Project Management

When & How To Document Brief Conversations

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Documenting brief conversations may seem like unnecessary administrivia, but ask yourself this question; how is a brief conversation – especially one that results in an agreed-upon decision – any different than a meeting?  The number of versions about what was decided at a meeting can be calculated by adding the number of attendees + 1.  This is why meetings are documented with minutes that include decisions reached and action items assigned.  Brief conversations that result in a decision are no different.  Document such conversations by writing to the key stakeholder with other stakeholders cc’d.  Keep it simple and to the point, as in the example below:

Example: As we discussed, the end date for the current project will be moved from Friday, September 6th to Friday, September 27th to accommodate the additional three weeks required to address agreed-upon changes in scope.  Please note that this date change will also impact project Y, which depends on deliverables from our efforts.  I have cc’d John on this email to ensure he and his team are informed. 

This date change will be reflected in the next project status report, to be delivered this Friday.  Please let me know if there are any questions, corrections and additions.

The key components here are:

  • Clearly communicating the decision(s) made
  • Providing brief details as to why the decision was made
  • Including any pertinent details regarding how the decision will be communicated to others, carried out, etc.
  • Communicating any impacts to other projects, stakeholders, work, etc., as a result of the decision

Make sure to also set (or re-set) expectations with all stakeholders such that you avoid any unpleasant surprises.  Documenting one-off conversations is a simple way to ensure that all stakeholders are provided the information they need in order to do their jobs and to make their teams and the firm successful.

© 2013, Mark E. Calabrese


Project Management in an Agency Model: Acting as a Steward (Part 5)

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Another thing worth mentioning about project management in an agency model; things tend to get busy during Q1!  After quite a few weeks of business-imposed hiatus, I’m back to finishing up this post.

To get us caught up, in reviewing Project Management in an Agency Model we’ve covered the opportunity available to project managers, what it means to manage the project experience and how knowing the business impacts your ability to add value to your client, your firm and your own brand/career.  In this installment, we’ll talk about what it means to act as a steward to your client and your firm.

A quick check of defines ‘steward’ as “a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs.”  This is your role as the project manager.  You are responsible for advising your client on how to best manage their project investment to successfully solve their business problems.  By so doing, you are also helping manage your client’s reputation within their firm and, depending on the scope of the project, within their industry.

As trusted advisor and steward to your client, the best approach is to treat their problems, their investment and their reputation as if they were yours.  Your knowledge of the product or service you are implementing, as well as your understanding of their business and industry puts you in a unique position to help your clients achieve success.  Partner with them, taking the attitude that this is also your project and while you are aligned with your client, their interests and yours are one in the same.

Likewise, you are a steward and advisor to your own firm.  As noted previously, every word you speak or write, every conversation, every meeting, even how you hang up the phone at the end of a conference call builds on your firm’s brand and reputation.  As with your client, treat your firm’s brand and reputation as your own.

The same is true with your firm’s money.  As the project manager, you have an opportunity to drive profitability (especially in a fixed fee model) by managing your project in such a way as to make the best use out of every hour spent.  By managing your project efficiently, you not only maximize the output from the team but you can also free up enough time to allow team resources to focus on other billable work.

You also are in a good position to leverage the firm’s primary investment – talent.  How you manage your project team, how you deal with conflicts and issues internally, all help brand you, your PMO team and your delivery organization within the firm.  By focusing on making not only your project, but everyone associated with the project successful, you contribute to making your firm a great place to work.  This is how you can help keep your firm’s top talent WITH YOUR FIRM.

Ultimately, the best thing you can bring to your clients and your firm is your solid commitment to uphold and live out your values as a project management professional.  Acting as a steward and trusted advisor makes you effective at delivering on your specific tactical objectives, but also makes you a major strategic asset to your firm in retaining both clients and talent.  Act as a steward, focusing on making your peers and clients successful.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Knowing The Business (Part 4)

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As we continue to explore Project Management in an Agency Model, we’ve reviewed the various opportunities for project managers in this model and we’ve also talked about what it means to “manage the experience”.  In this installment, we’ll discuss the importance of Knowing the Business as a way to further leverage the agency model to further the interests of your clients, your firm and your own career.

