The Project Notebook

No Surprises!

I always set the expectation on my projects there should be no surprises. Why? If I’m chosen as the Project Manager, the one to integrate the project components together, I’d best have some idea of what is going on. With virtual surprised business manproject teams, this can be more difficult — but I still have to ask. Ideally I will be “cc’d” on all important messages, correspondence, and calls, and if there is a significant meeting I have to miss, notes should be taken and made available. This isn’t about my ego or control issues, but about doing my job.

Unfortunately many project participants (and yes, project sponsors) are still in the dark. They don’t understand the necessity of this type of request. These folks can usually be coached. Or perhaps they have a form of “political” agenda that’s contrary to assisting you in getting the job done. These are the folks you need to work with the project sponsors with to have removed from your project.

Now please don’t mistake “surprise” (something significant happened and a project participant didn’t inform you) with other events. Emergencies do come up. Business priorities do shift. This is when you have to pull the team together, replan, and move on. Just a few years ago I had a project with $20M worth of computer equipment in a warehouse — each system was being tested, prepped with new software and hardware, and packaged for shipping to a customer. It was nearing the end of the year and I got a phone call telling me business priorities dictated the systems be in customer hands by the first of the year — the original plan called for 6-8 weeks later. We looked at our options to fast track — testing standards were maintained, but we notified HQ we needed more materials to complete more of the work in parallel, worked out a parallel shipping schedule, and secured additional transportation to help us complete on time. Come January 1, everyone was happy!

Stick to Your Guns (When You’re Right)!

According to the PMBOK® Guide, as project managers we’re supposed to be the only ones who can put all the puzzle pieces together to complete the project. This is a tall order, especially for someone that might lack confidence or is unsure of him- or herself. When you’re right, stay the course, and things will usually work out for the best.

My very first role at GE Information Services was to be “technical support” for the development of a new product and be the liason to the consulting company engaged to develop the product. Within days of joining the company I received a call from Customer Service — an important client had a significant problem in running the old version. The support people in customer service were stumped and were escalating to the Engineering Department — me in particular.

They presented me with the “abend” dump from an IBM mainframe with little other information. I inspected the error messages, trying to put together a story that might help the customer, but it was difficult. All indicators pointed to a form of error in the statements that ran the program, but the actual statements weren’t available and my research was pointing to something specific to the client’s system configuration. I relayed my findings and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the customer wasn’t buying it.

Within a couple of days, my contact in Client Services arranged for us to drive to Baltimore to meet with the customer. On site, I related my research directly to the customer — an IT Director for a Fortune 500. He wasn’t buying it, and the fact I only had a vague indication it was a local problem wasn’t helping. I suggested they check some local installation parameters again. By this time, the IT Director was very agitated and berating my colleague from Customer Service. I was afraid my career was going to end before it even began. They both turned to me again, and I repeated the information one last time.

By this point, the IT Director was red in the face. He jumped up and stormed out of the conference room. My colleague and I were resigning ourselves to returning home in defeat, when suddenly a much calmer, happier IT Director returned to the room. Turns out although he insisted he had double and triple checked everything, he did find one small error — and when he corrected it, everything ran perfectly. My research and insistance paid off.

Fast forward around a half dozen years and I encountered another problem, now as a manager. I was to give a presentation to the Deparment Manager on the pros and cons of two programming languages and make a recommendation. I reviewed my pitch with peers and my boss, making sure it was as perfect as I could make it. Before I could give my pitch, the Department Manager picked it up, flipped through it, slammed it to the table, and declared “this is biased!” I was stunned — I knew the report was very balanced and had the right recommendation, so meekly inquired what led him to make that statement. While I don’t remember his exact response, I could see it was more emotional than logical. Once again, I stuck to my story — I worked with the experts and reviewed it with my boss. Perhaps we could go through it in more detail. Sure enough, once he read and undestood the presentation and how it was derived, I got the green light to proceed.

I’ve always remembered these and other incidents where I carefully chose my information, did my homework and stayed the course to success. This comes in useful every day when dealing with colleagues and customer, since care and confidence are respected qualities.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP