Strategy clinic: How do I get an effective voice on projects?

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Our panel of experts answers your IT problems

I am a project manager working on a major update of our CRM database, but the sales team keep changing their requirements. We are three months behind schedule. All the shots are called by the head of IT, sales director and managing director. How do I gain an effective voice in the matter?

Find a mentor to develop your influencing skills

Scope creep is one of the major reasons for project delays and failure. As project managers are measured on scope, time, and cost (with resulting quality) you are right to be concerned both at a business and a personal level.

Take the business issues first. Putting in a product that does not meet requirements is a lot more expensive than continuing to talk about it. That is providing there is not an expensive team who are programming all the changes at the same time as the analysis is going on. What are you doing to help clarify the requirements? Do you have a strong business analyst? Have you built a prototype to help define the needs?

At a personal level, I assume you are recording the changes the steering group is making and that the reason for the delay is accepted. If not, you may find you are held responsible even if you believe you do not have accountability. A strong project manager needs hard and soft skills. You should seek a mentor who can help you perform a stakeholder analysis and advise you on how to develop your influencing skills.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

Hold workshops with the project's key stakeholders

The situation you describe is typical of one where the objectives of the application are either unclear or the stakeholders have different goals.

Hold one or two short workshops with the key stakeholders to focus on the business outcomes and improvements in performance the customer database is intended to enable. Once you have agreement here, you can determine which business activities the improved information and analysis available from the customer relationship management database will support and how the information should be held and presented to gain the required outcomes.

Your role here is to help maintain focus on clarifying and identifying only the critical information needed to deliver the business benefits. This should help you challenge unnecessary scope creep and changes in requirements.

This approach should also enable you to relate the cost of developing and maintaining aspects of the database to the benefits enabled, hence killing ill-conceived requirements.

Unless you act to resolve the situation it will continue as people add ideas without necessarily understanding the overall goal or realising the cost implications.

Rob Lambert, Senior lecturer in IS, Cranfield School of Management

Consider risk, reward, effort and need relationships

I hate to be the doom and gloom merchant, but the scenario you describe has disaster written all over it. If you change your requirements in the nature you describe, you are increasing the risk of failure. There are numerous high-profile examples of this in the public and private sectors.

I suspect that the process of change request does not consider the relationship between risk, reward, effort and need. It also appears the specification has not been thoroughly thought through at the requirements phase.

The position you are in is that you are running behind schedule, your requirements are changing, you are no doubt over budget, and the project is unlikely to deliver benefits. You need to bring these facts to the attention of the managing director and suggest you put a stake in the ground and put together a rescue plan.

You need to stop developments, clarify the requirements, draw up a revised implementation plan and introduce strict change control.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Group

Properly define the role of the steering committee

When you refer to the head of IT, the sales director and the managing director "calling the shots", I suspect they form the CRM project steering committee. Good practice requires clearly defined roles and responsibilities on all relevant projects.

The role of the steering committee includes monitoring progress, helping to resolve issues and sanctioning major changes to the project. The role of the project manager includes providing information to the steering committee on the implications of changes, with recommendations, if appropriate, on how to resolve issues.

If these roles and have not been formally defined and agreed, it could lead to misunderstandings about where responsibilities lie and the influence of the project manager.

Changes to business requirements are quite common in projects. They usually have an adverse impact on budgets and timescales and therefore are brought to the steering committee for sanction. The steering committee should require the project manager to classify the change requests as "necessary" or "nice to have" and to estimate their cost and time.

The project manager can also provide options, whereby a "line in the sand" is drawn under functionality for the initial release of the upgrade, and where subsequent changes are scheduled for later releases.

My second recommendation is to get formalised, consistent and visible reporting and a robust change management process. The visibility and clear implications of an ever-increasing project budget and timescale should do the trick.

Paul Durkin, Partner, Ernst & Young

Get the head of IT to sign off the system changes

This concern is as old as IT. It is strange that users who need to stick to strict design specifications and timescales appear to believe they can keep on changing those for IT.

Bridge builders do not change their design weeks or months after it has been approved and prices are being sought. A bridge does not start with a cantilever design and change into a suspension half way through. Why then do users believe they can change IT requirements and not pay a price and time penalty - which may wipe out the return on investment which justified the work in the first place?

It is scary you say the head of IT is involved in calling the shots. Did they sign the original specification, cost and timetable? If so, how can they imagine that changes will not affect the outcome?

You have a formidable list of opponents, with the head of IT, the sales director and the managing director all apparently happy with the inexorable slide of this project brought about by their changes. Either they are not aware of the consequences of their decisions - presumably you have a project reporting system, or they are aware and this has not been passed on to you.

Either way, you have to clarify things with your head of IT. They must sign off these changes, otherwise you are in a vulnerable position. You have a problem if you do not get this from the head of IT, because it is dangerous to go behind your boss's back.

If you have a peer-level user member on the project team, ask what they think about the situation. Have they talked to their line manager? What has been the reaction and why has this not been fed back into the project team?

A worrying scenario is that your head of IT is unwilling to draw to people's attention the consequences of these changes. If this is the case, and they go down, you need to have your side very well documented or you may go down as well.

Robin Laidlaw, President, CW 500 Club

Clarify who your sponsor is and communicate with them

Your role is to manage the project on behalf of your sponsor. Provided that the sponsor knows that the project is three months behind schedule, and is happy to live with this to accommodate the changing requirements, you are accountable to them for delivering the project to the new timescale, not the old one. It sounds like the three key players are acting as a steering group, so presumably they are all aware of the situation.

You have a problem if you:

  • Do not have a clear sponsor
  • The sponsor is not fully in tune with the impact of the changing requirements on the timescale
  • You have not agreed the new timescale with the sponsor
  • You or the sponsor have not formally notified the wider steering group of the change in timescale and why
  • You have not "bolted down" the new timescale and made any further changes subject to formal steering group agreement.

If any of these are true, act to rectify the situation. Provided you do it well, you will gain a more effective voice.

Chris Potts, director, Dominic Barrow

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The experts

Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solution to this question) to [email protected]

NCC Group

Ernst & Young

Cranfield School of Management

Computer Weekly CW500 Club

Henley Management College

Dominic Barrow

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