Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages


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This white paper describes successful program management outside of the defined methodology and application of best practices.

White Paper By Jeff Toppall, PMP, and Bob Meyer, PMP, Sapient Government Services

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Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages

  1. 1. Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages By: Jeff Toppall, PMP, and Bob Meyer, PMP, Sapient Government Services© Sapient Corporation 2012 1
  2. 2. Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages This white paper describes successful program • Project plans are subject to frequent changes due to management outside of the defined methodology and external dependencies, but the client does not support an application of best practices. Great program management Agile methodology for incorporating change requires understanding the challenges created by human complexities at the organizational and individual client CHALLENGES AND MITIGATIONS levels. A client’s politics, personality, organizational structure, and leadership qualities affect the ability of a CHALLENGE 1: EXECUTIVE DIRECTION DOES NOT Program Manager (PM) to perform efficiently and produce TRANSLATE TO DAILY PRIORITIES quality deliverables. Executive management must effectively define organizational priorities with the working groups that We will examine situations where the barriers to success support projects in order for them to prioritize resources lie not only in the program’s complexity but in the risks and and remain on schedule. In some cases, executive constraints imposed, intentionally or not, by the client. By messages do not always trickle down to the project’s learning how to manage in these difficult environments, support professionals to be incorporated into their day-to- you will be able to mitigate and transform obstacles into day functions and priorities. As the result of a disconnect positive value to benefit your client and team’s success. in priorities, projects can easily progress at a slower pace, Program management at its core is about relationships. risking delays. We will highlight six program management challenges Within information technology departments, there can often found in difficult client environments. Our best be natural conflict between teams. As an example of practices will focus on how to achieve positive outcomes dissimilar priorities, an organization could have an using tactics that are not in the PM manual. operations team focused on keeping existing solutions working and an engineering team tasked with delivering • Executive direction does not translate to daily priorities new functionality. The key mitigation strategy in these • Frequently changing client PMs requires shifting difficult situations is to encourage team collaboration and strategies support. For example, instead of reiterating the executive’s priorities, it may be more effective to find ways to convince • The loss of the System Champion project teams to“buy into” the overall project and reset their priorities. This approach will greatly increase the • Overall technical solution is supported by multiple likelihood for the project’s success. teams, each with its own list of priorities • Build strong professional relationships with technical • Lack of control over the development environment professionals that have hands-on skills to accomplish the required tasks: In order to establish and build2 © Sapient Corporation 2012
  3. 3. relationships with these individuals you must become CHALLENGE 2: CHANGING CLIENT PMs REQUIRES more than a name on an email or a voice on a conference SHIFTING PROGRAM MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES call. These individuals may have some freedom to prioritize their own workload, so stop by their desks and Client behavior matters tremendously as it impacts the get know them as people, not just resources. carrots and sticks that can be used to move that client in a productive direction. During one project, the lead client • Get to know their manager, and how much leeway PM changed three times within 14 months, and each had her staff has: Some managers are sticklers for process, a very different approach to the project. The three project while others are more focused on results. Understanding leads on this project have been described as: the management style controlling a given team is a key element in managing communications channels when • Laissez-faire but a committed advocate: This is the trying to get something done. If a PM cannot directly task ideal PM for Sapient. The Sapient team attempted to external resources but the work still needs to be done, resolve problems before escalating them to the client the PM needs to understand how best to work within the lead. In this case, the client PM was very willing to existing organization to get resources assigned and how intervene and make decisions when necessary because they will be held accountable. he knew all other alternatives had been exhausted prior to seeking his involvement. • Say “Please” and “Thank you” frequently: This is particularly helpful with people who do not often receive • Painfully proactive: This PM was the opposite of the first expressions of gratitude from those asking for their time example. He insisted on being involved at all levels of the or assigning them tasks. If someone has an hour of project. He turned routine discussions and negotiations unscheduled time and three 30 minute tasks to with other organizations into confrontations. He alienated accomplish, building a personal relationship with a touch these teams and damaged the brand of the delivery team of gratitude helps ensure your 30 minute task will be within the client organization. Substantial and sustained accomplished first. fence-mending with the teams upon whom we depended for support was an ongoing necessity. We had to reassure • Be specific with questions and detailed with them that we were not responsible for the PM’s opinions responses: Provide people with all the information and actions. A very honest and blunt conversation with they need in order to make decisions in a timely manner. this PM, and his management, about the effect his style Incomplete paperwork makes the PM appear unable had on the project was necessary to prevent even more to provide the information being requested or indifferent harm from occurring, but didn’t solve the basic problem. to the impact of not