in order to try to satisfy projects needs properly and quickly, each project team has a human resources kernel and a pool shared with other projects of the same type (in terms of customer, business, environment, technology). (Exhibit 3)

The kernel is dimensioned by considering the initial estimation obtained by several methodologies: analogous estimation, expert judgement, historical data, fast function point, quick and early function point.

The pool is dimensioned by considering the contingency of several projects of the same type and it is used to mitigate the effort peaks: in our case this is a sure event, but it is not predictable when and where it will happen.

The pool cost is covered from each project that estimated the contingency but, of course, not all the projects can use pool resources at same time.

Therefore, it’s possible to manage a project by using a kernel plus a pool of human resources shared with other projects, the Competence Center perform a properly turn over between kernel and pool in order to satisfy the needs of the projects. This type of staffing, that we usually call “fisarmonica like”, guarantees good results if the kernel and pool dimensions are properly calculated.

Kernel and Pool organization

Exhibit 3 – Kernel and Pool organization

An eXtreme project management usage

In this paragraph we attempt to synthesize how the chosen model is applied by a short travel throughout project management processes and by emphasizing the most important tasks:

Initiating

In this phase it’s generally possible to identify stakeholders and the project manager, but it is not possible to develop a complete project charter that will be completed after many iterations. Usually the supplier supports the customer in requirements definition and consolidation without guarantees about the kind of activities and related effort to perform them. This process is characterized by customer economics investment and supplier entrepreneurial risk. It is important to start a first requirements analysis by an exploration/investigation phase that becomes more concrete by continuous iterations and interactions with the customer and stakeholders (this phase will continue up to that closing). This step allows a first and early estimation and some idea about the staffing (in terms of kernel and pool resources as above explained). Customer engineering line in this phase should communicate to sponsors/initiators a cost estimate: the only possibility is an analogous estimate/expert judgement/historical data based on PM experience and skills.

Planning

The main objective is to develop the project plan, but the instable scenario doesn’t allow one to schedule all the activities but only those predictable and the strictly next ones. Therefore, generally, the schedule becomes a milestones chart to share with the team that also inserts and traces all the activities in a simple excel document properly organized: attended results are more important than those planned. The estimation task is performed from the technical responsible that involves all the technical team and he guarantees the work is completed inside the planned time. The project manager and the technical responsible collaborate to determine the proportions of the kernel and pool staff. In this scenario, the supplier project manager is not the only to plan and to decide but he is the persone which tries to facilitate these tasks that are performed from all the team.

The risk analysis is performed from all the team (extended from customer to supplier) by a simple excel document that contains the type of risk, the severity, the state, the description, the action and the owner.

The communication plan is very important and attention towards management, stakeholder and sponsor is more important than towards resources because the firsts must be kept calm continuously about the project and the related return of investment.

Executing

In an environment so dynamic and instable, this phase is often a small (but not less painful) hell. The requirements are never consolidated but if the team didn’t start this phase, it should be impossible to release the deliverables on time because the initiator or sponsor closes the requirements only a few days before the deliver milestone.

Of course, the software life cycle chosen is FDD (features driven developing) and the software must be developed by using pattern and methodologies that minimize the change requests impact so that day by day it must be possible to make the changes very quickly. In the last years, we planned and produced software that changes its behavior by configuration scripting but this is not always possible.

It is important to underline that, in order to avoid the chaos for the continuous software changes, we use a very strong software configuration management performed by a tool that allows also the life cycle items management and related human resources traceability who performed the changes.

During this phase the staffing is completed and the effort peaks (arisen from some known or unknown risk) are managed by using pool resources. Moreover, with a daily frequency, the whole team dawns the activities list, related scheduling and percentage of completion (0%-100%) and inserts new activities not planned if it needs.

Monitoring and controlling

The processes that allow the PM to monitor and control the project are quite different on customer and supplier side. From supplier point of view, it’s simplified and distributed to all team in order to make it continuously and quickly, while from customer point of view monitoring and controlling and reporting to stakeholders is the most important and time consuming activity. On the other hand, from supplier point of view, quite all the effort is spent analyzing continuous change requests in order to understand if they are out of scope and if it will be possible to work and delivery them on time. Subsequently, the changes have to be estimated and the supplier has to understand if the economic resource already consolidated allows to work them because of small impact or not. In the second case supplier team sends the new effort to the account manager who makes a new formal offer to the customer. All the change requests are worked and traced by internal tool in terms of human resources, items related and time to delivery. If the human resourced number is not proper, it is possible to use pool resources if it is not empty. In this last case, the competence center must meet the project needs in terms of human resources, also by using external consultants.

