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Why Are My Projects Struggling? Six Basics You Must Never Forget

~ By Suresh Malladi

Womans hands pointing to the resources of a project

Lately, I've noticed that my projects are getting more complicated and status review meetings are focusing mostly on issues and complaints. In fact, all projects on the dashboard are struggling, which made me ask myself, What is going wrong in an otherwise well-oiled project management machine?

After reviewing the projects and reflecting on our project management practices of late, I gained some valuable insight into what has changed; we lost focus on six basic, yet critical, practices that have made us successful in the past. This article provides an overview of the six basics that you should go back and focus on whenever you find your projects going off track.

1. Care About Your People

On past projects, it was our people who made us successful. We had solid human resource (HR) management practices in place to assign the right people to the right projects. We maintained good bench strength to account for varying resource requirements. People were encouraged to update their technical and project management skills, their knowledge of standards and methodologies, as well as their "soft" business skills such as communication and etiquette. We had policies like job rotation to train the resources and to mitigate the risks of attrition.

But, the recent increase in projects put more demands on our resources. They started working long hours focused primarily on project demands, which left no time for overall professional development. This took its toll in the form of burnout and lack of motivation. Managers were pressed to manage the projects and had to ignore the team's concerns. In the past, they were empathetic, listened to the team, elicited opinions, sorted team and individual issues, encouraged and motivated team members to improve, and took time to mentor team members.

We realised that this was not currently the case and it needed to be corrected. We concluded that we should hire more people to balance the inflow of work, that the team should get time for professional development, that the managers should schedule time to spend with the team in order to nurture and mentor it, and that the team should celebrate its successes. Now, the resources are getting time to spend on activities that enhance personal and professional competence.

2. Don't Abandon Processes and Methodologies

We once had robust processes and methodologies in place and created reusable assets such as templates, guidelines and lessons from completed projects. Standard processes helped ensure continuous improvement in terms of best practices, technologies, HR management, quality management, time management, risk management, etc. They also helped us to record, absorb and implement the best practices and helped set the criteria for acceptance of deliverables, change control mechanisms, communication protocols and how the project information will be gathered, documented and archived. Standards for software development, testing and documentation of code, test results, etc. were also included in the process definition. Our hallmark project management style involved review and feedback and recording the information gathered during these reviews for future usage.

But, the recent spate of projects and the resulting pressures on our resources had dented the process mindset. The teams were occupied with delivery issues and didn't have time to reflect and record the findings. Team reviews, individual performance reviews and phase/project reviews were squeezed. Managers had to minimise the time spent on reviewing the performance of the individual team members before releasing them from the projects. Data collection had become ad-hoc and review meetings were cut short. The learning from the recent projects decreased. This had a huge impact, as the recent projects were more technically challenging and were based on latest technologies, making them better candidates for future project estimations than the projects we had recorded in the past. In a sense, our process asset libraries had become redundant with archaic data that may not be applicable for the current projects, which are much bigger and more complex.

In order to reverse these trends, we began focusing once again on spending time on project learning and documentation by dedicating a portion of the project time for this. Now, we have accumulated the data to use in the future, which will hopefully prevent bigger trouble down the road.

3. Ensure Senior Management Commitment

Senior management has always been a pillar in our project management activities. They champion process orientation, quality focus and HR management practices to define how the environmental factors will influence the projects. Recently, we started working with outside vendors. Senior management was focused on the strategic negotiations and external relationship management. They did not communicate internally why and how the vendors fit into the working model, why it was beneficial to work with them and how the existing resources will be used in this model. There was internal confusion on how to work with the vendor, how to communicate back and forth, and how to absorb the vendor services back into the organisation. Working with vendors also raised fears in the organisation that some resources may become redundant, which led to insecurity.

Senior management should have allayed the internal fears and confusion and given this priority on par with setting the relationship with the vendors. When our projects started to struggle, much time was lost in escalations, only to realise that things were not working at a particular hierarchy level. It took time for the decision makers to jump into the fray. The escalation hierarchy should have been more defined.