doing so. Forcing someone to read several days worth of an email trail to understand the • Minimally involved: The third PM knew that his context of a question wastes time and risks that person assignment was temporary, and did not particularly missing the key item to be understood or accomplished. care about the project. Despite repeated attempts to get Providing specific details and instructions empowers substantial guidance or assistance, the PM showed no people to be more productive and builds a favorable interest in providing the leadership necessary to move impression of a project team. the project forward. The Sapient team had to operate under the assumption that such leadership would not • Be persistent, but never pester: Even if people be forthcoming. As a result, we went behind, around, cannot be directly tasked by the PM, they must be held and above him to get things accomplished. We mitigated accountable for work assigned by their management the risk of working around our own client by ensuring which impacts the project. Polite and professional he was kept fully informed in writing of all meetings and communications with people who support the project communications. A defensive strategy of documenting sends the message that doing nothing is not an option. our communications, while proactively solving problems, was our only option. This works best when teams are already empowered with the information they need to succeed and a positive relationship has been built with team members.© Sapient Corporation 2012 3
  4. 4. Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages CHALLENGE 3: LOSS OF THE SYSTEM CHAMPION • Even the simplest, most routine of changes can require extensive coordination. At one client, we Change is hard and often meets resistance in ways outside encountered a scenario where applying a patch to an the control of the delivery team. Budgetary, political, Oracle database required coordinating with, among and cultural resistance to change represented by new others, teams from the SOA Application Management initiatives requires the leadership of an executive level group, Unix Operations, Database Operations, and the system champion. When this champion is lost, the project LAN team, in addition to the Change Control Board. often loses momentum, effectiveness, or both. While When even simple tasks require coordination among the PM cannot replace the system champion, there are multiple teams, the risk to the schedule multiplies. strategies available to mitigate the loss. A mitigation strategy that creates and builds professional relationships to address risks, constraints, and • Do not let offhand comments about future direction go prioritization of work is vital to the project’s success. without clarification: If the success of the current project is at risk, every opportunity should be explored • Facilitate communications: When tasks must be to gain intelligence about the client organization’s coordinated across multiple teams, never assume those future direction. This knowledge can be used to salvage, teams are talking to each other. The PM must adopt repurpose or rebrand the work. Status reports the role of facilitator to make sure that Team A and Team from other projects, policy announcements (official B really have discussed an issue in the timeframe or off-the-cuff), organizational changes, and executive required by the schedule. In this effort, be persistent communications on priorities provide information that but never pester. Being the intermediary provides a can help a project manager sustain momentum in the great opportunity to gain intelligence about the client short term or fit the project into an organization’s long and competitors. Providing that intelligence term strategy. (appropriately) to all the teams in question increases your value to them, as well. If a system champion is not available to remind the client why the deliverable is important, the entire delivery team • Official scope is a floor not a ceiling, so help must be enlisted to perform this function and the PM has elsewhere if possible:This does not mean to embrace to take the lead in this endeavor. The risk to the delivery scope creep. It means understanding your client’s team is finding out the deliverable has become irrelevant. requirements and the range of skills the delivery team The mitigation is to constantly search for additional can offer. If the client has a need that does not impede justifications for the project, redefine the deliverable in the team’s ability to deliver, offer to help. This helps ways that are relevant, and sell the client on that vision. strengthen relationships and builds a positive brand for a delivery team with the client. A Statement of Work should • Constantly manage expectations of all stakeholders: be viewed as the floor from which to start, not a ceiling Without a system champion, the external teams upon above which it is impossible to rise. whom your project depends are less likely to move the project up their priority list. This makes stakeholder • Report dependencies early and often, but never point management even more critical to success. Teams with fingers: This is the “leading the horse to water and hope high expectations for a project may need to have those he drinks” approach to project reporting. Regardless expectations moderated. Teams with low expectations of the challenges imposed by the external groups, those for a project cannot be allowed to use that as an excuse relationships cannot be compromised by unprofessional for missing delivery dates. Again, having well established reporting. If there is a dependency, report it while taking relationships with stakeholders can minimize any care to use the least inflammatory language possible. tendency to provide less project support in this situation. Done properly, the PM can motivate an executive to take the action needed to advance a project while preserving CHALLENGE 4: THE OVERALL TECHNICAL SOLUTION IS relationships with other organizations. SUPPORTED BY MULTIPLE TEAMS, EACH WITH ITS OWN LIST OF PRIORITIES4 © Sapient Corporation 2012
  5. 5. • Know the process calendar: Organizations typically • Informal processes make relationships supremely have a change management process that enforces important: When there is no formal change control a minimum timeline to submit, review, and approve process, relationships become critical. Being able to visit requested changes. Understanding that calendar is a someone with whom a relationship has been built will be key to building your schedule. Ten change requests with far more effective than sending an email, or making a a minimum of three days required for the entire process phone call, and hoping that person will eventually get to can add six calendar weeks to a timeline. Not knowing the work. Even if the response is unanticipated, a quick the process calendar can result in shortchanged task negative decision can be escalated or otherwise durations and create a schedule risk where none discussed among stakeholders to assess the impact. exists. Understanding the calendar is also critical to The lack of a decision, and the time wasted in attempting maintaining relationships with those upon whom the to get one, is often worse than a negative decision that project depends. A PM should strive to avoid asking can be addressed. someone to complete a process at the last possible minute. But if this happens, the relationships that have CHALLENGE 6: FREQUENT CHANGES IN THE PROJECT’S been cultivated can be a saving grace. PLAN DUE TO EXTERNAL DEPENDENCIES ARE ADDRESSED IN A WAY THAT IS INCONSISTENT WITH AN • When faced with technical problems, be bulletproof AGILE APPROACH on process compliance: While a well-documented failure is not a good defense, it is better than no defense. If the client adopts an Agile approach, constant change Sometimes things simply don’t go according to plan. It is is not only expected but embraced (but still needs to be not realistic to expect every activity will be completed managed). However if the client uses a waterfall model, without problems. This defensive mitigation strategy and the most accurate statement that can be made about combats the risk that failure to follow the process will a schedule after it is updated is “This is wrong,” what can cast doubt on the delivery team’s competence. a PM to do to mitigate schedule risk? In our experience, numerous external dependencies on work activities create • Documenting lessons learned: When, not if, more opportunities for delay as schedules get pushed out something goes wrong, documenting lessons learned is to the lowest common denominator date available. In this extremely important. Not only will it minimize the risk situation, the PM has a number of mitigation options. of encountering the same problem again, but it • Carefully estimate items the delivery team can demonstrates a proactive problem-solving approach control and document those that it cannot: If it to the client. becomes apparent the external dependencies facing the CHALLENGE 5: LACK OF CONTROL OF THE project represent substantial schedule risk, never DEVELOPMENT ENVIRONMENT assume timely completion of tasks outside the delivery team. Add as much lag time as possible to the schedule In a typical non-production environment, a development and explain why to the client. It is always wise to give team has substantial freedom to work. However, if this clients the opportunity to accept the lag or push back on is not the case, risks escalate. At one client organization, the delays. It is also imperative to be open and accurate changes to the non-production environments required when documenting dependencies. Clients like surprises approval from several external organizations, including even less than they like delays. coordination with a client application that required retesting after each change. Because the processes • Develop work packages in ways that allow the most around non-production environments were substantially flexibility: Program Managers tend to think that if C looser than those around production systems, formal should be done after task B, then it must be done after avenues to move the project forward were limited. In this task B. But there are often tasks, or portions of case, the key mitigation strategy is focused on creating and tasks, that can be done out of order. For example, maintaining relationships. when experiencing delays in building a non-production environment, but the delivery team remains confident© Sapient Corporation 2012 5
  6. 6. Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages it will also build a production environment, start what For example, one project was experiencing delays in activities that can be done in production even though the official scope of work due to external dependencies. non-prod is incomplete. While perhaps less than ideal, Aside from the obvious impact to schedule, the team maintaining the dependency can result in a status report was underutilized, and morale was suffering. In a routine full of delays rather than progress. Starting preliminary status briefing, an executive made an off-hand comment portions of the next major activity can show progress, regarding a new technology the client that was considering even if that progress is out of sequence. Mitigate as part of their long-term architecture. The executive’s schedule risk posed by dependencies by building as few comment prompted the project manager to have his of them into your schedule as possible. team build a proof of concept version of the deliverable based on the new technology. This demonstrated to the • Reduce dependencies via process arbitrage: For customer that not only were we carefully listening to the example, A Trouble Ticket versus. a full Change Request: executive, but also that the team did not need to be told to Organizations do not always have clear rules on what advance our client’s interests. The team moved forward in changes require review by a full Change Management a proactive manner. That this occurred during a stagnant process and what can be done by a less intensive Trouble period of our official work helped fill in the gap and Ticket/Break-Fix approach. Use a good relationship with allowed engineers to acquire new skills without impact the people who would actually do the work to ask them to the schedule. Sapient demonstrated the team was which approach is preferred and there is a good chance dedicated to more than generating revenue, and had the the less process-intensive one will be chosen. interests of the enterprise at heart. • Be totally transparent on the reasons for delay and In another example, Sapient took over an existing project, their impacts: This continues the theme of being open the success of which was directly tied to the client’s and honest, but not accusatory, in reporting. Managing executive bonus payout. The functional requirements for the client’s expectations is key not only in making this effort were poorly defined, leaving a gray area against progress, but in protecting the reputation of the which to measure success. In spite of