Thursday, September 11, 2014

How to Improve Your Firm's Project Management

There is probably no operational shortcoming more widespread in our industry than the need to improve project management. Managing projects is a demanding endeavor, and many technical professionals struggle with its complexities. The result is a host of problems such such as dissatisfied clients, budget overruns, missed schedules, quality defects, increased claims, lost profits, and general organizational dysfunction.

Perhaps your firm is among the many seeking to improve how you manage projects. Where should you start? Having worked with several companies in this area, let me offer the a few suggestions:

Don't start with training. This is a common response, but a misguided one. There are some good project management training programs available, but you'll not solve your performance concerns simply by giving your PMs training. You need to first take steps to ensure that your objectives are clear, that systems are in place to support changes, and that you're prepared to reinforce putting training concepts into action.

Determine your priorities. You likely won't be able to address every significant project management deficiency at once. So determine which issues most need attention. Evaluate the extent of each problem, its ramifications, the relative difficulty in solving it, and the anticipated benefits in doing so. I recommend ranking the issues, then determining how many of those at the top of the list can reasonably be addressed at once. Later, after you've made significant progress on those issues, you can tackle the others on the list.

It's important to get adequate participation in identifying priorities. This should not be strictly a top-down process. You're going to need the buy-in of your project managers, so at a minimum they should be consulted. I advise going still further, involving a cross section of employees at all levels who work on projects. This will give you a more accurate understanding of the issues than talking to PMs alone, which will lead to better solutions.

Identify internal and external best practices. In most firms, there are project management practices applied on a limited basis that are worth replicating across the organization. Perhaps it's the project planning process in the electrical department or the cost estimating approach used in one branch office or how one of your better PMs manages client communications. Sometimes there are a few clients that demand a higher level of project management competency, and those practices may deserve consideration firm wide.

Looking internally for best practices has some real advantages. You can see the benefits firsthand and the individuals who employ those techniques can help teach them to their coworkers—thus internal best practices are typically easier to implement than those brought in from outside. Recognizing internal best practices encourages more PMs to step up and set an example.

It's also wise to look outside your firm for best practices. Consultants and trainers, who work with multiple firms and see a variety of approaches to project management, can be good sources. You should also talk with PMs you've hired from other firms, asking them what their former employers did that might be worth adopting. The Ultimate Project Management Manual published by PSMJ is another good resource. Don't be afraid to look outside our industry either. There are many good project management practices from other industries that warrant consideration.

Plan to stage the rollout of changes. As noted earlier, you can't expect to improve everything at once. That's why you start with determining your priorities, which should guide your implementation process. You might consider a two-tiered approach, identifying which changes are mandatory from the start and which will be initially recommended but optional. This enables PMs to see where the firm is headed in terms of reforming its project management practices, but keeps the pace of change manageable. Some PMs will immediately embrace the recommended changes, which will facilitate the ultimate rollout at a later date. You might also choose to pilot certain changes on a limited basis, such as in select offices or business lines.

Define performance expectations. While all firms track some parameters of project performance, I'm often surprised how little these metrics seem to matter. I've encountered many PMs who repeatedly fail to meet budgets and schedules, who have unhappy clients and disgruntled project teams—and yet continue to manage projects with impunity! Many firms have simply never really defined what they expect of PMs. This is a vital step.

Typical PM metrics include budget and schedule performance, project profitability and cash flow, client satisfaction, and repeat business. You should also track project team satisfaction, because an unhappy or dysfunctional team will be hard pressed to produce successful projects. Implementing regular project reviews is a great step toward improving PM performance. I also advocate establishing a deliberate process for preparing people for the PM role; too many simply end up in that role by default.

Update your project management infrastructure as needed. With changed project management practices, you'll likely need to modify the systems and tools that support those practices. This may be as simple as creating a new form to something as complex as changing your accounting system. Here's an important point: If you wish to discontinue certain practices, eliminate any forms, reports, or procedures that support them. This is the equivalent of "burning the boats." If you give people the option of not changing how they do things, guess what they'll do!

Now you can start training. Having identified what changes you're making and having taken the steps necessary to facilitate those changes, you're ready to provide PM training. The training, of course, should be customized to your firm's needs. Beware of training programs that focus too much on the technical aspects of project management (e.g., budgeting, scheduling, scoping, estimating, etc.). While these are certainly important, it's likely that your most entrenched project problems are related to the softer skills such as communications, client relations, and coordination with the project team.

Remember that effective training is a process, not an event. Expect to make a long-term investment in coaching, feedback, and reinforcement if you really want to see performance improve. But it's worth it. If you were only going to excel at one corporate initiative, improving project management is probably the one with the biggest payback.

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