It can be tempting for a business to adopt the latest technology or change strategy in response to an up-and-coming competitor. Such changes might be on point—or they could backfire. At Carfax, it's Aaron Hall's job to ensure the organization pursues initiatives that add real value and then executes them with sound practices. Implementing a project and portfolio management structure has been key to his work.
Carfax provides vehicle history information to help both consumers and businesses buy, service and sell used cars. The organization's 19 billion records include information such as vehicle accident and recall histories.
Mr. Hall manages a team of 23 project managers and business analysts who run about 80 projects a year—mostly software initiatives delivering online products, mobile apps and enterprise capabilities. His early career in the U.S. Army laid a foundation of project management skills that he's honed for the past two decades.
How do you help drive strategic implementation?
In addition to managing the project delivery team, I'm the company's portfolio manager. I meet on a monthly basis with our president and his direct reports to review our project portfolio and our initiatives' strategic alignment. And if we have a change in priorities, I make sure we make a conscious, informed decision about it. Before I joined the company, there wasn't much of a structured decision-making process applied throughout the year. What really killed us was when a disruptive opportunity came up in the middle of the year.
How do you handle such a disruption now?
Here's an example. Last year, a consortium of automotive organizations was seeking a partner to provide information to the entire automotive industry. We knew exactly what the implications of seizing the opportunity would be, because we now have a forum for Carfax's senior leaders and me to think about things more broadly. We were able to look at how the prospective initiative aligned strategically and how it would affect the flow of work across the organization. We became the consortium's partner, and it's gone smoothly.
Tell me about a large project your team recently completed.
Our used-car listings product provides consumers with detailed vehicle history information, like whether a car has been a rental or has had flood damage. Last year, we rebuilt and relaunched the entire product. But it was much more than a project: It was a 16-month program made up of 20 projects, and at one point we had 160 employees working on it. It was successful largely because of the project management structure we put in place.
What did that structure look like?
Each project had to be managed independently but then integrated into the whole program. We met with a C-level steering committee on a monthly basis that made macro-level strategic decisions. Every two weeks, we pulled together directors responsible for each project to ensure we married strategy with tactical work. At a lower level, we worked predominantly in an agile fashion—with daily huddles, planning sessions and retrospective dialogues.
Are agile approaches the norm?
We do all of our software development in an agile delivery mode. One of our biggest challenges is balancing the flexibility and benefits of an agile software development process with the need to be able to plan and make commitments. I'm not anti-agile at all; I'm just pro-project management. After I joined the organization three years ago, it took me about eight months to pivot the team to a healthier balance between agile and the ability to make commitments.
How did you strike that balance?
By overlaying our project life cycle with an agile development life cycle. Through a series of discussions, I convinced our developers they could do agile software development and delivery within a sound project management framework.
How did the military prepare you for a project management career?
Three ways above all. I learned that a leader's job is to have a vision, organize and motivate resources toward that vision, and stay calm throughout the inevitable changes that occur. I learned the importance of understanding the people you work with—who their families are, what their background is, what gets them jazzed and what they need from you. Finally, as a military or project leader, you cannot get your job done successfully within the “normal” workweek that your team might work. You have to have extreme personal commitment to the mission and your team and be willing to make personal sacrifices to enable success.
How do you define success?
You can have the best-run project in the world, but if it's not successful in the market, the project isn't successful. Conversely, you can have a wildly successful product in the marketplace, but if no one wants to work with the project manager again, it wasn't a successful project. PM
What's the one skill every project manager should have?
What book has special meaning for you?
Hope Is Not a Method by Gordon Sullivan. It's why I ban my project managers from using the word “hope.” We're not paid to be project hopers.
If not project management, what would you do?
I was a Boy Scout as a kid and I am a volunteer Scout leader now. I'd love an opportunity to build character and leadership skills in youth full-time.