- Seek out your sponsors. They should be the source to go to when trouble arises. Not only is it likely they will have encountered something similar in the past, but they can also provide additional budget funds, more resources or reinforcement for areas in conflict.
- Consult with your team. Bring everyone together, discuss the problems surrounding the project, and begin to discuss counteraction and next steps. Steer away from blame and trying to determine who is at fault. Beware especially of ganging up on the customer. Team members may want to take the position that it's the customer's problem, not the team's. But be clear that the point of getting together is to determine how to solve a problem project, not pass it off as someone else's fault. Instead, gear questions toward possible solutions and the support needed to achieve them.
- Rely on backup and supporting information. Most likely, you will have monitored risks and issues all along and kept a good repository on your project. If so, you will be able to locate the exact information that helps address your problem. For example, you may be over budget because equipment purchases ate even beyond what your contingency allowed, and now a project sponsor or customer may be questioning the overrun. You should be able to pinpoint the authorization you received to make that purchase.
- Enlist outside resources, if needed. Lessons learned or a fellow project manager could be consulted for knowledge transfer and experience. You could even call in an outside contractor for a specific need.
- Remember that a halt is an option as well. Most times, this is seen as negative, and the project is considered a failure. But that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes, halting the project is the necessary solution, and it doesn't have to have horrific implications. If it isn't halted, the project could accumulate astronomical costs. The trouble could consume the project to the point where it would need to be shut down. A halt can also help you assess if the project is still meeting objectives (which could be the source of the problem). Stopping the project in its tracks could help you to determine if you need to redirect funds and/or resources.
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In my previous post, I discussed points to help prevent problem projects. Here, I'll talk about what to do when you realize an existing project is headed for trouble.
Let me try to explain it like this: If you are driving a vehicle, what happens when you see a red light? You know that when you come to it, you will stop. After the light turns green, you will look both ways before proceeding. When our projects hit red lights, we as project managers must also stop and assess our environment.
As you look at the big picture, review your inputs, factors and the overall sanity of the project. Examine your risk register or issues log. Is the status of risks or issues showing something that was missed and needs to be addressed immediately? For example, something easily overlooked is when the schedule for applying security patches is on the same timeframe as the testing phase. This sort of impact can cause testing to grind to a halt, with the team unaware of the source of conflict. A review of the risks or issues log would have highlighted these events.
Another source to review is your budget plan. Have unplanned circumstances arisen, such as the need to produce more prototypes? Does the acquisition of resources require additional time? Is equipment becoming obsolete or in need of repair? Expenses such as these caution you to slow down and reevaluate your budget. Be aware that ultimately, you may need to secure a renewed budget approval.
Consider client relationships as well. Are your clients becoming unsatisfied and impatient, regardless of how well you're completing deliverables and meeting milestones? If so, you may need to allay fears or even compromise on a feature of your project. Perhaps that means reconfirming a budget forecast, or something as simple as picking up the phone and calling the client with an impromptu status report.
One last piece of advice: Take a look at lessons learned. It's very likely a previous project manager may have outlined specific pain points on similar problem projects. These will provide valuable insights that even the most technically experienced project manager can lean on. They're good for figuring out what to do in grey-area situations: when it was difficult to get management signoff on a needed budget increase; how a concern was handled when a client change request was denied; or how to garner support when team conflicts arose.
After you recognize there's trouble ahead, how else do you assess the size of the problem?
- Secure executive support for major issues. Initial project documentation, such as a project charter and communications plan, will classify your project sponsors and champions, their roles and responsibilities, and escalation procedures. Rely on that, but also position yourself for frequent project status meetings with executives.
- Keep communications with sponsors and key stakeholders at a level that allows you to reach out to them when you may need them.
- Be aware of your project environment at all times. Regularly review project plans against where you are and what's planned to come. It will help minimize the risk of an issue arising when you least expect it — a resource pushed to the point of no return, for example.
- Look for lessons learned. Review the project history for potential concerns you may want to monitor and document in your risk log. Meet with other project managers in and outside of your organization to learn about pitfalls they may have encountered and how they handled them.
- Assign ownership and follow up. Coming out of the lessons learned, you have created an actionable plan. Make sure that you also assign a clear expectation for closing the accountability loop. Lessons learned often come at the end of a project, when project meetings are no longer routine, so it's extra important to set up a way to ensure this "crowning" moment of your project doesn't fall flat.
- Look for trends. The Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is about continuous improvement. Use your lessons learned findings to look for patterns and trends. You may find trends in traditional project processes, technical specifics or cultural aspects. Set up lessons learned standards so you can see if you are making positive strides over time.
