Category: Project management
Tips with working with off-site and off-shore teams
Archana is a Project/Programme Management consultant at IMA. She is an established, dedicated PMP and SCRUM Master certified Project/Programme Manager with a demonstrable track record spanning over 14 years in the IT industry. She holds a Masters in Mathematics with Management Studies from the UK. During her spare time Archana enjoys cooking, travelling, running and reading.

Archana is a Project/Programme Management consultant at IMA. She is an established, dedicated PMP and SCRUM Master certified Project/Programme Manager with a demonstrable track record spanning over 14 years in the IT industry. She holds a Masters in Mathematics with Management Studies from the UK. During her spare time Archana enjoys cooking, travelling, running and reading.

Managing and working with any team has its challenges…  Now, take away the proximity and face to face aspect from this equation, and it can get a whole lot harder right?  Yet this is the reality of today’s working environment.

Whatever the reason,  competition, economics or maybe even the need for a readily available talent pool , more and more companies either have to or choose to work with off-site and off-shore teams.

Working with an off-site or off-shore team has its own challenges.  Differences in culture, work ethics and expectations, language, time difference, religious or public holidays and work experiences to name just a few.   These complexities create a minefield of challenges to be negotiated by project/programme managers.  Effective tools to assist with this task are difficult to come by, which is why I have put together the list of tips below that I hope will make this process a little easier, and of course productive.

Awareness of differences within the team

Many years ago HSBC ran a couple of amazing advertising campaigns, “Points of view” and “World’s Local Bank”.  These advertising campaigns show just how easy it can be to misinterpret or misunderstand just about anything.

HSBC advertising campaign – “World’s Local Bank”

 

As an example, in the advertisment, we can see two distinct gestures that were brought up that may seem normal to one culture but not to another. One of them is the trusting of the palm and the other is putting your bare feet on a table.  The trusting of the palm with fingers pointing outwards is commonly seen as a gesture to symbolise a stop sign. However, in Greece, this gesture is highly offensive and pretty much equivalent to giving someone “the bird”.  Similarly, showing the soles of your feet is an utterly rude gesture in Thailand, however not quite so in the rest of the world.

So what exactly do I mean being aware of differences?  On the offset you would imagine that this means just cultural differences but as shown in the HSBC adverts, this is not always the case.  I have had many experiences over the years with off-site or off-shore teams I have worked with where I have been presented with an array differences.  By differences I am referring to all and every kind – cultural, languages, preferences, likes/dislikes, flexible working hours, full-timers, part-timers, life experiences, work experiences – the list goes on and on.

Understanding the differences between all team members is important to maintain good relationships within this globalised world and will take you far in terms of productivity, and visibility into where the project stands (working with off-site and off-shore teams, as with in-house teams, to ensure success we also need to be constantly mindful of the individual personalities within the whole team).  This in turn can then assist with figuring out how best to work with the team individuals and the team as a whole moving forward.

Setting clear expectations

Ascertaining objectives, requirements and roles/responsibilities can be the corner stone of an effective beginning to a project.  A great place to start with setting all project expectations from the off-site or off-shore teams would be in a kick-off meeting involving everyone, perhaps incorporating teleconferencing system.  In my experience, being able to visually see who you are working with is one of the most powerful aids to success down the track.

Every detail required for project success should be explicitly stated and documented in the first instance.  Extensive and detailed design documentation should be prepared for the off-site or off-shore teams as unclear expectations often leads to undesirable outputs.  In addition, ensuring we ask for input from all team members with items that relate to their work at all times ensures that there is full understanding, and buy-in from them constantly.  Finally briefing back with the team to ensure expectations are understood and confirmed will avoid confusion and ensure all team members are on the same page.

Defining hierarchy

What are the project objectives?  What is everyone doing?  Who are individuals working with? Who are the team reporting to?   What are the acceptance criteria that will determine project success?  These are a few of the important questions that need to be addressed right from the start.  They can be answered in an array of documentation but they also need to be addressed more personally, no-one can always assume that all project documentation is even read!

In addition, all off-site or off-shore team members must be made clearly aware of their roles and responsibilities in the project right from the start.  A useful way to ensure delivery and maintain a grip of what is going on may be to assign an on-site team member to lead the team.  With your assistance you will both be able to monitor the activities and requirements of the off-site or off-shore team on a daily basis.