The schedule and the risks are monitored both by planned meeting (before the milestones) and daily or weekly (related to the number and severity of risks) stand-up meeting formalized by simple excel or doc status report document.

When the project is a part of a critical program, the controlling phase is performed also by a three levels steering committee, each one with a different frequency and contents(Exhibit 4):

• First level: the two projects manager (customer and supplier side) are involved;
• Second level: the two program manager (customer and supplier side) are involved;
• Third level: the contract manager (supplier side) and director (customer side) are involved;
Steering Committee organization

Exhibit 4 – Steering Committee organization

The cost and schedule are monitored by using a chart (i.e. Gantt) and internal tool used to compile the monthly time card so that it is possible to evaluate earned value too and some important indicators as SPI and CPI. The milestones are always met and therefore the SPI is always on line and CPI too is often on line by using the organization above explained.

The performance information, included status report (also slides) and forecasts are continuously performed and sent to the management and the most important stakeholders in order to keep them calm and to share risks and their management strategies . Often, this information is shared by conference call or compressed meeting (that don’t involve the team but only the project manager and management and/or some stakeholder).

Moreover, there are some important indicators to monitor called SLA (Service Level Agreement) included in the contract and related to three factors: productivity (in terms of fast function points per days), timeliness (in terms of delivery delay in days) and defective state (in terms of final troubles not solved after testing phase and after installation in production environment). These indicators are used to calculate a variable revenue for the supplier which is added to the fixed one.

Closing

In VAS Telco scenario the most important closing process is the verification of full customer satisfaction. This is performed by monitoring the system behavior in production environment (and by fixing the bugs as soon as possible), by analyzing the statistic data and by interviewing the stakeholders customer side about the project benefits. This means that, if the customer is fully satisfied, a closing process for the current project can became a starting process for the next project and this is the only true acceptance form over any other.

The “lesson learned” is another very important process that is performed by analyzing each project processes and by formalizing the key factors (also about risks) in a simple but efficient archived document. Lessons learned are always tracked from customer PM and distributed to other PMs.

Lessons Learned

We’ve said that in the Telco Industry, driving successful projects requires flexibility, thinking forward attitude and a handy knowledge of advanced project management methodologies. PM should therefore combine traditional and expert techniques, such as change management, stakeholders’ satisfaction, virtual teams management and, of course, scheduling and cost compression. Efficient communication is mandatory in order to guarantee the alignment between all the stakeholders and the team and to monitor early warnings of issues and/or scenario changes.

The two teams (customer and supplier side) could be considered as an unique team (managed by two project managers) with the customer marketing as a common customer and with a common delivery plan. Good team building, quick and distributed communication are important too. (Exhibit 5)

Project Team (customer and supplier)

Exhibit 5 – Project Team (customer and supplier)

Cultural differences, geographic distance and different stakeholders’ needs should be considered. Due to geographic distance, review meetings are co-located (if planned) or virtual (using audio/video) if urgent.

Strong risk management process, war room and review meetings at short intervals throughout the project are a must. This means continuously challenging and verifying any assumption, while pursuing several scenarios altogether in order to reduce change impacts. For each issue, it’s necessary to have a “B plan” (second choice). Another important methodology used in order to reduce rework is starting development activities as late as possible to avoid “Parkinson Law” (Critical Chain Management).

Monitoring, controlling and reporting to stakeholders is the most important and time consuming activity. Moreover, it is also important to simplify all procedures and methodologies and decrease time required to update registry and review it at close intervals: it is better to use a simple table (excel) to create a risk register and to monitor it with high frequency, more than to using a complex simulation or tool and reviewing with a low frequency.

After all this, let’s say that the project management in the Telco & IT environment is a very critical mission and that the project manager, often, should have to use the “X” letter of “eXtreme” word to acquire Xmen superpowers (above all to manage the family and wife after office)!!!

References

Cohn, M. & Schwaber, K. (2003, January) The Need for Agile Project Management, Agile Times 1(1) 10 -12.

Highsmith J. (2004) Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products. Boston MAa: Addison-Wesley Professional

Marino, A, & Posati, M, “Nuove tecniche per progetti estremi: la gestione sostenibile dei progetti complessi”. FrancoAngeli

Project Management Institute (2008) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, Fourth Edition. PMBOK Guide®, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute

Rambaldi E. Articles about “An Agile Extreme Project Management description”

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.

©2010, Francesco Ludovico and Francesco Petrarca
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Milan, Italy

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