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Straight Talk on Project Management

3 tips to get everyone aligned

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On the same page: 3 tips to get everyone on your IT projects aligned

An astronomer, a meteorologist and a teacher agree to meet for a drink on the first day of summer at midday. Who turns up first?

I love this pub quiz question!

I’m writing this in May 2023, Meteorological Summer starts on the 1st of June, Astronomical Summer on the 21st of June, whereas the school summer term started at the end of the Easter holidays. So … the answer to the quiz question is the teacher – their “summer” starts ahead of the others!

Three educated and smart people all with a different interpretation of when it’s summer!!!

You and I have probably been in conversations about IT Project Management like this, everyone coming away in agreement – but not necessarily the same agreement, instead their own solid understanding of the agreement! At Stoneseed, as a provider of project management resources ‘as a service’, we’ve parachuted into projects to find teams working “together”, incongruently, on totally different pages!

Have you ever worked on an IT Project where there’s been disparity between project teams and the c-suite? Or a project where project outputs and business outcomes don’t align or deviate along the way? Or where colleagues don’t share the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth about the project’s progress? It’s amazing how quickly we can get on different pages!!

The gap between strategy and execution can sometimes be as subtle and unnoticeable as the change of those seasons, but when it manifests as a gap between project success and business success, that’s when you have a problem that everyone will notice!

As a project leader, you usually invest a lot of time at the start of a project ensuring that everyone is on the same page. The mistake that many make is assuming that this will be baked in forever, and as Smith School of Business researchers, Tracy Jenkin and Yolande Chan, and University of Arkansas’ Rajiv Sabherwal discovered, this can be a costly misstep.

Jenkin, Chan and Sabherwal studied how mutual understanding is formed, how it changes over the life of a project, and how it can affect project success. They also considered how planning processes and controls affect the way stakeholders “make sense of a project”.

Despite mature project management disciplines and well-developed certification processes, IT projects still have a high failure rate – and it can often just come down to team members being on different wavelengths.

As E. Marie Shantz Professor of IT Management, Yolande Chan says, “You can put these project management tools in place, but the experience of being in sync is totally fluid. This dynamic experience is underplayed since we’re more focused on the toolsets and mileposts. The qualitative nature of what it takes to be on the same page and succeed is not where we’re focused on as much as we should be.”

Over a decade, the researchers followed 13 projects (including a reboot of a flagship product, implementation of an order management system, and the migration of ‘desktop functionality of a legacy product to the web’) at a global software development firm and a high-tech product manufacturer and vendor. The most successful projects, they discovered, had a high level of alignment and mutual understanding throughout, from start to finish. Interestingly, these projects benefitted from being based on existing products, so the learning and the knowledge had been done, if you like, reducing the need for much extra engagement and mitigating confusion.

“Significantly, the most successful projects all made liberal use of user experience and design documents and prototypes early in the process, and demonstrations later, to help everyone get on — and stay on — the same page.” 

Meanwhile, the least successful projects had negligible mutual stakeholder understanding. They “followed the rules of project management,” according to the researchers, but the rules didn’t help project team members stay aligned with the project goals and develop a lasting mutual understanding. Commonly, plans lacked detail (limiting the value of shared information) and often team members would fail to highlight technical issues during gate reviews. We see this often when a project is floundering, team members into self-protection or “buy a little extra time” mode. This means that colleagues are without full information or missing data – unsurprisingly, the projects fail. Half-baked projects lead to half-baked outcomes.

So how do you close the understanding gap?

3 Tips to Get Everyone Working Across Your IT Projects On The Same Page

1 – Effective PMO

Show me a successful project team, aligned and on the same page, and I’ll show you a project team with an effective Project Management Office (PMO) at its heart. Effective PMO ensures well defined processes and governance, planning, forecasting, project resourcing – the very foundations for success.

A good PMO provides that invaluable link between your business strategy and project delivery – that “on the same page” and alignment we’ve been talking about.

PMOs come in many shapes and sizes, from smaller Project Support Offices to full enterprise PMOs, it’s never a one size fits all, but whether it’s a small team, an office or virtual PMO, the PMO sets and maintains standards for project management throughout an organisation and oversees creating and embedding procedures and best practices.