Minimise any misunderstandings

Working with any off-site or off-shore team, equates to a complete lack of interpersonal experiences and this can impact perceptions, how the requirements are being understood and how the team works together.  It is vital that all project concepts are fully understood through the provision of concise documentation, and providing an environment where questions can be asked at any time by anyone.  It is important for the off-site or off-shore teams to understand the requirements, project direction and status at all times.   Useful tools for this (and covered in the next point in more detail) could be to conduct meetings with the use of teleconferencing facilities and sharing desktops to allow a good visual grasp when walking through concepts, requirements and such like.

Communication

Good communication in project teams is the key to everything!  A common misconception is that everyone in the project needs to know absolutely everything; this is not the case and may only add to confusion however this is also down to the individual’s role and their needs.  So in this scenario, the concept of a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix could work wonders, this keeps track of all stakeholders (everyone in the team) and analyses who needs to be aware of what (or who wants to be aware of what), how they contribute and basically tracks communication throughout the project.

As communication is so important, the use of tools to assist with this (but not limited to) is shown below:

 

  • Desktop sharing (TeamViewer, WebEx, LogMeIn etc)– this is a fantastic way to show off-site or off-shore team members exactly what you mean by observing the information real time and as the team discuss/work on it.
  • Teleconferencing (WebEx, Skype, GoToMeeting etc) – as mentioned previously, this is a great way to see and interact with the team, very different to being in person but a solid compromise.
  • Document repositories (Sharepoint, Basecamp, Dropbox etc) – it is critical that this is defined upfront; this will allow everyone to have access to necessary up-to-date documentation.
  • Issue tracking systems (JIRA, TFS etc) – provides the ability to log tasks, issues, stories etc and can be shared with the off-site or off-shore team and the local team to create one big picture for everyone.
  • Electronic boards (Kanban boards, JIRA etc) – the use of these tools provides complete visibility into what any team member is doing at any time regardless of their location.

 

Status updates/checking

The need for frequent status reporting is imperative with the off-site or off-shore team, this can form part of the issue tracking system where updates and current snapshots can be accessed and viewed seamlessly in addition to other ways of obtaining the status.  I would also include the use of 360 feedback reviews throughout the project, and regular retrospectives.  What we are trying to understand is both the project status and the team status and vibe.  In addition, as the team is off-site or off-shore, it is a great way to monitor morale, pick up any issues early on and have greater visibility into all the positives.

To summarise, working with an off-site or off-shore team needn’t be mission impossible, following the guide that has been presented can make the experience very positive, productive and enjoyable!  Most importantly, following these steps could very well make the distinction between project success and project failure; I for one know where I would want my projects to sit…

Project Managers are born not made

Tell me, how do you think things through? Do you look at a big problem with all its facets and panic, not knowing how to overcome all the little hurdles you need to in order to solve it? Yep, me too.

Janice Santa Maria is a Project Manager at IMA Management and Technology. She is a methodology fanatic. She will try anything once, and has learnt just this year that she kick-boxes well but roller-skates badly. She is confident in her experience and yet can be a little bit out-of-the-box which she suspects is why she does relationship management so well. And she describes herself as "born to project manage", even if it's made her a little more grey every year.

Janice Santa Maria is a Project Manager at IMA Management and Technology. She is a methodology fanatic. She will try anything once, and has learnt just this year that she kick-boxes well but roller-skates badly. She is confident in her experience and yet can be a little bit out-of-the-box which she suspects is why she does relationship management so well. And she describes herself as “born to project manage”, even if it’s made her a little more grey every year.

What about when you do understand what you have to do, but you don’t know how to do it? Does it make you break out in cold sweat? If you do, you can join my club.

Do you wonder if you have the ability to win people over so that they accept what you’re telling them and believe in you? I won’t lie, I struggle with that everyday.

These happen to all of us. We would not be human if it didn’t. So why do I believe that some people – and I include myself in this group – are born to manage projects?

I guess to oversimplify a complex thing, the first thing I’ll say is that every project is a learning curve. It’s either a new initiative in an old organisation, an old initiative in a new organisation, or a new initiative in a new organisation, but what it will definitely be is different from anything you’ve ever done before. Because if it was done before, they wouldn’t need a project manager to tell them how to do it again.