- Revisit lessons learned with each new planning phase. At the start of each new project, build in a step where you look back at trends from past projects. Use this step as you build your new project plan with your team, so you can learn from experience.
- Set a goal. Make it clear to your project team that you are committed to their development and growth. Part of helping your team develop is to set a goal for everyone to reach for. Look to the lessons learned from your last projects and set goals around continuous improvement.
- Did you regularly communicate with the team? Were there provisions for local team members vs. members located abroad?
- Did you establish a systematic process, such as a daily phone call or e-mail?
- Did you make face-to-face rounds from time to time to show your interest and have diligent participation with your team?
- Did you express the positive and negative project information?
- What communications methods and tactics did you use?
Consider each knowledge area of the PMBOK® Guide as you review your project. In the planning stage, for example, let's say you used brainstorming to develop your charter. Was the brainstorming effective? If so, what made it effective and if not, why wasn't it? Address these things in your lessons learned session.
Or, think about the risk management tools you used in your project. The PMBOK® Guide highlights such tools as 'The Probability and Impact Matrix' or the 'Data Quality Assessment.' If either was used during your project, in the lessons learned session you could analyze the ratio shown on certain risks or the integrity of the data.
Here are three other ways you could apply the PMBOK® Guide principles to your meetings:
- Check the knowledge areas as you plan your projects. After a project is completed, things will come to mind that you should have done differently. For example, let's say you accidentally omitted quality management from your planning. As you complete your lessons learned and check against the PMBOK® Guide knowledge areas, you might realize this omission. In your lessons learned, you can share that you should have selected the Pareto diagram, a histogram or high-low defect charts to identify problem areas in your project.
- Refer to the PMBOK® Guide as a source of structure for your projects. Every project manager knows that projects can become chaotic. But if you relied on the PMBOK® Guide to control your project, then make that known in your lessons learned session. With the more positive outcomes from the project, you have a strong foundation and reasoning for structuring projects around the processes in the PMBOK® Guide. With the negative outcomes, you can know which areas to pay closer attention to next time.
- Create lessons learned from using the PMBOK® Guide. When you're preparing lessons learned sessions, use the PMBOK® Guide to help create topics of discussion. Was there a tool or technique used in your project that could have been emphasized more as you managed a particular knowledge area?
Have you used the PMBOK® Guide for lessons learned? How?
Should the project manager of the lead organization invite the outside project team to the closing project's lessons learned session?
Here are three tips project managers can use to incorporate external project teams into their lessons learned:
1. Be discreet about company information, but target improvement. Before working on the project, there was likely some type of agreement with regard to proprietary information. This agreement should still be in effect for the lessons learned session. Before you host the lessons learned meeting, talk openly about the processes with the external team to help ensure your discussions are protected.
2. Stay focused on the project. Even during lessons learned sessions for internal project teams, attendees can veer off topic. Try not to argue about which organization was responsible for the mishaps or which company fell short on delivery. Focus on the issues: How can you better prepare project plans with outside parties? How can you review risk and issue lists together? What different criteria should be included in the scorecard that will bring value to monitoring the project and measuring the vendor relationship?
3. Build camaraderie. The two organizations may want to collaborate on a future project or enhancements to this closing project. Prepare questions that will allow the groups to work as one in the future. For example, how did the quality standards benefit evaluating the finished product? If the project relied heavily on documentation, is there any additional information that could be helpful? What communication methods may need to be revisited for the two companies to reach a decision in a timelier manner?
If the third-party is holding separate post reviews on the same project, chances are valuable lessons from one group or the other are being missed. It is not uncommon for the lead organization to have an exclusive session in addition to a combined session. Having both groups present can be a favorable collaborative effort toward building vendor management best practices or improving the next project, the future vendor relationship or just a similar project situation.
Does your organization include the external team in its lessons learned sessions?
But what about when your sponsor or upper management is present? What are their roles?
Rather than shelter upper management from lessons learned, consider their value in these sessions. Don't have upper management viewed as attendees who just want to hear the rehash of problems that the team doesn't want to relive anyway. Nor should you have upper management included to be a part of the blame game.
Ask your sponsor and upper management to be open minded and supportive advocates in receiving feedback toward improvement.
Here are three ways to get upper management to engage:
Talk: You, the project manager, must engage upper management in the discussion. Review the timeline and other milestones that took place on the project. Upper management could talk about how the goals of the project and the team's successes intertwined with the strategic goals of the company. The team would appreciate this perspective on the significance of their activities.
Listen: While some discussion points may not be pleasant for upper management to hear, their presence assures a level of impartiality to the team. Knowing someone from "up top" is listening reinforces the team's drive to be a part of a high-performing group. Getting to more favorable end results in future projects would become even more desirable for the team.
