Is Project Management a Risky Business?

If being a project manager is your career goal, reflect a bit on Tom Cruise’s experiences in the movie “Risky Business”—not the wild and crazy partying—but his failure to think through the consequences of his actions and the problems that caused him. Managing a project can be risky because there are many variables over which you have no control and yet you must successfully deliver product on time and within budget.

The good news is that you can accommodate risks—notice I did not say eliminate–through forethought, early identification, and a good game plan. Back in April 2009, I talked about including risks when creating a project schedule, so now I want to talk about other aspects of risk management beyond scheduling.

The PMBOK views risk management as sufficiently important to receive an entire chapter that covers inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs for identifying, qualitative and quantitative analysis, responses, monitoring and control. You can read their words of wisdom and suggestions in Chapter 11.

What Can Go Wrong?
CIO magazine did an informal survey entitled, “Project Management What Could Go Wrong” in August 2007. Here are some interesting and typical comments from project managers:

  1. Setting the "go live" date before the requirements are understood.
  2. Assuming resources will be available when they are needed.
  3. Assuming you can get more done by putting the same person across multiple projects (somewhat sarcastic, but I have seen this done).
  4. Building what the user asks for rather than finding out and solving the real business problem behind the request.
  5. Creating the overall plan at the beginning of the project…and then assuming that is the plan you will follow.
  6. Assuming adding people will immediately increase the velocity of the team.
  7. I’ve found that the biggest risk is that the project is simply not actively managed day after day.
  8. One of the first lessons I learned is to make sure you aren’t passively letting end users or business requestors solely determine requirements. Make sure you have subject matter experts from affected areas on the team to address potential impacts to other areas.
  9. If there are critical data, resources that must be acquired in the beginning, or at certain phases of the project, make sure you get them. Delays in critical resources delay the whole project.

Managing Risks
The risks identified by these program managers are familiar to anyone who has managed a project. I especially liked comment #7, that not managing the project every single day creates a big risk. One technique I have found that helps me manage details that could risk a project’s success, is what I call “the Thursday night activity”. Before you go home on Thursday, look at the upcoming week’s tasks; make a list of dependent tasks, critical tasks and required/assigned resources.  Also note slipping tasks and slipping resources.  Then, first thing Friday morning check the status of each dependent task and each resource to make sure they are ready and available to meet their obligations. You have all day Friday to get the next week on track.  Of course this assumes you have accurate data on tasks and resources!

Early identification is the next risk management activity I suggest. This requires that for each risk in the risk management plan and each critical project task, you develop a problem indicator. Obvious indicators are cost and schedule variance. However, you need indicators that flag problems before they show up on the monthly reports. Weekly schedules help.

To your already full schedule of tasks, add keeping in touch with clients, customers, users, and other stakeholders at least monthly. This is a quick check on their perception of how things are going not a lengthy report or long phone call.  Make a list of comments that suggest possible future problems and follow up with the team.

Do not discount your gut feel or feelings that something is hinky (Urban Dictionary: Something as yet undefinable is wrong, out of place; not quite right). Those feelings should encourage you to dig a bit deeper and see if action is required. Events that place projects at risk do not always come with a neat bow tied around them saying, “Manage me, I am a risk!”

Remember to include the people side in your risk management. All kinds of human situations—sick family members, divorce, office romances, financial problems—can lead to less productivity or poorer than expected performance. It is not gossiping or interfering when you check up on folks, if you have a caring, non-judgmental, attitude.

One word of caution – risk management comes in different levels of size, shape and detail.  Use good judgment to know how much risk identification and mitigation is enough.  Don’t spend time identifying and planning for every risk on your project – some risks aren’t as important as others.  Just use “enough” risk management as is appropriate for the type and scope of the project you are managing.

Share you risk management experience and strategies—we will all appreciate the chance to learn more.

Advice to Project Managers – When the Client Comes to Visit

An email just hit your inbox – The Grand Pooh-Paw from XYZ Corporation (or Organization) is visiting. Not only must you present your project, you are responsible for his entire day of activities. I hope that you have time to prepare because there are several things you need to know, plan and do to ensure that the visit is successful.

Define Success
Find out from whoever sent the memo, your supervisor, or relevant senior managers what they want to accomplish during the visit. This is more subtle than communicating project status information. They (your management team) may hope to build new business with the client, put to rest concerns, gain information, solidify your organization’s position as a valued vendor or all of the above. The underlying goals shade the tone and content of your presentations and activities.

Do Your Homework
If you have not been with your project since its inception and came on after the start, check historical documents—hopefully available in your organization’s content management system. You need to understand the original goals of the project and changes in requirements and schedules along the way. If you do not know the customer’s organization—beyond your project work—Google them. Find out about their customers, their business and products, their plans, and any news tidbits.

While you are at it, Google the visitor by name. He or she may have a blog that gives you insight into their thinking and experiences. They may have written an article or given a presentation recently that from which you can learn. The more you know, the better you can tailor your presentations to their interests and perspective.  You should know as much about the visitor and his organization as one of his employees!

Preparing Your Project Presentation
Break your project presentation up into logical segments depending on what your team is developing. If the project is large enough, give each segment a part in the briefing that includes accomplishments, status, plans, issues, and possible future activities. Be sure the presentations are given by knowledgeable employees with good presentation skills.

Use an agenda for the day and have handouts, both written and digital, for each presentation. Remember to make the materials as proprietary where appropriate. As the project manager, you need to introduce the agenda topics, the over-all status of the project, and the key team members. If possible, break up talk times with demonstrations and be sure to allow time for questions during each segment.

Back in July, I talked about How to have Effective Conversations with Senior Management. I think the content from that post is applicable for presenting to clients, also. Do not forget to spell check every presentation—twice—and schedule a dry run a couple days before the big event.

Other Activities
It is a nice courtesy to provide coffee, tea, water, and snacks in the morning along with a few minutes of social time before the briefings begin. Invite other organization players to the first 15 to 30 minutes so they can be part of the welcome and can hear the overview of the day’s presentations and events in case they want to attend.

Lunch? Well, that depends. Your organization may already have plans for the lunch hour as that is a convenient time for senior management to entertain and chat with the client. If you are responsible for lunch, decide if you want a field trip to a local restaurant or a catered lunch. If having the lunch at your company, a fix-your-own salad or sandwich provides your guest with the opportunity to select his preferences. Do not forget that government customers need to be able to “pay” for meals, so have a contribution box for them.

Stay-in lunches are a good time to have demonstrations of other projects and products your company is working on. Set the tone as informative, not sales oriented. If lunch is more social than business, use the background knowledge you acquired, to steer the conversation to your corporate objectives and the client’s interests.

At the end of the day, you may be asked or offer to accompany the client to dinner or provide them with information about the restaurants and interesting sites nearby – or  not. Your management should provide guidance on evening activities. If they do not offer information or advice, ask.

Bottom line:  Be a good host.  Make the client feel comfortable and welcome.  Show them you are managing the project well and listen to what the client says.

Let us know your suggestions and experience hosting important clients.

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