Mind you, not everything will be different (or my experience would count for nothing) but there will be enough new challenges that you’re swimming in some new waters each time.

For me, putting order to chaos thrills me. Yes I panic when I get that first macro view of the problem and I will spend a long time believing I can’t possibly figure it out. But I will worry at it, and obsess about it, and then suddenly I can see it, how to make sense of it, and that panic subsides.

And then when I realise what I need to do, and again I need to organise my thoughts, figure out the steps, talk to people, work out how to eat that proverbial elephant one bite at a time. And then document it all so I remember it and I can show other people how I intend to do it.

This is when I have to involve the people who want me to fix the problem. I overlay over the top of my ideas their wants, their needs, their choices and their constraints and use every single endearing personality trait I possess to ensure that they trust in me, that they believe me, and that they accept what I’m telling them.

IF that happens, I need to get other people together who will help me achieve it all. And I have to make sure they have the right skills and the right aptitude to do the job.

IF they do have the skills to do their jobs, then what I have to fix is every single thing that may be blocking them from actually doing it. Every day. While also reminding them daily what they have to achieve, and by when.

And always, always talking to the people who want me to solve the problem. So we all remain clear on what we all want to get out of it.

IF it changes, to explain to everyone how it may change the way the problem is solved. If they still want to change it, then to reorganise my ideas, my plans and my people to make it happen.

And knowing every step of the way that I may fail. I may screw up. I may put the wrong jigsaw puzzle piece in the wrong place and not realise it until it’s too late.  I LOVE it anyway.

Because a Project Manager who was born to it will feed off that rush, and be prepared to ignore the tedium, the doubts and the stress just to feel it.

Who will be willing, at the end of it, to hand their work off for someone else to look after, knowing you did the best job they could have, and knowing they now have to move on to the next problem to go through it all again.

That does take a person who is born to it, in my opinion. Because who would do it otherwise?

There’s something about Mary and her pencil case. A lesson in being organised.
Melvin is a Project Manager at IMA Management & Technology. He has over 20 years experience implementing mission critical systems and enterprise systems. Melvin has worked in many industries including Manufacturing, Banking, Oil and Gas, Energy, Transport and Government. He has a Bachelor Of Computer Science and is a certified PMBOK Practitioner.During his spare time Melvin enjoys reading, spending time with friends and family over good food and wine.

Melvin is a Project Manager at IMA Management & Technology. He has over 20 years experience implementing mission critical systems and enterprise systems. Melvin has worked in many industries including Manufacturing, Banking, Oil and Gas, Energy, Transport and Government. He has a Bachelor Of Computer Science and is a certified PMBOK Practitioner.During his spare time Melvin enjoys reading, spending time with friends and family over good food and wine.

It was the start of another year for the consultancy, the normally quiet office turned into a hive of activity, not unlike flowers suddenly blooming around in springtime, as if a clock has been set. The senior partners in their best suits are gearing up, their secretaries busy calling clients to set-up lunches and golf appointments. This always reminded me of the first week in school, where everyone is excited to see each other, new hairdo, new hobbies and catching up on the latest happenings after the long semester break.

Among the tide of new faces, are the graduate trainees or newbies whom you can easily recognise afar from their glowing eager faces. Young and exuberant, some of them were in pretty casual wear with their sling bags. Over the years, I too, have dropped my colourful attire and started to wear a black suit, white shirt with a red tie. Never mind, I will soon straighten them out, in no time, they will be acting and dressing like one of us.

During the induction sessions, some of which I conducted, I welcomed these trainees and gave them some briefings on what they could expect to learn and gave them some forms to fill in. I thought it odd that some of these graduate trainees brought out their colourful school pencil cases, something inherited from their school days? My only accessories were my watch and my Mont Blanc pen that I had in my shirt pocket. I had made up my mind that I will stop this ‘thumb sucking’ and they would not bring this habit along when they are working on the client sites.