If your firm focuses on a specific vertical, you have an advantage in that you’ll be able to gain industry knowledge, valuable to your client, as your career progresses.  Apart from what you’ll learn on your projects and by talking to your clients, there are some other things you can do to learn your client’s business:

  • Talk to your Sales and/or Account Management teams on a regular basis.  Ask lots of questions and learn as much as you can, not only about the current business climate in your clients’ vertical, but any anticipated changes, trends or …
  • Get the names of any good industry blogs read by your clients or by your Sales and/or Account Management teams.  Also, find out if there are any trade publications, particularly that focus on the application of current and new technologies to your client’s existing business.
  • Find any books or primers that discuss your clients’ business – again, where possible, focusing on the application of current technologies to overcome existing or potential barriers to your clients’ continued success.
  • Get active in the community.  Are there any SIGs (special interest groups) in your city that focus on your clients’ vertical?  These are not only good ways to expand your knowledge, but also to network and get to know others in your PM community
  • Talk to your colleagues.  You can benefit from the experiences of those who’ve been with your firm longer than you.  You can also benefit from getting fresh perspectives from new hires.  Finally, you can exchange thoughts and ideas with your colleagues on a regular basis, whether formally or informally.

For those of us whose firms perform work across multiple verticals, knowing the business is more of a challenge.  The best thing you can do for yourself in this model is to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  By this, I mean developing a way to come into a new industry and figure out what’s what.  This is fairly typical in project management anyway, as we oftentimes find ourselves having to quickly become “experts” in aspects of our clients’ business that are new to us.

  • Seek to understand and ask relevant questions.  Your focus should be to understand the business context and business impact of all aspects of the project.  You’re there to partner with your client to ensure they solve their problem(s) as efficiently and pragmatically as possible, within the guidelines of the project statement of work.  Make it a point of pride to admit that you don’t know, then find out.
  • If you find that asking certain general questions net positive results, write the questions down and develop a repeatable framework.
  • Leverage your general experiences.  The one thing that every engagement has in common is people, and people tend to generally behave the same in most circumstances.  Understanding your client’s motivation (both stated and unstated) is also key and can be gleaned from what you observe, based on what you’ve experienced in the past.
  • Listen to what your peers, colleagues and customers have to say.

While you can’t know everything about every business, you can learn how to learn.  That’s the essence of consulting and is very often the case with project management.  The best way that you can earn the role of ‘trusted advisors’ to your clients is by understanding the unique nature of their business and the challenges that they face, organizationally, operationally and technologically.  Your ability to leverage your firms capabilities to address your client’s business problems, delivered with your own ability to think creatively, collaborate and to advise your clients on how they can partner with your firm to give them a competitive advantage is the greatest contribution you can make to your clients, your firm and to your own career.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Managing the Experience (Part 3)

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In my first post, we discussed the agency model paradigm and how it differs from the internal PMO model.  We also talked about understanding of the opportunity, itself.  In Part 3, we look at how you manage the client experience from end to end, both externally from the client’s perspective and internally within your firm. 

As a project manager in an agency model, your strategic goal is simple; when your client hangs up the phone after talking to you, they should think “If only ALL my vendors were like THIS vendor, then I’d be set!  My project manager and the project team have my back.  They ‘get it’!”  How can you achieve this goal?  Let’s start with the external side; what your client can see:

  • Execute and Deliver:  Your tactical goal is to manage the solution of a problem which means first and foremost, you and your team must execute and deliver.  Solve the problem in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost to the client.
  • Make It Safe To Walk Down The Hall: Understand what your client needs to know so that they can safely walk out of their office, knowing that if anyone asks about their project, you’ve updated and prepared your client in their language to speak knowledgeably about the project – particularly with regard to project risks or issues.
  • Details, Details: Remember the little things, such as spell checking all your documents and emails, ensuring any re-used artifacts have the former client’s name removed and the new client’s name included, getting people’s names right, etc.  This also includes preparing your project team for on-site client meetings, making sure the team is appropriately dressed and sufficiently updated on the nature of the client and the desired outcome of the meeting.  I won’t go into every detail here, but understand that the little details can have a strong impact on you and your firm’s brand with the client.
  • Under Promise / Over Deliver: Make sure you build in any cushion when making commitments.  Your goal is to “under promise/over deliver,” so it’s important to make sure you understand the other commitments made by people on your project team who are also assigned to other projects.  Ultimately, your client needs to feel as though their project is the ONLY project, so your ability to understand, negotiate and ensure proper resourcing within your firm will have a strong impact on your ability to deliver.
  • Proactive Communications: Your client should never need to call you for an update – you should be calling them.  Be proactive and anticipate your client’s needs, then meet them.
  • Keep It Business-Focused: Your communications with your clients – even when technical in nature – should be such that they can be understood in terms of your client’s business operations.  This not only shows respect for your client, but it also ensures that you give them information in language that they can easily understand and share with other people at their firm, thus helping your client look great.

