As a project manager, your job is very similar to the team leader from one of your favorite spy caper movies: putting together a team that has all the skills to get the job done. You will need to deal with many issues that rarely come up in a spy movie, however, such as characters who dodge work and complain about the difficulty of the job. This article will help you deal with some of these problems. It is excerpted from the book IT Project Management: On Track from Start to Finish, Second Edition by Joseph Phillips (McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004; ISBN: 0072232021).
Consultants know what they know—and what they do not know can hurt them and your project. In other words, consultants need to learn about your environment, how your standard operating procedures work, who they should talk to, and so on. Consultants need to know how to get things done within your organization. You cannot throw a consultant into your organization and expect him to have the same level of detail, same level of expertise, and same organizational knowledge that you have. It takes some time and some guidance.
For this reason alone you should demand and require that the consultant attend project meetings, be located close to the project team, and take an active role in meeting the project team members and stakeholders. He needs to get involved in order to be successful and productive. Most consultants and experts, if they are worth anything at all, will be eager to follow these rules and requirements. Often it’s the project manager who wants the consultant to feel comfortable and not get into the mix of things so quickly. This limits the consultant’s ability to contribute.
FROM THE FIELD
Interview with Bill Farnsworth
Name: Bill Farnsworth Title: Senior Partner Strategy Consultant Company: Microsoft Corporation Years as an IT project manager: 5
Bill Farnsworth is the Senior Partner Strategy Consultant for Microsoft Consulting Services in Northern California. Bill is a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, a Microsoft Certified Trainer, and a Microsoft Solutions Framework Master Trainer. In addition to his Microsoft certifications and experience, Mr. Farnsworth is also a Certified Novell Engineer, a Certified Novell Instructor, and a Certified Internet Architect.
Q: What is the best thing about IT project management? A: The best thing about IT project management is being able to take a concept to completion. Projects develop for a variety of reasons: to solve a business problem, to address technical issues, to provide proof of concepts, and so on. But all successful IT projects result in a delivered product that, in some way, addresses a need in the company. I like working on the team that delivers that solution.
Q: When you begin to create a team for an IT project, what do you consider first? A: Ideally, I look for the business problem we are solving by forming the team. This is a critical element in determining the composition of the team. While technical expertise is also critical to the success of an IT project, having representatives on the project team who understand the business problem we are trying to solve is the main consideration.
Q: When a project has been initiated, that is, management has approved it but no formal implementation plans have been created, how soon do you begin to organize a team? A: Organizing the team as early as possible is very important. Setting an environment where you can best ensure consistency by having the same team evaluate the business problem, define the scope of the project, propose the solution, and then develop and deploy the solution is the best case. By forming the team after some of these steps are already complete, the team may not support or understand some of the underlying justification or may not agree with the scope of the project from the outset. I feel successful projects depend on forming the project team at the earliest point possible.
Q: How does a project manager recruit and motivate team members to be excited about an IT implementation? A: Project team members like to have a sense of ownership. Owning an identifiable piece of the solution to a problem the company is facing is motivating. Approaching candidates for the team and demonstrating how their contribution will directly affect the team, the project, and the company is an effective way to recruit and motivate team members.
Q: What are characteristics of a successful project manager in regard to creating a project team? A: A successful project manager needs to be able to motivate, coordinate, and facilitate the activity of the team. No project manager can complete all, or even a significant portion, of the work the team needs to accomplish. The project manager should work to ensure that the project team has what it needs to accomplish its goals. A successful project manager will also seek to prevent herself from being a bottleneck for communication and information with the project team, or within the team itself.
Many failed projects result from a project manager who interacts with team members individually, and then represents team members’ needs, concerns, and input to other team members. Similarly, project managers also place themselves between the project team and the project sponsor for the project, reducing the team’s exposure to the business requirements, and the impact their project will have on the business. Being a bottleneck in these ways is one of the easiest methods to ensure partial or complete failure of a project. Removing yourself as a bottleneck, and ensuring communication and information sharing within and between the project team and the business, is one of the key contributors to a successful project.
Q: What are characteristics you look for in IT professionals when you are considering adding them to a project team? A: The IT professionals’ technical knowledge is, of course, very important. However, it is just as important to identify team members who are willing and able to participate on the project team. Having a less experienced, more motivated team member could be better than a more experienced, time-restricted member. Looking at team candidates’ time commitments, technical knowledge, organizational understanding, creativity, and ability to work within a team will give project managers some insight into how effective they can be as team members.