My first assignment back was to implement SAP R/3. On this project I worked with Mary (Mei Li) a graduate trainee, who aspired to be an SAP FI/CO consultant. During the project, she was to learn from the senior consultants and to help in the project management office, ready to tackle the ‘surprises’ that would come our way. When we needed urgently, a last minute Powerpoint slide that was to be presented to stakeholders Mary would quickly make copies of it and it would be ready in the board room for the team to present. When my consultants conducted a workshop and extra participants pop in unexpectedly, Mary would be there with the notes, paper, pencils sharpeners, and the workshop would go on without a hiccup. She made sure that nothing was in the way and that the workshops happened smoothly.

One day I had a bad headache and was due to present to the steering committee when Mary came over and offered me some painkillers. I was only too glad as she is always around to save the day. She gave me a glass of water and whipped out a kid’s pencil case from her backpack and took out some Panadol. I thought of that ‘thumb sucking’ habit that I was so disapproving of. ‘Oh, by the way,you don’t have an extra USB in that pencil case as I need to transfer a file to the PC in the boardroom’, I half jested.  She did have one. Arriving at the boardroom, we found two consultants struggling with the projector, the connector screws from the PC to the projector were loose and they were struggling to tighten them with a spoon. Mary dug into her pencil case and took out a multi device pocket screwdriver! What a big lesson about being well prepared from a graduate trainee and her pencil case! The steering committee meeting went without a hitch and I had a chat with Mary about what she kept in her pencil case. I now know I needed a pencil case immediately to keep some painkillers and to stop me from losing my USB thumb drive!

Years later, whenever someone commented on how smooth a meeting went, I will glance at my black coloured pencil case and with a cheesy grin think of Mary.

Benefit Realisation – Showcasing your project success!

Benefit realisation can often seem a daunting and complicated exercise. Realising the benefit of any business change can be difficult. With some innovative thinking and analysis it can be made easier. I would like to go through some of the key tips and techniques, which I have used and found useful when implementing business change in projects.

Arun is a senior consultant at IMA Management & Technology. He has over 14 years experience working in the IT industry. Arun has worked in multiple industries including Banking, Insurance and Education. Arun is a certified Prince2 Practitioner and holds a Post Graduate certificate in Business Administration from University of Leicester. Arun likes his DIY with quite a few home renovation projects under his belt. Also, in his spare he likes to read about astronomy and is a keen follower for all NASA missions.

Arun is a senior consultant at IMA Management & Technology. He has over 14 years experience working in the IT industry. Arun has worked in multiple industries including Banking, Insurance and Education. Arun is a certified Prince2 Practitioner and holds a Post Graduate certificate in Business Administration from University of Leicester. Arun likes his DIY with quite a few home renovation projects under his belt. Also, in his spare he likes to read about astronomy and is a keen follower for all NASA missions.

What is a benefit?
The simple answer actually lies in why we change anything in the first place. The benefit to me, is any (and I mean literally ANY) positive outcome that we get out of any business change. The benefits come only with change and equally, change must be sustained by benefit. Otherwise, I question the very “raison d’être” for making the change. There also lies the reason for doing benefit realisation. You have changed something for a reason, how do you know if you have achieved what you intend to if you have not measured it!

When do we start benefit realisation process?

Right from the start: Although, all project methodologies put benefit realisation phase towards the end of the project, I think it should span throughout the course of the project. When you start a project you do it for a reason as discussed above. That reason itself becomes the foundation of your benefit realisation process. I usually document it right at the beginning and get the sponsor to review and approve it. Then I put that in a separate file so that it can be tracked on a regular basis.

During the project: I haven’t worked on a project which does not diverge from its original objectives. Although, the core objectives might remain the same there is always some change. I have always found it useful to keep the benefits folder updated when that happens. It usually saves me tones of time at the end, especially with large projects.

At the end or after: Some of the project benefits can be measured immediately at the end of the project (e.g. Compliance benefits where you know straightaway whether you are now compliant), but for a lot of benefits, you will need to setup the process or framework for someone else to work upon after the project is completed and project team disbanded. Being a consultant most of my life, I wasn’t around to actually see the benefits realised for most my projects. I had to set a process in place for the sponsor or someone else, to assess the benefits over a specified timeframe.

How to approach it?
Apologies to all the cat lovers, but as the saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Below are just couple of points that I have found to be really helpful.

Strategy: One of the first things I look at is the organisation strategy. The benefits aligned with organisation strategy are often comparatively simpler to justify to the board. I have also found that a lot of preliminary work for measuring those benefits would have already been carried out when the strategy is being developed. So, leveraging on that has saved a lot of my time in the past. I remember once when I was working for a banking organisation; their key strategy/objective for the next 3 years was to for reduce the operating cost for their back office operations by 30% overall. They had already established the framework for measuring this efficiency gain which made my life easier by just following it in the end.

Baselining: Quite often the most forgotten task during the life cycle of the project is baselining of existing processes/activities. Some project managers are often so focused on working on the new project that they overlook baselining the existing application/processes. However, I always make sure that I add it as a task in the project work break down. It gives me the assurance that it will be done at some point during the project and will be really handy for me when we come to benefit realisation. This baselined data will allow me to compare what the project has achieved after the go-live and whether it has fulfilled the expected benefits .

Measuring the unmeasurable

Well, the quantifiable benefits (e.g. efficiency gains, reducing costs and growth rate) are the easier of the ones to measure. There are several ways and means to work with them and measure the required benefits. I would like to talk about some of the unmeasurable benefits here. They are much more difficult to measure but fun to work with at the same time.

Staff satisfaction/frustration: This is the most common benefit that I have seen drafted in the business cases. A lot of projects then get away with adding these into intangible bucket and not measuring it in the end. However there are certain innovative ways to measure these.

How do I look? No. I am not talking about the most dreaded question every married man has faced from his wife. In the project world, everyone has their own opinion on where the icons should be placed or what constitutes an improved new process. User interface or look-and-feel is very difficult to compare, as it can get very subjective comparing new with the old.

Staff Acceptance: Although, not necessarily the primary benefit, this is always a big challenge to assess if the staff have “really” accepted the change and benefit from it.

Then, how to measure these seemingly unmeasurable benefits? One of the answers can be “Business change management”. It has served me well to tackle these intangibles in the past. In one of my recent projects, we used several little techniques to measure the before and after staff satisfaction ratings (e.g. staff online survey with innovative questions, face to face survey with straightforward questions). These survey results gave me a very tangible staff acceptance levels for the new product.

On another project for a new website, I used a very unorthodox approach to measure the look and feel. We ran a competition that measured who can navigate through various options/lists the fastest and timed the whole cycle. We then analysed staff times and showed that most of the staff were able to do it in a very short timeframe, providing us a tangible measurement of the usability of the new internal website. It also helped in creating a great staff awareness of the new site and improved overall success of the project.

Summing up

Well, no matter what method you use or what approach you follow, benefit realisation is something that needs to be done. There is no right or wrong way of doing it, but it is something that needs to be done methodically to realise the real “benefit”.
I would also love to know what you have done with your projects. Have you come across any funky little techniques to do this?  

Change Management – Because After All We’re Only Human!

Your project has been going great – your project team is like a well-oiled machine – you’re on schedule and within budget.  It’s time to implement your beautiful, shiny new “thing”…  Why aren’t people jumping at the opportunity to use it?  Why do they want to continue with their ugly slow ways?  Don’t they see how much better things will be?  Why are they resisting this change?

The stats have it!  A project is six times more likely to achieve project objectives when it incorporates a change management program.  While project management focusses on delivering a “thing”, change management focusses on ensuring your “thing” is used.  Change management considers what is going on inside a person as a change occurs.  It is often the internal reaction to an external change where we find the reason why changes fail or succeed.  As Project Managers are by their very nature implementing changes with every project they undertake, it is an important area for Project Managers to understand.

People will respond differently to a change depending on the type of individual they are, their history (including previous exposure to changes), the nature of the change (one off vs routine, externally imposed vs internally generated etc.), the consequences of the change (who benefits), and the organisational history (how the organisation has dealt with change previously).  Therefore it is impossible to define a one size fits all approach to Change Management or to provide a clear “how to” road map, guaranteed to succeed if you follow the steps in order.  However, there are some things we can do and would do well to recognise to avoid that frustrating feeling of banging your head against a brick wall come implementation time.

There Will be Resistance!

Resistance is normal and to be expected in any change effort.  Understanding what the driving forces for change are and what the resisting forces against change are will help identify messages that need to be communicated.