Don’t have an effective PMO?

At Stoneseed our Portfolio, Programme and Project Management Office, with P3O qualified staff, is the backbone of every service we deliver via our Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) model. From onboarding clients to resourcing projects, through consultancy, service provision and transition, it is integral to the success of all our services.

Stoneseed offer a complete Project Management Office (PMO) range of services from provision of single resources to a team of PMO experts; or a full PMO service package via a Managed Service.

If you have a PMO you would like to refine and improve, Stoneseed also offer PMO Consultancy – a fresh pair of experienced eyes can be game-changing.

2 – Practice ‘One-Page-Project’

My PM friend Sandra swears by this. “If you can’t sum up your project’s business objectives on a single sheet of A4, in a language every stakeholder will get – you shouldn’t be starting your project,” she told me.

The one-page-project approach is the catalyst for a strategic understanding and clarifies business needs that will be met by the project, its wider business impact and everything that will keep your people aligned and focused. Crucially it should be written in the language of the reader – if aimed at your C-suite executives, put it in their language and focus on what matters most to them. It will stimulate project teams to think like the senior executives (sharing a mindset with those who set the budgets is never a bad thing!! Sandra also has a one-page-project document for end users, similarly couched language that will engage them. “Basically,” she says, “every project has a one-page summary, for every stakeholder, written in terms that they will get at a glance.”

Your one-page-project should lead from a business perspective, focussing on the specific needs of the business and what the project will achieve to meet them. Increasingly, losing sight of business needs, is cited as a major cause of project failure.

According to Growth Pit Stop, there are 9 pieces of information that a one-page-project should include: Business need; Market reality; Strategic Ambition; Project Confidence; Stakeholder Needs & Expectations; Business impact, Business Urgency; Investment Budget; Business Unusual (complexities, disruption, inherent unpredictability, etc)

3 – Focus on Three Dimensions Of Stakeholder Engagement

Returning to Jenkin, Chan and Sabherwal’s decade long study, the researchers recommend a focus on three key elements of engagement – depth of information shared; scope; and timing.   

Regarding “depth of engagement”, the researchers advise to be on the lookout for the ways in which IT project team members limit the information they share. As established, they may be trying to buy time to fix problems, or manage how project development is interpreted, or avoid blame as a project flounders. Other project team members cannot hope to stay aligned without accurate information. Let’s face it, mutual understanding, based on the wrong data, isn’t understanding at all.

Scope of engagement relates to the number of engaged groups and the direction of information flow. “Both matter,” the report states, “if opportunities to build mutual understanding only happen within like-minded groups of project members or don’t involve two-way dialogue, important perspectives could be ignored.” The researchers suggest cross-functional meetings and working groups to ensure such engagement opportunities actually happen, and the use of surveys of project team members to diagnose potential issues.

As for the timing of stakeholder engagement, Jenkin and Chan say, “the sooner, the better.” Amen!!!

CONCLUSION

You assume that everyone knows what you mean when you say spring, summer, autumn, or winter.

Except, as we’ve established 1st of June marks the start of Meteorological Summer, but British Summer Time started back in March, a week after the start of astronomical spring. Meanwhile, your kids’ school spring term started in the depths of meteorological winter in January and their summer term starts straight after Easter, which is in Spring, right? The school summer holiday ends in September, at the start of meteorological Autumn, the middle of which is at the back end of October, you know, when the clocks go back to mark the end of British Summer Time.

Is your head swimming? Mine is – and I bloomin’ wrote it!!

So, the secret of IT Project Management mutual understanding and ongoing alignment, being on the same page, might be as simple as knowing what summer means to the person you’re talking about summer to!

Be mindful to use business-speak with the C-suite, end-user-parlance with end-users and erudite, sophisticated, intellectual language when talking with each other (right fellow project pros?) – but most of all share information that is accurate and relevant at all times.

  

Sources
https://smith.queensu.ca/insight/content/is-your-project-team-on-the-same-page.php

https://growthpitstop.com/2021/05/24/one-page-project-profile/

https://growthpitstop.com/2021/06/13/how-to-connect-your-project-initiative-to-strategy/