Readhowyouwant Pty Ltd., Sydney, Australia
A CLOSER LOOK
READ HOW YOU WANT PTY LTD., SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA
A project manager breaks down cultural barriers and comes up with a process to handle changing requirements at a growing publishing firm.
PHOTOS BY ALFONSO CALERO
from left, Chris Stephen, Syed
Zaidi, PMP, ReadHowYouWant pty
Ltd. Sydney, Australia
When Syed Zaidi, PMP, was hired at Read-HowYouWant in 2006, he was the company's 20th employee and its first project professional.
From the beginning, Mr. Zaidi faced serious resistance from other employees at the Sydney, Australia-based publishing house, which creates software systems that convert conventional text into formats for readers with disabilities, such as Braille and audio books.
“Project management was a brand-new challenge for the company,” he says. “I knew I had to approach it very carefully.”
At the time Mr. Zaidi came aboard as information and communications technology project manager, the company had no formal project management practices in place. Its globally dispersed project teams were using inconsistent communication and information-sharing strategies. Throughout the project life cycle, team members communicated informally via email, instant messages and video chats.
There were few measures to assess progress and identify or control scope creep, and employees with differing skill sets struggled to collaborate and set common goals.
The company also faced a difficult cultural issue with its Pakistani teams. “People on the Indian subcontinent work in a ‘harmony culture,’ where the short-term goal is always to avoid conflict,” CEO Chris Stephen says.
This desire caused many team members to avoid pointing out problems or issues with their projects until it was too late to solve them easily.
“Whenever we asked them, ‘How is the project coming?’ they'd say, ‘Great!’” Mr. Stephen says. “We wouldn't know something was wrong until we heard the whooshing of a deadline going past.”
Mr. Stephen hired Mr. Zaidi to bring project management systems and structure to the small company, and help it overcome the culture that prevented its project team members from proactively addressing problems.
Having the CEO‘s support gave Mr. Zaidi the confidence that he could implement a rich project management process—but he quickly found that many of his coworkers were resistant to the changes he proposed.
“Many of them took a ‘halo effect’ approach to project management,” he says. “They believed that if someone was a good programmer, that meant they were a good project manager.”
Recognizing this mindset as one of his biggest hurdles to successfully implementing a project management methodology, Mr. Zaidi began the transformation process slowly. He started by building project templates and defining metrics that would help teams assess and control the quality, time and cost of projects without adding a lot of paperwork.
Whenever we asked them, ‘How is the project coming?’ they'd say, ‘Great!’ We wouldn't know something was wrong until we heard the whooshing of a deadline going past.
He also trained several employees to become project managers and spread knowledge about the value project management can bring to the project process.
“Project management makes things simpler because it ensures that the right people are doing the right thing at the right time,” Mr. Zaidi says. “It allows us to collaborate as efficiently as possible.”
The new project management team established metrics and scope to track progress, and delivered reports to update the leadership team.
“Once we had the proper metrics in place, and we understood the balance of constraints we were working toward, everything got easier,” Mr. Zaidi says.
The new structure also helped the company systemize many of the development and documentation steps, which enabled employees to more effectively weed out problems in the IT architecture, Mr. Stephen notes.
Let's say an editor made a change in a published document that introduces an error. Rather than focusing on fixing that one mistake, the project management team would address why the editor has the ability to change the document within the interface.
“It shows us that we need to fix a flaw in the system so that those mistakes don't happen again,” Mr. Stephen says.
By looking at potential problems from a system standpoint, project teams were able to change the software design to prevent the same types of errors.
It took a while for the employees to trust project management and take the initiative to point out issues.
Eventually, though, the employees came around, Mr. Stephen says. “They see now that it is part of a continuous improvement process that benefits the whole company.”
ADDING VALUE…OR EXTRA WORK?
One of the most effective project management processes implemented, Mr. Zaidi says, was a requirement that all project teams define scope up front, and any changes would go through a formal change control process and change review board.
In the past, stakeholders would drag initiatives off course by suggesting changes and additions throughout the life cycle that had little to do with the original plan.
“Because scope was not defined, there was always a lot of creep,” Mr. Zaidi says. “It spread the timeline and made a mess of the project architecture.”
Now, before any change can be executed, the stakeholder's suggestion must be reviewed by the change control board, and evaluated for cost, impact and benefit to the overall project.
“We look at the big picture and analyze whether the change adds value or just a lot of extra work,” Mr. Zaidi says. “It has helped us improve the quality of our products and control our timelines.”
It also forced stakeholders to think more clearly about requested changes. “They see the consequences of their suggestions now,” Mr. Stephen says.
As a result, there are fewer scope changes and a much more positive impact on the final product than in the past.
In terms of new systems and processes, “we are getting a lot more interactions between stakeholders and team members, and a lot more suggestions from team members,” he says. “This is allowing us to produce a much better first implementation of the new system. Project management is empowering people to make suggestions and constructively argue their case without causing cultural disharmony.”
Today, ReadHowYouWant has more than 100 employees based in Australia, Pakistan and the United States, and projects are delivered faster and more efficiently than ever. Because project team members are now willing to point out problems as soon as they appear, mistakes are addressed more quickly, and there are fewer system errors.
“Once people embraced the project management system, we saw a big reduction in cost and improvement in accuracy,” Mr. Stephen says.
The executive team also has greater oversight of its project portfolio.
“We know what the project teams are doing, and where the projects are in relation to deadlines,” he says.
That clarity has eliminated a lot of the chaos from the end of the development cycle, and provides teams with enough time for both quality assurance and the testing of new systems upgrades before they are released.
“The project management processes we use mean we can do more development with less stress,” Mr. Stephen says.
Other small organizations should take the leap into project management if they want to grow their business—or even just get control over their projects, Mr. Zaidi urges.
After all, he says, managing projects is a lot like managing a business: You're constantly making decisions that impact both the short and long-term success of your efforts. “And when you have a project manager in charge, you just make better decisions.” —Sarah Fister Gale
Project management is empowering people to make suggestions and constructively argue their case without causing cultural disharmony.
—Syed Zaidi, PMP
PM NETWORK OCTOBER 2011 WWW.PMI.ORG