For change to occur the driving forces must outweigh the resisting forces.  Consider the level of dissatisfaction with the current situation, the desirability of the proposed changed state and the practicality of the change (the level of risk and disruption):

  • There must be a level of dissatisfaction with the current environment.  This is not a time to protect people from bad news.  Discuss today’s competitive realities.  There must be a “felt need” for the change.
  • Paint a desirable picture of what things will look like after the change.  This requires a great deal of communication.  If the end state is not clear you will promote resistance.
  • People need to be clear on how they get to the changed state.  The easier to change, the less resistance.

Manage Thy Stakeholders

Understand who’s affected by the change.  Make it clear what is changing and what is not changing for each stakeholder (or group of stakeholders).

Consider the impact the change has on the stakeholder and the influence the stakeholder has on the change.  Are they in favour of the change or nervous or against the change?  Armed with this information plan how you will manage your stakeholders.  For example:  For stakeholders that have both high impact and high influence consider making them part of the change team, while low impact and low influence stakeholders may only require the occasional email to keep them informed of how things are going.

Claire is a senior consultant at IMA Management & Technology. She has over 15 years experience working in Operational and Project Management roles. Claire has worked in multiple industries and specialises in managing stakeholder relationships and implementing change programs. Clare is a certified PMBOK Practitioner, Change Management Practitioner and holds an MBA from RMIT. Claire likes to travel and explore new areas, making her Kombi campervan a much cherished possession.

Claire is a senior consultant at IMA Management & Technology. She has over 15 years experience working in Operational and Project Management roles. Claire has worked in multiple industries and specialises in managing stakeholder relationships and implementing change programs. Clare is a certified PMBOK Practitioner, Change Management Practitioner and holds an MBA from RMIT. Claire likes to travel and explore new areas, making her Kombi campervan a much cherished possession.

 

Screen Shot 2012-09-03 at 8.50.11 PMPlan for Learning Dips

Any change will require some learning and possibly some unlearning.  David Kolb’s (1984) model of learning suggests four stages and he argues that for true learning to occur you need to go through all stages.  The key message is to ensure training and communication plans cater for all stages, especially as people will have a preference towards a particular style.

  • Activists will want to experiment.  Ensure you have a place for them to do so (eg new software installed on test machines or training labs)
  • Reflectors like to watch as others show them how to do it.  Presentations/training sessions work well.  Try easily accessible video sessions that people can view as/when suits them.
  • Theorists want to learn all about the background.  Ensure you have the details of the change, why the change is needed, and why you chose the approach you did available.  Web pages that can be referenced in shorter communications can be useful.  The theorists can find the details they need without boring other types with unnecessary detail and risking having the change look “too hard”.
  • Pragmatist need to relate what is happening to their circumstances.  You may need to consider different messages to different stakeholders detailing how the change impacts them.

With any learning there will be a period of reduced performance.  Time to complete tasks will be increase; effectiveness is reduced; likelihood of mistakes increases; more attention and concentration is required to complete the work.  Plan for this learning dip.  Implement during a seasonal dip in business if you have one; reduce targets for a period or bring on extra staff.  Most importantly give staff permission to go through the learning dip!

One thing I haven’t spoken about here is communication. Communication is so critical in your change management plans it deserves a blog all of its own! Next time I will walk you through the importance of communication and how to effectively use it when implementing change.

Building effective steering committees, Part 2 of 2

The Project Board, or Steering Committee (the SteerCom), is a fundamental component of your project and can make or break it as easily as subject matter experts.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Last time we looked at how you as a project sponsor or programme/project manager (PM) build and run a steering committee that is going to represent all stakeholders interests fairly, stay focused on agreed outcomes, support and guide the project, and actively intervene when required without undermining the project manager.

We covered:

1. Size and Composition – listen to all voices without death by committee

2. Authority – who has it?

3. Active Attendance and involvement

Today we’ll look at:

4.     Enabling Informed Decisions

5.     Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time

6.     The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!

7.     Multi-organisation projects

8.     For the record

4. Enabling Informed Decisions

The challenge:

SteerComs are often asked to make complex decisions that will affect the future of an organisation for years to come, such as when a policy gap is identified. It is essential that they are given the opportunity to make informed decisions, particularly when accepting risks or committing resources to address them.