Share: Have your sponsor share comments about the purpose of the project and its greater use to the organization, the end users and the community. Have them elaborate on processes. Ensure early on that they recognize processes mentioned in the discussion that could be rewritten or are no longer necessary. This sharing will foster bonding with the team.
How do you involve your sponsors and upper management in lessons learned sessions?
But technology today affords us the luxury of being able to do many things online -- such as holding a lessons learned session. We can engage with people across the country or someone who may be sitting right next door. Regardless of where someone is located, we must maintain a cordial and professional manner when we interact online.
When you have dispersed project teams -- and even sometimes otherwise -- getting people to stay focused and not be disrespectful to others in a lessons learned session is a challenge.
To overcome this, set the rules for participating in the session. Make sure participants understand them and agree to them. These rules should include:
- Respect. Allow someone to make his post without experiencing sarcasm, blame or degradation. Emphasize open, honest and polite communications. Project team members will develop an appreciation for each other, the project manager and their organization.
- Treat people as if they are right next to you. Use a tone of courtesy that can be recognized in any language. Respect the person's time and keep posts brief. Do not veer off on other conversations -- stick to the discussion.
- Put a face to a name. Many applications allow photo uploads. When someone responds, everyone can see who is participating in the discussion.
When you maintain control of the meeting and employ general courtesy, it keeps the discussion flowing and ensures everyone gets the information needed about lessons to be learned.
How do you maintain control in lessons learned sessions?
Consider that you may want to receive feedback from the quality assurance manager who's always on the run. Talking on a mobile phone while he or she is driving from site to site may be illegal, though.
Or consider the database administrator who transitioned off your project in phase one, who no longer has security access to the project, and is now busy on her next project.
So how do you get their feedback?
It isn't easy to reach out and receive the lessons your stakeholders may want or need to share toward improving the next project.
These two unconventional communication methods can be used to help in lessons learned:
- Try a text or Twitter message. Texts and social media aren't only for the younger generation. But to use them, you must to be concise. You may ask your stakeholders to drop a quick message and provide more detail later when they may have more time.
- Host a blog site. Start by setting up categories to receive feedback on particular areas of the project, for instance. Using the categories will allow a better way to coordinate the comments, and give the stakeholders a fast way to respond.
How do you identify stakeholders on your projects and get feedback for lessons learned?
You know better, but how do you make a convincing argument to have project reviews?
You must take the discussion with your project sponsor to a different level. It's not "we just need to know what happened." It's "we want to take action and get better results the next time around."
The lessons learned meeting could make you aware of changes that may be needed to turn business from being bleak to being more successful. Give your sponsors succinct reasons to pursue assessing projects to make improvements.
Consider these tips to influence your supporters:
Gather statistics and determine what you need to measure.
If your company is concerned about quality, chart examples of projects where quality was lacking. If ROI for projects has not been good, share those examples.
Share success stories.
Bring up achievements that occurred because of the attention on improvement. Discuss the situations that will make a difference to the bottom line.
Make a plan.
As a project manager, you already know that planning is important. Prepare a well thought-out plan for gathering and presenting the lessons learned. Then use the newly acquired knowledge.
How have you built a business case for lessons learned and project reviews?
It's a continuous cycle of retrieving and assessing your project information.
As the project manager, you should call a meeting and discuss any issues or tasks that went wrong and what could have been done to improve the project. The improvements should be incorporated into the processes of the next project, which typically have a better outcome. Then that project will have its own challenges that will also need to be addressed. And so it goes.
If you aren't doing some type of project review or lessons learned, you will most likely repeat actions that have caused the project failures, budget overruns, scope creep, inadequate stakeholder involvement, technology mishaps and other problems that plague your projects.
Yet some project managers find excuses not to host these valuable meetings. One such excuse is a geographically dispersed team. There's no need for a dinosaur mentality to achieve a project review. Use today's advanced technology to your advantage when conducting a lessons learned meeting:
- Conduct a lessons learned session in the same way as you would hold a virtual team meeting. Emphasize the goal of targeting improvements. Use a virtual whiteboard to list pre-determined questions or to show a timeline of how the project progressed. Allow the team members to post their version of the events that could be improved upon in the next project.
- Consider posting a social media page to capture comments. This venue would allow you to reach stakeholders in their habitat, possibly presenting more candid comments.
- Send out a survey. Then collect and analyze the results. Gathering the data this way could lead to more impartial responses and a scientific alignment of the priorities that should be addressed.
Do you use technology or traditional methods in your lessons learned?