As those that read my blog (please click on the About This Author link if you haven’t), I primarily focus on corporate IT concepts in large organizations that consume plenty of IT, but IT isn’t the company’s core product or service. Projects and project managers play the role of herding the proverbial cats in order to deliver material IT change in these large environments. With that being said, project management in large organizations tends to be exceedingly challenging. Project Management Offices are staffed with folks trying to implement appropriate processes such as Project Life-Cycles (PLC) and Software Development Life-Cycles (SDLC) with all kinds of project toll gates to try and monitor project spend as well as quality metrics and other such governance structures. Additionally, Project Managers report to Program Managers that report to Portfolio Managers and into Enterprise PMOs in these matrix-ed/dotted line organizations. On top of that, reporting structures are constantly vacillating between a central pool of project management talent everyone draws from to talent directly reporting into the IT solution delivery teams. With hundreds and thousands of IT workers all trying to get work done, implementing change while trying to maintain the stability of production services makes strong project managers critical to the successful delivery of change. Thus, when Shim Marom asked if I wanted to participate in this flashblog on the topic of “What does Project Management mean to me”, I jumped at the chance to add my voice in with all of the excellent bloggers Shim has assembled on this topic.
What does Project Management mean to me? Or …
The three attributes of IT project management that make an effective project manager stand out amongst their peers.
1. Knowledge of the PLC/SDLC, but more importantly, the processes behind the processes
An attribute that makes a project manager effective in their role in a large IT shop is knowing all of the project processes inside and out. The project manager essentially helps guide the core project team members through those formal processes such as funding tollgates, quality milestones, as well as project and technical reviews. If an engineer has to stop engineering things in order to determine what document or form they need to fill-out in order to request a review of some deliverable or artifact they don’t know needs to contain who knows what content, it adds considerable stress on to the engineer as well as adds delay and overall confusion to the project team. For a project manager to be effective, knowing these processes thoroughly is essentially table stakes in a large IT shop.
Now, what makes a project manager excel in their role is knowing all the processes behind the processes and all the people that can help move those process steps forward. The majority of these project process steps involve someone or some group that needs to hear or see certain information in they way they are used to seeing or hearing it in order to approve the project team to move forward or assign a critical resource to complete a task. For example, Sally in “Project Accounting” needs to have a certain spreadsheet filled out a certain way for these certain type of hours to be accounted for in this cell and those other hours accounted for in that other cell. When Sally gets that spreadsheet filled out in exactly the way she is used to seeing it, she can quickly push the “Approve” button in the project management system that enables, say, corporate procurement to indicate the vendor on the project will get paid and thus the vendor can start working. When Sally has to explain exactly what she needs in order to push that button, it is typically impossible to get a hold of her to join a meeting and when she does, she confuses everyone with her extreme accounting lingo that no engineer can comprehend and thus begins the rinse and repeat cycle of throwing darts at the spreadsheet in hopes you get Sally what she needs. Being able to support the project team with this critical knowledge of how to get through the “Sally-gate” with the minimum of fuss is what makes a project manager excel in a large IT shop. A project manager with this type of value add is constantly in demand and frequently requested to lead projects to the point of having to turn work away in my experience.
2. Ability to translate a technical goal into the bare minimum of project steps to complete
Another attribute of a strong project manager is their ability to understand a project team’s technical goal and be able to translate that into the bare minimum project steps to achieve that goal. Here is an example project team conversation that illuminates this attribute:
Joe Project Technical Lead = “Ok, engineer Bob just found this software component that looks to do exactly what we thought we would have to pay the vendor to do in their product. We need to get this into the test environment in order to see it interact enough in some real world scenarios in order to make the call on using it or go back to the original expensive vendor option. We don’t have enough data and integrated systems in the dev environment to really determine if this is gonna work. How can we avoid all the testing and validation steps that the SDLC says the testing team needs before giving the green light to install this for us to use in Test?”
Project Manager = “Well, because of all the production problems recently, those testing steps we used to be able to get a pass on are now absolutely enforced. I haven’t heard of anyone in the last month getting a pass to skip a single step.”