The solution:

Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) must not push their own agenda when writing recommendations. On one project the entire direction was set based on advice from a very senior SME (the General Counsel) that was later shown to be an oversimplification when they moved on. The advice was well intentioned and the SteerCom may have chosen that approach, however it is not appropriate for any SME, or the PM, to deprive the SteerCom of the opportunity to make their own decision with full information of alternatives.

Also, when asking the SteerCom to make a decision on a complex issue it is only reasonable to provide information in advance, or if this is not possible, to present it and agree on a date by which a decision will be made – often at the next meeting. They may need time to read and reflect on longer documents, or to make their own enquiries.

Finally the project manager should speak to members individually in advance for particularly complex or contentious issues – this enables members to understand the implications of the decision and contribute to the content of written recommendations.

 5.     Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time

The challenge:

Your meetings may occur only monthly as you struggle to obtain access to time-poor senior managers, or because a report that may take 30 minutes to discuss can take a day or more to prepare, particularly if it summarises a programme of work.

Alternately they may occur every week because your project requires frequent timely decisions on key issues to progress,

The solution:

When there are many unknowns, high risks, frequent sensitive decisions, and diverse stakeholders I suggest weekly meetings, provided an administrative resource can reduce the reporting workload. For simpler projects requiring only gateway decisions and moderate oversight you can get away with monthly meetings. Although even then it may be worth sending fortnightly reports and catching up with members over a coffee.

I also find that making the report and meeting agenda the same document saves time and streamlines documentation.

6.     The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!

Documentation and reports are a ball game in themselves so I’ll only touch them lightly here. Generating reports is time consuming and the frustration from stream leaders and the PM can be “I can either write reports telling you what I should be doing, or I can actually get on with it”.

Don’t get bogged down in every schedule item or item of expenditure –for example you could instead determine meaningful schedule milestones against which to report and show where they stand, why, and what intervention if any is required by the SteerCom.

On budget focus on items that are meaningful to the SteerCom – capital expenditure is a given but there is no point spending a great deal of time tracking internal labour use if the organisation does not value that information.

I find it useful to mark agenda items as “Visibility” or “Action Required” so that a SteerCom can see which items are included to keep them informed and which require a decision or some old fashioned kick-ass.

7.     Multi-organisation projects

The challenge:

Almost all major projects will involve more than one organisation. This may be to scale resources for fluctuating workloads and outsource highly specialised work.  It may be because supply chain integration requires partner businesses to upgrade their technology together to share order and inventory management.

When they are involved vendors function as Senior Suppliers, and Customers as Senior Users

On one hand partners often contribute key expertise and a significant proportion of labour so excluding them from important decisions and from insight into the state of the project can impede their ability to deliver.

On the other hand the SteerCom often discusses commercially sensitive information including finances and internal performance issues or organisational weaknesses that it is not necessary or appropriate for partners to be aware of.

The solution:

I have found a two part meeting agenda effective, covering partner related items first and sensitive items second. Do ensure that you send a modified version of the meeting invitation, agenda and the subsequent minutes to your vendor(s), or customer(s).

 8.     For the record

Finally, to avoid forgetting important actions and decisions and the reasons behind them, always send minutes with clearly assigned and time constrained action items to participants as soon as possible after the meeting. 

What lessons have you learnt regarding Steering Committees that may benefit other readers?

Building effective steering committees, Part 1

The Project Board, or Steering Committee (the SteerCom), is a fundamental component of your project and can make or break it as easily as subject matter experts.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Brendan is a senior consultant with IMA specialising in major projects, PMO’s, and project portfolio management. He has led initiatives for over ten years, working in the corporate, government and education sectors, and in the UK, Canada, the US, and Australia. He holds an MBA from AGSM, UNSW. An ardent admirer of history, he also enjoys leading friends and colleagues into the wilderness on foot, horseback, and by boat. He has served as a volunteer search and rescue officer and museum guide.

Too often they function as a rubber stamp, diverting project management into reporting without offering real value or support, but don’t view them as a necessary evil but an active part of the project organisation. Your SteerCom gives you direct access to senior movers and shakers who will feel the pain if your project is unsuccessful and who have the organisational knowledge, experience, and authority and to overcome roadblocks.

