Outside Project Managers Can Turbocharge Collaboration

tbccbYou know the old saying, “love is blind.” But the truth is that couples who don’t establish clear roles are headed for a wake-up call reminiscent of the infamous Al and Peg Bundy of the “Married with Children” sitcom. Al’s lack of physical and fiscal prowess is a constant frustration to his wife, while Peg’s irresponsible spending and refusal to play homemaker leave him cold.

The Bundys could have used a matchmaker.

What’s this have to do with client/server development? Everything. When building enterprise systems, either partner — the users or the developers — can easily be seduced by vague promises of increased productivity only to be crushed when reality settles in.

That’s where a matchmaker, or outside project manager, can play a role. It’s that person’s job to take a cold, hard look at the lovebirds and make sure they understand what they’re getting into.

To get a feel for this kind of relationship, PC Week recently spent a few days with project-manager trainees from BSG Corp. The Houston-based consulting organization helps Fortune 500 companies deliver client/server jobs on spec and on schedule. As matchmaker, BSG staffers play a number of roles, including mediator, therapist, and ultimately bean counter.

Project scope:

‘What are we getting ourselves into?’

It wouldn’t have taken Nostradamus to predict that Al and Peg Bundy were not on the road to connubial bliss. Any worthy matchmaker would have prevented their marriage. In their role, BSG staffers have to be especially cold-eyed and dispassionate at the outset of a project, because their company runs the risk of not getting paid if the work doesn’t bear fruit.

Setting expectations in a formal document to eliminate this risk is the matchmaker’s bread and butter. If lawyers were in charge, they’d call it a prenuptial agreement. When BSG starts work, it creates a scope-definition document from which it generates a project work plan.

The work plan, which takes at least a month to create, details tasks to be completed and deliverables. It also outlines other variables such as the project budget, estimated time to completion, a staffing matrix, an issues log, and a change control log.

“Scope is how we make sure the client gets what they ask for,” said Rick Donnelly, a BSG training instructor, who is also vice president of systems for Boston Chicken Inc. in Golden, Colo.

A classic problem in formulating project scope is how to define performance standards in the work plan. Take the Odd Couple, for example. Felix Unger expects the apartment to be scrupulously clean, but is it up to his roommate, the slovenly Oscar Madison, to bring it up to his standards?

In the same way Oscar and Felix would battle over the acceptability of hair in the sink, users and developers often have clashing expectations on response time.

“Many clients think client/server response time will be better than the mainframe, but they’re typically an order of magnitude worse. You’re setting yourself up for tremendous expectation problems if you don’t get that in writing,” said Mike Tull, a BSG systems engineer who attended the training.

On the other hand, you may not know enough about the technology or the business process to be able to set reasonable standards in advance. At a minimum, performance should be defined according to precise, reasonable standards rather than to the “users’ satisfaction.”

Project control: `We have to talk, dear’

Say spouse No. 1 gets a great job offer in another city, and spouse No. 2, who had promised to follow spouse No. 1 everywhere, balks. This is where the painful process of scope control comes into play.

In client/server projects, the developer must respond to the user’s changing requirements and demands without letting budgets and time lines twist in the wind.

According to Donnelly, the most common area for “scope creep” is when the client wants increased functionality. Project managers will often grant the first few requests because they want to keep the romance alive. However, spreading a little good feeling can be hazardous.

“You give them the extra report, but you don’t think that you have to get that data from a [database administrator] who has to jack with the database. Before you know it, you’ve got 50 new conversations that need to be written,” said Donnelly. Veer from the critical path and you’re toast.

Where scope changes are inevitable, outside project managers should be sure to get brownie points to build up some insurance against future freebie requests. For example, if the consulting contract calls for three weekly budget sessions during the initial planning stages and the team ends up conducting four, it’s important to document the extra effort.

“Note it for the record and bring it up when they ask for more than you can give down the line,” said Donnelly.

To control project progress, BSG managers use a set of complex equations, developed by Donnelly, that can measure such things as actual hours vs. budgeted hours and the efficiency of each member of the team. (See illustration, Page 70.)

BSG staffers see their hard labor boiled down to these equations on a weekly basis. “You’ve got to screw it down to a numerical and economic measuring stick,” said Donnelly, who asserts the technique wrings the most out of people.

Managing personalities: `Never go to bed angry’

When the kids are sick, jobs are a hassle, and the car’s transmission fails for the third time this winter, that’s when it’s hardest to accept your partner’s human failings.

In the words of BSG chief Ben Mayberry, “People issues are inseparable from project-management issues. In the end, people issues are what can kill [a project].”

With that in mind, it’s Donnelly’s policy to be flexible with project team members, letting them come in when they want and wear what they want — as long as the work gets done.

“Every project has a few people who can achieve 120 percent efficiency. You can beat good efficiency out of them by being too rigid,” Donnelly said. “If you give flexibility and respect, you’ll get more from people.”

Donnelly said the worst “people” situation he encountered involved an internal project manager, heading up development, who was lying to executives about the progress. At the time, Donnelly was in charge of the testing team for the next phase.

“They were planning to hit their due date and hand off the garbage to me for testing. I talked to the [project manager] and it was total denial,” said Donnelly, explaining that the next step was to launch into combat mode.

“I set up a list of formal user-acceptance requirements and got them accepted by management. My boss asked me to do a detailed review of their progress. I determined that they were six weeks off the time schedule,” he said.

Donnelly’s efforts paid off. “You can’t hide forever. The guy got thrown out. I feel bad when that happens, but I didn’t do it for political reasons,” he said.

Managing assets: `What’s this on the VISA bill?’

The love light is glowing until the day that you discover a $600 charge on the credit card for a CD clock radio with Dolby noise reduction. Matchmakers help couples avoid these nasty little surprises by hashing out differences over financial matters long before they surface.

Dennis Gibe, a second BSG trainer, said the most basic part of project planning is making sure that the infrastructure and expense budget are in place and agreed upon before work begins.

This includes the physical work space, as well as the necessary LAN/WAN architecture. It also involves managing the vendors of the hardware and software to be used in the project.

Because BSG employees often work out of town, managing the expenses of weekly air travel, rented housing, and per diems is paramount. It’s up to the project manager to choose the housing that meets minimum safety and cleanliness standards, but does not cut into the project’s profitability.

Donnelly’s motto: “If it has a bed and a room, it’s a one-bedroom apartment.” I guess if Oscar Madison knows SQL, we’ve got a match for him.

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One Response to Outside Project Managers Can Turbocharge Collaboration

  1. Martin Walberg says:

    Nicely written article. Project management is something I think that all IT shops really need to look at fine tuning, for sure. There is no doubt that probably about 85% of projects are missing out on efficiencies, if are even being mismanaged!

    Not enough concentration on the micro, and too little realization with problems with the macro. That’s my opinion.

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