Strategy clinic: Communication builds project confidence

This week we publish a selection of readers' solutions to recent Strategy Clinic problems

This week we publish a selection of readers' solutions to recent Strategy Clinic problems

One of our IT projects seems to be spinning out of control. The project manager, however, denies the existence of the problems. Given that this project is viewed as critical by the business, how can I ensure that it does not end in failure?

Work to make people believe in the project

Tom Clark, IT manager, international financial services company

If the project appears to be spinning out of control, then it probably is. This must be addressed. Another aspect is the perception of the project and this is just as important as successful delivery. Internally you may have everything under control, but the perception could still be that of a struggling project. This is hard to shake and must be managed.

The project manager needs to be made aware of this perception and be concerned enough to address it. If not, it may be time for a new project manager.

The first thing to do is to listen and to gauge what is important to the business to start to gain business users' confidence in your ability to deliver. This goes a long way to overcoming problems.

Confidence can be further restored through demonstrable processes such as cost/resource control, planning and monitoring, risk and issue management, and requirements management. Finally, regular formal communication and involvement helps to give a sense of progress and success.

Revert to basics to retain confidence in projects

David Threlfall, director of MIS, Enesco

As project sponsor it is vital that executive IT always keeps overall project control without undermining the project manager.

The perception by departments outside IT of how well a project is doing may or may not reflect the project's progress on the Gantt chart. However, perceived success is how company confidence in IT projects is developed and will affect support in any future proposals.

The way to avoid these problems is to get back to basics:

Define clear and realistic project goals

Ensure full company buy-in by involving all departments from user to executive that can be affected by this project, no matter how minimal. It really pays off

Define clear realistic milestones

Don't overlook or ignore any personality conflicts. Address them and act quickly and professionally

Avoid a blame culture, learn from mistakes, support team members and move on

Most importantly of all - communicate, communicate, communicate.

Get value from heavy-hitters before failure sets in

Trevor Moreton, UK SESC ABCD Project Risk Management

Your experts' solutions revolved around communication and risk management, plus the more extreme solution of bringing in a heavy-hitter to rescue the project, which is the recovery option when all else has already failed.

In recent years EDS has implemented the ABCD risk management method, a coherent process that promotes elements of all the suggested solutions:

Effective identification of risk

Promotion of a blame-free culture

Communication across all stakeholders

Regular independent review (healthcheck)

Escalation through well-defined governance

Provision of real, practical help for project managers.

Of these, I would suggest that the last is the greatest benefit, derived from the others. By recognising that certain risks are not controllable within the project, and communicating that message to all concerned, the onus is placed on senior management to provide support, rather than simply making demands on project staff.

The effect is to get some value from the heavy-hitters already in the organisation, before the project starts to fail, and avoiding the problem in the first place.

Write objectives and scripts so no one is in any doubt

Brian Shea, chief executive, Vizuri

The ideal way to ensure a project is successful is to create a project plan that maps onto the business plan exactly. This helps to eliminate ambiguity in product delivery.

Outlining deadlines and responsibilities on a phase-by-phase basis allows little room for confusion. High -level, mid-level and detailed project plans are necessary. Everyone involved in the project needs to be in no doubt as to their responsibilities and deadlines.

This process means it is easier to spot problems and issues as soon as they arise. Visual aids and written objectives must be available to everyone at all times as these add to the likelihood of success.

Similarly, business use cases and functional verification scripts should be written from the very outset to ensure the developers know the precise path they need to follow instead of building, then writing the scripts.

However, if the project has begun in earnest and problems have arisen down the line, project teams need to take practical steps to ensure it does not fail.

Call in an external person to assess the current state of the project and report to the project sponsor. This may show that IT is actually on schedule, or can be brought back on track easily. The earlier these meetings take place, the greater the likelihood of recovering the project.

Ultimately, the concept of failure is subjective. By having specific benchmarks in place, a manager and the board can assess whether the project has met its objectives or discuss how problems can be addressed in the future. And if the manager is still in denial about the project failing, someone more senior needs to step in and take control.

What is the difference between a sourcing strategy and good supplier management?

The difference is in how you use your suppliers

John Clemmow, managing director, Quantum Plus

A sourcing strategy and good supplier management are two very different things - both are needed, but in the right order.

Your sourcing strategy should be defined first. A structured, strategic approach to sourcing decisions will ensure that insourcing and outsourcing are used appropriately and that the right internal and external suppliers are in place to deliver what you need to drive your business forward.

The strategy is about understanding the needs of the organisation and deciding how to best address those needs. It must be well thought out and thorough enough to cater for various scenarios, help retain your competitiveness, mitigate risk and retain flexibility.

Once the correct sourcing strategy has been implemented, supplier management is how an organisation protects its investment in its chosen sourcing arrangements.

Relationship management underpinned by strong governance and a robust contract will ensure you are getting what you paid for, that the supplier is adding value to the relationship, the goals of both organisations are being achieved and success shared. Terminology can make the difference - if you label suppliers as such, they will behave as just suppliers.

A sourcing strategy is forward-looking, evolves slowly and takes a holistic view. Supplier management is then part of the implementation of the strategy and is more current, tactical and reactive.

We get regular feedback from the executive team that they are satisfied with the way we run the company's IT systems and with our delivery of IT projects. Have we won, or are we missing something?

The answer lies in past utterances

Nigel Davey, Emerthames Group

The initial statement seems to indicate that you are winning, but be careful as the race never ends.

What is the favoured terminology of the executive team? Is it prone to lavishing praise and therefore the word "satisfied" is not particularly high, or is it a group of very few words, in which case satisfied is high praise indeed.

Ask the people on the team for a definition of what satisfied means to them and if there are certain areas that the praise is aimed at. The areas that they are less than satisfied with are the ones that need to be identified and worked on while maintaining your performance elsewhere. Take these comments positively but look at adding flesh to the bones you have been thrown.

Read more on IT project management