Managing the experience also has an internal component.  Most agencies share services such as creative and production design, development, QA, business analysis/strategy, etc.  Therefore, you’ll have to manage the experience from a perspective that won’t be immediately visible to your client:

  • Relationships:  Your ability to build, maintain and leverage relationships with all the functional groups within your firm is key to your ability to delivery a strong, consistent and positive client experience.  Make sure you know key people in all groups, particularly the people you’ll need when escalating an issue.  Know who the strong players are, as well as the weaker links.  Learn how to work with and, if necessary, work around the weaker players on the various teams.  Until weaker players leave or are “enabled to leave,” they work at your firm and they’re who you have – it’s on YOU to learn how to get them to deliver.
  • Accountability: Learn to respectfully but consistently hold people accountable for delivering.  This means being very clear on what you need, when you need it and what will happen if you don’t get it.  If you are waiting on a deliverable from an unreliable resource, it’s on YOU to check in a little more frequently that you “should have to”.
  • Respect: Be respectful of the other members of your project team, as they most likely have other commitments to other project managers on other projects.  Most agencies leverage shared service models, so while your customer needs to feel as though their project is the only project, you have to be smart enough to understand that within your firm, this is not  the case.  Respect and understand this fact, then collaborate/negotiate accordingly.
  • Risk Planning: Make sure you communicate any tight deadlines, making your needs and expectations clear, potential impacts understood and then hold the team accountable.  Follow the adage of “inspect what you expect” and don’t leave yourself open to surprises.  If you have resources working through the weekend on a tight deadline, do you have everyone’s cell numbers?  Do these resources know you need them to work through the weekend?  Do their managers know, as well?  Take some time to think about what COULD happen (as opposed to what SHOULD happen) and plan accordingly.
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate: As the project manager, it is your responsiblity to make sure everyone has the information required to do their jobs and to deliver for your client.  Make sure you’ve share the right information with the right resources and over-communicate when necessary.  Make sure you tell team members what you need, when you need it and clearly explain the business impact if you don’t get it.

Ultimately, Managing the Experience is about two things; relationships and delivering.  You leverage internal relationships to ensure your shared project resources within your firm meet their commitments to you and your client.  You likewise leverage relationships with your client to collaborate as one team to solve the business problems at hand.   

Delivering a powerful and positive experience helps ensure that the next time your client has a problem, their first instinct is to call your firm first.  By doing so, you not only achieve your tactical goal of solving the client’s business problem, but you also achieve a valuable and lasting strategic goal; building a lasting and mutually beneficial partnership to help your client achieve and maintain a competitive advantage over their competitors and to help your firm grow revenues organically.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Understanding The Opportunity (Part 2)

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In my first post on this topic, I talked about how project management in an agency model differs from project management in an internal PMO model, primarily that in the agency model, the client chooses the firm from among other firms.  This presents a unique opportunity for the project manager and this post discusses that opportunity.

Throughout the sales process, clients meet and interact with account managers, account executives, sales personnel and even with the firm’s senior management.  Yet the client’s lasting perception of the firm rarely comes from these interactions.  Firm branding is a result of your client’s direct experience with your firm, which is almost always through the project manager.  Given this reality, the project manager has an opportunity to brand the firm, develop a strong partnership and act as business development resource.

Every email you send, everything you say or do, every issue you resolve, even how you prep your project team for interaction with the client; EVERYTHING you do and manage on the project brands your firm.  Therefore, be mindful of how you use this opportunity to not only add value for your client, but to present your firm as a trusted advisor (as opposed to an order-taker) to your client.

