“A Fool with a Tool is Still a Fool”

Credit the quote in the title to Grady Booch, developer of the Unified Modeling Language in conjunction with Ivar Jacobson and James Rumbaugh, and Chief Scientist in software engineering at IBM Research. Like all memorable quotes, its value is the pithy, clever way it communicates a basic truth.

Human beings believe in the power of tools to make work easier and solve problems. For centuries, until recent work of biologists and zoologists proved us incorrect, we believed that the use of tools distinguished humankind from lower animals. In previous posts, I have talked about tools I believe are essential to effective project management (Collaboration Tools  and How to create and use predictive project scheduling).

However, there is more to the story. Purchasing a tool for planning a project, tracking performance, or communicating with team members and stakeholders is the beginning not the end of your journey. I know that seems obvious, but you might be surprised how many times I have encountered managers who tell me, “I brought XYZ tool and required everyone to use it, but it did not help.” Only to find out on deeper questioning that they didn’t gather requirements and configure the tool, no one was trained to use the tool, no one was told how to apply the tool to get meaningful results, and no one asked for the output. Duh!

A Case in Point
A tool that we at ProSphere have found to be useful and highly effective in organizations is Microsoft’s SharePoint®. I applaud its flexibility, scalability and its support of collaboration among many teams and projects. However, we have learned when recommending SharePoint to others to remind them that it only works—it is only useful—when configured properly, designed to fit the needs of the users, and tailored to the types of content being stored.  Let me explain what SharePoint is designed to do.

Microsoft SharePoint is a collaboration and content management system offered from Microsoft in either the 2010 server version or a 2013 version. SharePoint supports integrated search in a web-based collaborative environment. SharePoint’s software elements include collaboration functions, process management and document-management. SharePoint can be used to host shared workspaces such as wikis and blogs.

Navigating the SharePoint options can be challenging. Therefore, Microsoft offers a guide to help figure out which SharePoint products and services you need.  The Microsoft SharePoint website provides resource to learn about SharePoint through books, whitepapers, and formal training courses. But how many organizations actually have or hire an expert to figure out how to implement this great tool for their needs?

Because SharePoint can be pricey for small organizations, Verónica Meza T offers a thoughtful comparison in the article, “The two main alternatives to SharePoint: Nuxeo and Alfresco”.   CMS Wire shares comments and insight in using SharePoint in “The Future of SharePoint Project Management”.

What do you need to do?
If you think that SharePoint (or any tool that you are considering) offers your organization a useful mix of tools for project management and collaboration, I recommend you do the following:

  1. Establish an internal expert. Designate someone to learn about SharePoint and/or hire an outside consultant to work with them. Give that person time and resources to attend training, work with the tool, work with the implementation consultant and purchase other educational resources.
  2. Gather requirements.  This doesn’t have to be an extensive project – just make sure you figure out which problem(s) you want to solve and how to solve them best with the tool.
  3. Pick a project or organization and field test SharePoint (or the tool you are implementing). Set up the tool correctly even if that means hiring a consultant to help. Collect data, comments, and observations. Use the data to create a presentation that educates and informs.
  4. Find a champion. To move an organization, you need a champion with influence. Someone whose opinion is respected across the organization especially by those who control the purse strings.  Utilize change management techniques and process to capitalize on your sponsor’s backing.
  5. Once a commitment is made to use SharePoint, prepare teams and project managers thoroughly. Your dollars will be wasted and you will lose “street credibility” if the implementation does not show results. So, hedge your bets by making sure that users know what they need to know to use the tool effectively.
  6. Value SharePoint expertise with both tangible and intangible rewards.

If your organization has worked with SharePoint or other tools that significantly improved productivity, please share your experience.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that all you have to do is buy a tool, install it, and all your problems will be solved!!

Project Management – When the Government is Your Customer

According to USA Spending, our federal government spent $523,849,632,233 on contracts for materials and services in 2009. That tells me there are thousands of project managers out there whose customer is the government. Reflecting on what is unique in managing a contract with a government client, I believe there are some key differences that directly affect the job of the project manager when compared to private sector clients.

First, let me say unequivocally that departments of the Federal government employ some of the hardest working and most competent individuals I have worked with and for. Theirs is not an easy row to hoe, either. All organizations have political intrigue and power battles. However, some debilitating ones can happen within government organizations with contractors caught in the crossfire. 

As a project manager on a government contract, you may have many bosses or at least a large number of stakeholders. One situation that impacts project management best practices with some frequency is when the user and the contracting organization are different. Best case, there is another layer of translation. Worst case, the contracting organization does not understand or even endorse the business-as-usual of the end user.

Another challenge is accommodating rapid changes in project management theology being developed within the private sector. Some government organizations have lead efforts for best practices and agile development. However, others still believe in classical software development methodology with mountains of requirements documents and step-by-step execution. These folks resist efforts to change because they have established monitoring systems based on older methods of software development.

The competitive, elaborate bidding process for government contracts moves so slowly sometimes that technology eclipses plans and derails efforts for successful development of cost-effective solutions.  For example, new and better hardware or software becomes available to meet the goals of the contract. Or, requirements are evolving and additional prototypes should be created and assessed. However, changing the planned execution is difficult because it can mean changing the contract.

A final thought on the challenge of working on government contracts. Many times events outside the project manager’s control or the control of your government counterpart end up sidetracking project execution. Like what? The appropriations bill has not been signed and there is a continuing resolution that does not include new contracts. Or, your government department must sacrifice some projects to free-up funds for a higher priority project. Or, a new administration places appointed persons into influential positions that change the general or specific course of the department.

With so much money involved, what is the right way to accept and even embrace work for the Federal government?

Help from the Professional Community
We have talked about PMBOK (Project Management Book of Knowledge) before in this blog in terms of its role in defining project management best practices. PMI offers and extension to the PMBOK that addresses the “complexities and unique characteristics of government projects make the need for a practice standard specific to the unique characteristics of public sector projects all the more apparent. The Government Extension to the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition, extends the baseline information included in the PMBOK® Guide-Third Edition to provide an overview of the key project governance processes used in most public sectors, define key terms, describe atmospheres where government projects operate and review the management life-cycle of government programs.”

Proposal Writer’s offers a large number of government URLs that provide guidance on doing business with the government. It make take some time to navigate through to information that is directly relevant to your current situation, but worth a look-see.

Help from the Government
NASA offers several well-thought-out publications on their knowledge-sharing site that cover project management publications, lessons-learned, and case studies. 

Earned Value Management is a project management technique used by some government organizations to measure project progress in an objective manner including defining project scope, preventing scope creep, communicating progress to stakeholders, and keeping the project team focused on achieving progress. Here is the Department of Defense explanation of Earned Value Management from 2006.

If you have worked on government contracts, please share your experience and recommendations to help education us all.

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