the fact that this delivery team. The PM should never put himself at risk of project was significantly behind schedule when we took appearing to hide relevant information from a client. over, we were able to identify a definition for success that met the letter of the requirements and allowed us to TURNING DISADVANTAGE INTO ADVANTAGE demonstrate success to the executive. Instead of simply accepting the gap and viewing it only as a constraint, we Even within the context of managing projects in realized it was also an opportunity to tie the project work environments fraught with issues outside the control of directly to the executive’s personal objectives. This created the delivery team, ample opportunities exist to turn these a very clear message of our focus on client driven success, disadvantages into advantages. It is the PM’s responsibility and generated a strong positive brand for Sapient. to identify these opportunities. Listed below are some specific examples of disadvantages and how to change DISADVANTAGE: STOVEPIPED ORGANIZATIONS them into advantages. When different parts of an organization do not DISADVANTAGE: INCONSISTENT EXECUTIVE communicate effectively, we believe it is the delivery COMMUNICATIONS team’s role to take up the slack. One example from our When executive communications about priorities and experience involved two client organizations, both with policies are inconsistent in content and enforcement, and some responsibility for naming standards, and unable different working groups have different priorities, long- to agree on the naming convention for a data center. The term planning becomes difficult. However, opportunities issue was outside our tasking to resolve, but our success exist within such an environment that can yield positive depended on a prompt resolution to the issue. Instead of returns. simply reporting the dependency and hoping “the horse would drink”, we initiated open communications between6 © Sapient Corporation 2012
  7. 7. the parties, involved impacted stakeholders, scheduled us successful. Their newfound skills and knowledge meetings, pushed for a resolution that satisfied all parties, continued to provide value to the client long after our and documented the outcome. project was completed. Again, Sapient was recognized as a company that focuses on the client’s best interests, not A second example focused on technically integrating simply revenue. network technologies from different vendors that were not integrated in this client environment. Our project required SUMMARY that a solution be found, but the “official” responsibility for finding it did not lie within the project team. This was The four important behaviors that every PM should another external dependency that might have delayed remember are: the project. Even though this work was clearly not within our Statement of Work, we prototyped and recommended • Maintain a strategic focus on what the client needs, but a solution, tested it in a development environment, constantly reevaluate tactics implemented it as a local solution for our project, and eventually saw it rolled out as an enterprise standard. • Fill gaps in process with relationships, not more process Both situations provided two key advantages for Sapient. • People are your allies. Process is your defense First, we were able to gain intelligence on our competitors by being the intermediary in the flow of information. We • Opportunities to advance your reputation, if not your became privy to information we would not have seen project, are always available had we simply hidden behind our official scope. It also enabled us to see who did and did not step up to the Time and time again we show the importance of building plate in the face of out of the box challenges. Second, we and maintaining professional relationships and fostering fostered a reputation for the delivery team as being less effective communications in order to mitigate the risks and focused on driving revenue and more focused on driving constraints. Yet there is something more fundamental at toward solutions and delivering added value whenever work – Attitude. If a PM comes to work everyday focusing opportunities presented themselves. on risks and constraints, that PM is likely to see only risks and be constrained. If the PM comes to work focused on DISADVANTAGE: EXTERNAL RESOURCES OF VARYING critical thinking, problem solving, and success, then that SKILL LEVELS PM is likely to think critically, solve some problems, and be viewed by the client and the delivery team as a success. Tasks outside the delivery team’s control are often This, more than any other factor, is the key mitigation dependent on professionals with varying skill and strategy that turns risks and constraints into advantage. experience levels. When we encounter this situation, we continue to strive for excellence and provide quality deliverables. We take proactive steps to advance the skill level of these support teams whenever possible. At one client, the project included network and security configurations that were unfamiliar to the in-house teams that would be ultimately tasked with supporting the infrastructure we were developing. Anticipating this need, we took steps to include the teams in the design phase of the project. In addition, we worked one-on-one with the members of these teams to develop their skills to meet the required level. This turned the disadvantage of an inadequately skilled client organization into the advantage of a team that had the required skills to make© Sapient Corporation 2012 7
  8. 8. Program Management in Difficult Environments: How to turn risks and constraints into advantages ABOUT THE AUTHORS Jeff Toppall’s career spans 15 years of program and technical management for public and private clients on projects ranging from consumer and back office software development to infrastructure delivery for both national and international markets. He holds an M.A. in Telecommunications from George Washington University and a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and History from Syracuse University. Jeff Toppall, PMP Bob Meyer has been in the IS / IT field for more than 30 years, initially as a developer and for the last 20 years in project and program management for government and commercial clients. He has consulted for national security and financial regulatory agencies, DOD, and the telecommunications industry. Bob holds a BA in Economics from Allegheny College. Bob Meyer, PMP8 © Sapient Corporation 2012
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