Even though everyone on the project team – development, creative, testing and business analysis resources – doesn’t necessarily report to you, you still are accountable for delivering an outstanding client experience as you work to solve the business problem(s) outlined in the client’s statement of work.  Therefore, build solid relationships within your firm so you can make the most of this opportunity as you work with other functional teams in the SDLC.

Earning the role of a trusted advisor helps lay the foundations for a strong and mutually beneficial business partnership between the firm and the client. Project managers should therefore be mindful of the experience they manage, end to end. Work to add value for your clients but also strive to ensure the next time your client has a problem, their first instinct is to call YOUR firm first. This is the opportunity before you as a project manager.

Project managers also have the opportunity to gather business intelligence on the client’s other needs and how the firm can assist.  I’ll discuss this more in a future post.

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese

Project Management in an Agency Model: Understanding and Leveraging the Strategic Opportunities (Part 1)

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Simply stated, a project solves a business problem at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable amount of time.  In an internal PMO model, the work is performed as part of an inter-company allocation with the “client” usually having no choice as to who will perform the work.  In an agency PMO model, the client chooses the firm from among other service providers with the business problem being solved in exchange for client payment.  In the internal model, the business relationship is by necessity; in the agency model, by choice.  The strategic opportunity for a project manager in an agency model, therefore, is to influence this choice to the mutual advantage of the client and the firm.

Project managers in both models are responsible for managing project outcomes and for providing strong communication, planning, project control (especially scope and risk management) and regularly managing expectations.  In both models, the tactical duties are the same – ensuring that the project solves the business problem in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost.  To that point, clients are more likely to be accepting of a project that runs over budget and behind schedule, provided that it solves the business problem.

Understanding the nature and context of the business problem to be solved is a step toward understanding and leveraging the strategic opportunities available to project managers.  Doing so will help you understand your client’s business and inherent challenges but most importantly it is a key element in earning the role of a trusted advisor to the client.  Trusted advisors have an advantage over service providers, as the trusted advisor is more than just an extra pair of hands; it’s an extra pair of hands with a brain that “gets it” from the client’s perspective.

Trusted advisors and the firms for which they work get asked back, specifically because their words and actions differentiate the firm from other service providers.  They do more than take orders; they add value by leveraging understanding, applying their own knowledge and making their client’s success their mission.  Project managers in an agency model should leverage the opportunities below to initially and continually earn the role of ‘trusted advisor’ role the course of managing client projects:

By understanding and leveraging the strategic role of a project manager in an agency model, project managers can add significant value to their firm.  They can use every email, phone call, discussion or action as an opportunity to consistently brand the firm and deliver a strong, positive experience to the client while solving the business problem as scoped in the Statement of Work.

In the next posts, I’ll cover each of the bullet points above in more detail.  The end goal is to help your firm build lasting and mutually beneficial partnerships with clients, which not only helps each party in the business relationship, but helps you grow as a professional both in skill and in personal brand.

Two Simple Questions To Avoid Value-Free Change

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Often times we’re tempted to add new processes, new templates or tools, modify existing procedures, re-organize – you name it.  Sometimes such changes are called for, but other times they’re performed for the sake of performing them.  Change for its own sake is never good.  It can be a drain on time, resources and on morale.

When confronted with such ideas – whether your own or from others – try asking these two simple questions:

  1. What Business Problem Will This Solve?: Is the proposed change in response to something that is having an identifiable impact on business operations?  If so, how will this change help?
  2. What Will This Change Allow Us To Do Tomorrow That We Cannot Do Today?: Little more than a restatement of the above, this simply asks the question from another angle.  It’s important to understand how things will change as a result of any new processes, tools, etc.  Then….ask yourself, “So what?”

While you can apply these questions to process or organizational changes, you can also use them when determining whether to send an email, schedule a meeting or conference call, etc.  The idea is to simply be mindful of what you are about to do.  Think of it as an internal CBA on the fly or, to borrow a quote from my friend, John Kennedy, “Break it down, think it through, execute!”

© 2011, Mark E. Calabrese