Fortunately, things are being set right and, from now on, senior management will conduct periodic reviews on organisational performance, vendor relationship value addition and areas for improvement. The main emphasis for senior management is to ensure that the vision and goals are clear to the individuals and to ensure that the necessary mechanisms are in place for review of the performance in relation to the goals set. Senior management should be instrumental in defining the roles, responsibilities, communication model, etc. in the organisation.

4. Keep Your Communication Models Updated

As our projects increased, the organisation grew - but communication mechanisms could not scale up to account for the new projects. Communication processes, such as who will communicate with whom, how frequently and in what from, were not set. Also, we did not define how the information was to be communicated to all stakeholders in a concise and timely manner. As the projects increased, the stakeholders increased and the modes of communication became diverse. The communication model failed to identify all the necessary stakeholders for all the projects along with their communication requirements.

When vendors came into the picture, key communication processes should have been defined, including who will be responsible for communicating with the vendor, who will be responsible for communicating back within the organisation, etc. As communication needs started increasing, the feedback and review mechanisms for evaluating and modifying the communication model should have increased proportionately. We have now revised our processes and are working to improve upon on how communication takes place within and outside the organisation.

5. Implement Tight Monitoring and Controlling Procedures

We always had tight monitoring mechanisms in place to identify any deviations, suggest corrections, forecast future performance and absorb the lessons learned into the work of the organisation. Monitoring and control procedures were in place to determine how project performance will be assessed, prioritised and corrected. This helped control the quality, HR, risk, time, cost and project management aspects.

But, as projects increased in scale and size, the monitoring mechanisms have become inadequate. We have revised the procedures to encompass the new demands and now have periodic reviews to gauge not only the performance of the projects, but also the monitoring procedures themselves. The decisions made during such review meetings are being pursued in the future meetings.

6. Document Lessons Learned and Best Practices

We have always believed that project recordings, lessons learned and best practices form invaluable assets. The goal was to learn what failed and what succeeded and to use that information in the future. Artifacts like the effort estimation, cost estimation, communication models and risk lists formed a reference for future projects. Lessons learned from project failures helped us identify the project risks and address them beforehand. We had actions in place to capture the best practices born out of several projects executed across the organisation. For example, in some cases, the customers required us to follow certain coding conventions during documentation. Such learning was absorbed into the processes of the organisation and replicated in projects across the organisation. Due to recent project pressures, we failed to properly document lessons learned or find and propagate best practices across the organisation.

Failing to capture lessons learned made the existing and archived knowledge base outdated for the current trends. We recognised this and started allocating some project time exclusively for documenting lessons learned and best practices. We are now building process assets about the current projects, their details, their deliverables and their artifacts, which we can use in the future. The dictum is to continue into the future so that we once again do not fall short when we look back.

Conclusion

Organisations where the resources are valued and their skills are leveraged succeed more often. Senior management commitment is necessary to set a vision and have plans and actions in place to realise the vision. Such realisation should be governed by processes and methodologies to instil best practices into the ongoing operations and to capture the intellectual property arising out of the project activities. Organisations should also have strong mechanisms in place to admit and capture the failures and successes. These should be translated into action items for the future in order to emulate the successes and to avert the failures. When these basics were ignored, the major aberrations shook our project management foundation. Correcting the deviations and gearing up for the increasing demands required us to fine tune our existing approach, scale up the resources and increase the supervision. Remember: stick to the basics and build on top of them.


Suresh Malladi is a PMP and works as a Client Services Manager for a major software firm in Philadelphia, PA. Suresh has extensive global experience in project management, having managed several projects for Fortune 1000 clients and ISV companies under the Global Delivery Model. Suresh can be reached at sureshmalladi@yahoo.com

© 2007. ESI International. The article first appeared in the October 2007 issue of ESI Horizons. Reprinted with permission.


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