Trust, but Verify – Dealing with Vendors and Subcontractors

“Trust, but verify” – a phrase made popular by President Ronald Reagan in describing his strategy for dealing with the Soviet Union during the cold war, should also advise project managers in their relationships with vendors and subcontractors.

As a project manager, you may not have been involved in the decision to use a vendor or subcontractor on your project. The decision to contract may be made for cost, technical, or political reasons – often above your pay grade. I hope that you had input into the requirements and evaluation of contenders and you will certainly be expected to manage them and assure their contribution to the project once it is underway.

How to Evaluate Vendors and Contractors
This is not a one-size fits all list of suggestions — circumstances vary. Best case, you know the contractor already. Alternatively, you have the opportunity to travel to the contractor’s office and talk with the potential contributors personally. Least desirable option from your perspective — you have to work with the organization assigned by senior management.

Assuming a middle of the road situation where you:

  • Help generate the vendor or subcontract requirements and statement of work
  • Evaluate technical portions of proposals from potential vendors
  • Visit and interview the finalists

Here are some suggestions:

  • Talk to potential contributors, not just business development or marketing people
  • Do your homework about the organization through informal channels with peers who may have worked with them
  • Ask questions about the organization’s recruitment and training (because they may need to hire new people for your contract)
  • Ask for and check references – especially if your organization’s client has any history with the vendor
  • Tell them as much as you can about your project objectives, constraints, and expectations of them. Listen to their response and questions and compare them with the attitude, understanding and interest you would like to see.
  • Make your recommendations based on past performance and demonstrated capability.

If you want some suggestions on assessing capabilities – particularly if your organization is e-sourcing –check out the best practices capability suggestions from ITSqc.  (ITSqc, LLC is a spin-off from Carnegie Mellon University that includes a multidisciplinary group of researchers and practitioners. They have developed a service provider’s evaluation process that carries the pedigree of the Carnegie-Mellon software institute.)

How to Manage Vendors and Contractors
For guidance on process, I encourage you to review Chapter 12 of the PMBOK on Project Procurement Management. The PMBOK walks you through several process areas including planning, conducting, administering, and closing out procurements. Detailed discussion on types of contracts, change processes, required documentation, and risk management may not be entertaining reading, but the suggestions are worth noting. 

Less formal than PMBOK, here are additional suggestions on working effectively with vendors and contractors:

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. I talked about this in greater detail Managing a Remote Team
  2. Manage risks, don’t react to problems — Is Project Management a Risky Business?
  3. Read the contract
  4. Be specific and use many examples, especially when talking about concepts of operations and user interface look-and-feel
  5. Spend more time in planning and monitoring than you would for project employees

Please share your experience and advice with fellow project managers – we are all in this together!

Project Management – Sometimes Seeing the Funny Side is Necessary

I talked last week about the risky business of project management. Stress seems to be the mother’s milk of managers. In the middle of dealing with a new set of bugs, overdue outsourced code, or the list of additional requirements recently faxed from marketing, a little bit of humor helps you to cope.

What makes a project management joke funny or a PM proverb amusing is the shared bond of “been there, done that” and survived. Humor helps a project manager diffuse charged situations and shows that he or she “gets it” when asking the team to stretch or commit or work smarter. With this in mind, I spent some productive time surfing the web for good project manager jokes and sayings.  Fortunately, others have plowed this field before me and I borrowed from their collections with credit and appreciation given when possible. Here goes:

"Project management will become a recognized profession when jokes are made about the practitioners." —

Compiled by CRV Consulting:

The project manager walks into his boss’ office and says, "Here is the bottom line budget needed for the success of the project."
The boss says, "What can you do for half the money?"
The project manager says, "Fail."
The boss says, "When can you get started?"
The project manager says, "I think I just did."

A project manager, hardware engineer and software engineer were in a car heading down a hill when the brakes failed. The driver managed to get it stopped by using the gears and a convenient dirt track.
All three jumped out and after peering under the car the hardware engineer said, "I see what the problem is and with this handy roll of duct tape I think I can fix it good enough to get us to the next town". The project manager quickly interrupted, "No, no, no. Before we do anything we need to decide on a vision for our future, figure out a plan and assign individual deliverables". At which point the software engineer said, "You know what, I think we should push the car back up to the top of the hill and see if it happens again".

A project manager was out walking in the countryside one day when a frog called out to him. He bent down, picked up the frog and put it in his pocket. The frog poked its head out of his pocket and said, "Hey, if you kiss me I’ll turn into a beautiful princess, and I’ll stay with you for a week as your mistress."

The project manager took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it, and put it back into his pocket.

The frog called out once more, "If you kiss me and turn me back into a princess, I’ll stay with you for as long as you wish and do absolutely anything that you want." Again, the project manager took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it and put it back.

Finally, the frog demanded, "What’s the matter? You can turn me back into a beautiful princess, and I’ll stay with you forever and do anything you want. Why won’t you kiss me?"

The project manager replied, "Understand, I’m a project manager. I simply don’t have time for a girlfriend. But a talking frog…that’s cool."

Compiled or Written by Mike Harding Roberts:

  • Any project can be estimated accurately (once it’s completed).
  • At the heart of every large project is a small project trying to get out.
  • A user is somebody who tells you what they want the day you give them what they asked for.
  • Right answers to wrong questions are just as wrong as wrong answers to right questions.
  • The person who says it will take the longest and cost the most is the only one with a clue how to do the job.
  • The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of meeting the date is forgotten.
  • A little risk management saves a lot of fan cleaning.
  • The more ridiculous the deadline the more money will be wasted trying to meet it.
  • There is no such thing as scope creep, only scope gallop.
  • A project gets a year late one day at a time.
  • If you don’t know how to do a task, start it, then ten people who know less than you will tell you how to do it.

Zelda Jones, PMP. You may enjoy Zelda’s entire article Finding Humor in Project Management

A tourist walked into a pet shop and looked at the animals on display. While he was there another customer walked in and said to the shopkeeper, "I’ll have a C monkey please“. The shopkeeper nodded, went over to a cage at the side of the shop and took out a monkey. He fitted a collar and leash onto the monkey and handed the animal to the customer saying, "That’ll be $5,000."

The customer paid and walked out with his monkey. Startled, the tourist went over to the shopkeeper and said, "That was a very expensive monkey. Most monkeys are only a few hundred dollars. Why did hat one cost so much“?

The shopkeeper answered, "Ah, that monkey can program in C very fast with no bugs. Well worth the money."

The tourist looked around for a little longer and saw a third monkey in a cage of its own. The price tag around its neck read $50,000. The tourist gasped to the shopkeeper, "That one costs more than all the others put together! What on earth does it do?"

The shopkeeper replied, "Well, I haven’t actually seen it do anything, but it says it’s a project manager".

I hope you experienced at least a small smile as you read these bits of humor. If you have a favorite project manager joke, humorous anecdote, or proverb, please share.

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