Joe Project Technical Lead = “We don’t have two months to go through all the rounds of testing of a new component just to find out it is crap.”
Project Manager = “Ok, I have a plan.”
Joe Project Technical Lead = “I’m all ears.”
Project Manager = “Have Bob ask Judy in Operations to open a trouble ticket on the Flim-Flam app. Have Bob give you the trouble ticket number he gets from Judy. Then you call Tim in the support team and let him know you have a patch for that trouble ticket. If we call it a patch not a new component, Tim’s team can install it in the Test environment as a ‘production defect resolution’. Have Bob install it in Dev, write up the patch install documentation and attach that doc to the trouble ticket resolution section. Once Bob has done that, you can call Tim and ask for a resource from his team to install the patch indicating the docs are attached to the ticket. If I call, it will look like the project is making the request. If you call, it is Development providing a defect fix. Then have Bob go through the emergency development access process to the Test environment after Tim’s resource has updated the trouble ticket with a patch installed status. Bob can do whatever testing you think you need to make the call if it is gonna work or not.”
Joe Project Technical Lead = “Do you think Judy is going to go along with this plan? In order to back all this out, she is going to have to call back in and say the trouble ticket can be closed because the defect wasn’t an actual defect.”
Project Manager = “Yes, I’ve worked with Judy before. Plus, her team benefits from some of the new functionality delivered in this project phase, so she has a vested interest in helping us push this forward. Plus, Tim is under pressure to show progress in trouble ticket closure metrics, thus he is going to want to get an offshore resource engaged to close this new ticket quickly.”
Joe Project Technical Lead = “Ok. I’ll grab Bob and fill him in on the plan.”
A project manager that just reiterates the formal process maybe doing their job, but a project manager that knows how to translate a project goal, in this example, additional hands-on confidence in a change to the project solution, brings real project management value to the project team.
3. Attention to detail and follow through
In trying to narrow down to three strong project management attributes a project manager needs to have to excel at project management in a large IT shop, having a strong attention to detail and follow through may seem, again, table stakes for all project managers. In my experience, there is a constant state of noise surrounding a corporate IT project that needs constant squelching. In contrast, short running projects, of which there are very few in large shops, can usual squeak by with minimal outside interference. That minimal interference can usually be addressed by an average project manager. Projects that run many months or years don’t have that luxury.
For long running projects, it is absolutely critical for the project manager to be completely on top of all the noise and know who to engage to ensure the noise can be ignored or if the noise represents a material impact to the project. One example of noise is a newly proposed enterprise component that everyone needs to use that, on the surface, sounds like a critical path item for the project team, in reality, has no funding support and no project toll gate or review that will enforce its use. Such noise, once determined to be true noise, needs to be cast out of scope to keep the project resources focused on delivery as quickly as possible. An example of noise that can’t be ignored might be a new project funding review activity that has enough executive support to warrant proactive insertion of the project into the review pipeline ASAP to ensure smooth sailing through the new process. Ignoring such noise results in the discovery, down the road, of a roadblock when the project is at a critical milestone. Scrambling resources in a finance “fire drill” activity late in the project is obviously inefficient. Calls of “How come we didn’t know about this sooner? Does this put the delivery date in jeopardy?” from the project sponsor cast considerable doubt on the effectiveness of the project manager.
Thus, seemingly table stakes for a project manager to be attentive to details, the larger the project the more the need for a project manager to be vetting out details and sorting out noise from real project activities. Project managers that have the skills and intra-company relationships to quick vet the noise and squelch or engage efficiently excel at delivering projects on time, on budget and without undue stress on the project team.
P.S. This post is published as part of a first ever project management related global blogging initiative to publish a post on a common theme at exactly the same time. Seventy four (74!) bloggers from Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, UK and the USA have committed to make a blogging contribution and the fruit of their labor is now (literally NOW) available all over the web. The complete list of all participating blogs is found here so please go and check them out!