However even experienced and otherwise highly competent senior managers may not fully understand the roles involved, and the concept of direction by exception, even if they think or say that they do. Nothing is more important than clearly establishing expectations.  If they are not actively committed to the project you need to diplomatically replace them before you proceed.

So as a project sponsor or programme/project manager (PM) how do you build and run a steering committee that is going to represent all stakeholders interests fairly, stay focused on agreed outcomes, support and guide the project, and actively intervene when required without undermining the project manager?

The answer is a favourite of one of my MBA lecturers, Herman Chan, which is “It Depends”. You need to tailor your approach to the organisation(s), the project, and even the lifecycle stage of the project. This two part article includes some suggestions that may be of value or at least trigger valuable debate.

Today we’ll cover the following:

  1. Size and Composition – listen to all voices without death by committee
  2. Authority – who has it?
  3. Active Attendance and involvement

Then next time we’ll look at:

  1. Enabling Informed Decisions
  2. Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time
  3. The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!
  4. Multi-organisation projects
  5. For the record

Size and Composition – listen to all voices without death by committee

The challenge:

The more people you involve the higher the risk of scope creep due to different parties pushing their own tenuously related agendas, and the more difficult it is to schedule meetings and to cover all your material without getting bogged down.

The less people you have the higher the risk is that you will exclude required people.

The solution:

Three people is standard, but small straightforward projects may not even need a SteerCom, a Sponsor may be sufficient. Even for larger projects leaner is generally better. However I had the benefit of a working with a very large SteerCom on one occasion that functioned very effectively.

They debated issues vigorously because many interests were represented, but for the same reason when they arrived at decisions we could be confident that no areas of the business would subsequently object.

This was a major cross-functional project that required several Senior Users on the SteerCom because their areas were not homogenous enough for their practices to be understood, or their needs to be represented, by one person. It also required several Senior Suppliers because they needed to be engaged at this level directly in order to elicit sufficient commitment to access their staff.

If you do use a larger SteerCom you will need a strong Sponsor who can foster a culture of healthy, non-personal debate, genuine commitment to outcomes, and interdepartmental cooperation. With a weak sponsor and politicking you will be lucky to progress past the first item or two of your agenda.

Authority – who has it?

The challenge:

Indecision by committee is always a risk and is exacerbated as the size of the SteerCom grows.

The solution:

Although it depends on organisational preferences and subject to informal levels of participant authority, I prefer the PRINCE2 approach to address this. It has the Sponsor as ultimate decision maker, with other members being advisors.

If this is the case it is important that the organisation vests authority in the sponsor and is clearly understood to do so. Otherwise other members or stakeholders may not respect decisions.  Or worse, as I once experienced when an executive was the nominal sponsor but a CEO was the real decision maker, decisions may not be made at all because the real decision maker is not even a member of the SteerCom and is making decisions without the benefit of being present or accessible.

If the PRINCE2 approach is not selected and majority democracy or full consensus is used instead then it is important to clearly state the impact of any delays in decision making. This makes the SteerCom clearly accountable for timely decisions which can be a powerful motivator to reach consensus.

Project Management authority is a subset of SteerCom authority. The SteerCom must clearly agree the parameters in which a project manager is to work and back any decisions that they make within these parameters – once they start to second guess the PM on its day to day decisions or circumvent the PM and make decisions directly with stakeholders they destroy the ability of the PM to lead the project.

This similarly applies to the PM’s dealings with sub-project managers or team leaders.

Active Attendance and involvement

The challenge:

As with any meeting some people choose not to attend but then insist on revisiting decisions – sometimes months later. At best this is time consuming, at worst, decisions are made without valuable input or buy-in from key areas.

The solution:

If you are providing reasonable opportunity to attend it is usually fair to say that members are responsible for delegating replacements if they cannot attend, and (this bit is equally important) giving those replacements the information and authority needed to act in their place.

Except under exceptional circumstances if they choose not to do so then they should be held accountable for the quality of decisions made, or time and financial costs incurred if the SteerCom decides that it is necessary to post-pone or revisit decisions.

 

Next time we’ll look at:

  1. Enabling Informed Decisions
  2. Frequency of Meetings and Reports – timely decisions without wasting time
  3. The right level of information – to see the trees and the forest!
  4. Multi-organisation projects
  5. For the record

What lessons have you learnt regarding Steering Committees that may benefit other readers?