Q: What type of questions do you ask potential team members to determine their involvement on the project team? A: I ask candidates for the project team what their approach to the role will be, what they hope to accomplish, how they deal with ambiguity and conflict, what their contribution to the team would be, and what they see as the perfect team dynamic. These kind of openended questions give me a good insight into how they are going to interact with the other team members and if they see their role as contributing to the solution or more as an obligation of the job. Positive answers to these questions, as opposed to stories about how projects have failed in the past, typically show an optimistic and productive approach to the project.
Q: What can a project manager do when his team does not have the technical expertise to implement the project? A: There are several options for the project manager in this case. Dependent on the timeframe of the project, training the project team to enhance technical expertise is an option. If this is not a viable option, recruiting additional team members from within the organization who do have the required expertise is also an option. If this is not possible, or the organization does not have individuals with that expertise, finding outside resources, such as contractors, or hiring to fill the need are other options. Which of these options is best for any given project depends on the time and money available to the project manager.
Q: When it comes to decision making, what is the best approach: allow the teams to make the decision or should the project manager take charge? A: Project managers who make the effort to solicit feedback, engender discussion, and promote shared decision making typically deal with less resistance from the project team as the project proceeds. If the team makes a decision together, through consensus, votes, or other methods, and the project manager has created a team environment that supports those decisions, the team will develop a culture of bringing up issues or disagreement before a decision is made, allowing for issues to be addressed before moving to the next phase of a project. The team must, however, agree that, after the team makes such a decision, this becomes the team decision and that any individual disagreement must be minimized in light of the team decision. In some cases, the team may not be able to come to or agree upon a decision. In these cases, the project manager may need to make the final decision with the understanding that the initial disagreement will have to be abandoned to ensure the successful progression of the project.
Q: What is the most difficult part of creating an IT project team? A: The most difficult part of creating a project team is identifying the skills, both technical and soft, that will be required in future phases of the project. Without knowing the architecture or other details of the solution, knowing which technical skills might be required or which organizational contacts and relationships could best be leveraged in later phases is difficult. It’s possible to add team members as the project progresses, but having those team members on board as early in the project as possible helps ensure that their skills and contributions can best be utilized.
Q: What methods do you use to deal with conflicts among team members? A: Conflicts about the direction of the project can usually be addressed by consensus, as long as the idea of consensus has been positioned and agreed to by the team at the very start of the project. If the team “signs on” to the idea of team agreement at each milestone, and that the team’s decision is everyone’s decision after that milestone is reached, conflict is easier to address.
While this approach does not, in any way, eliminate disagreement, it does allow the team to make progress as the team members “agree to disagree,” as long as the majority of the team agrees on one course of action.
Q: How do you address team members who are less than thrilled being involved with the IT project you are in charge of? A: In a perfect world, those team members would opt out of the project. In reality, taking the roles of less-than-enthusiastic team members and assigning them to other team members can help persuade difficult team members that they can either change their difficult attitudes, if they want to remain in their roles, or they can easily be replaced if their attitudes become counterproductive to the project. The project manager should make it clear that those who contribute to the project, with a positive attitude, will be encouraged to do so; and that those who insist on maintaining a discouraging mood will have their role, and thus their exposure to the rest of the team, reduced or, if possible, eliminated from the project team.
Q: What has been the most rewarding experience you’ve had in regard to creating a project team? A: The most rewarding experience with regard to forming a project team has been the single project I have run in which the team remained intact for the duration of the project. The initial core team remained on the project from start to finish. The feelings of ownership, accomplishment, and impact were extremely rewarding. In addition, each of the other members became great advocates of the approach we took to the project: a team of peers, decision by consensus, equal valuation of contribution, and so on.
Q: What traps can IT project managers fall into when organizing a project team? A: One of the easiest traps project managers can fall into is selecting team members based on personal relationship or other characteristics that make them more likely to support the decisions of the project manager. There can be a tendency to select team members, for instance, who support the technology to which the company is migrating. However, this usually prevents the selection of team members who know the legacy system very well, and could contribute a great amount of historical, organizational, and operational information to the project team. Similarly, selecting project team members who will support the project manager under any circumstances prevents the team from benefiting from healthy exchanges of disparate viewpoints and approaches.
Q: What advice can you offer for aspiring IT project managers? A: Observe project teams you work on and the dynamic that project managers create and maintain. See what works and what doesn’t and make conscious decisions to use what has worked and avoid what hasn’t. Using historically successful techniques borrowed from successful project managers will often help you succeed in projects you manage in the future. Don’t be afraid to develop creative approaches, but don’t force a creative solution to a problem when you have seen another approach work in the same situation in the past.