We continue our series on rescuing troubled projects by Bob Louton, PMP.
This article discusses the 3rd-most urgent of all process areas, the project plan. After you have addressed the big problems with the plan, you can turn your focus to the next on the list which we’ll discuss in the next post.
Now I can already anticipate how some people will react. We’ve all heard in seminar after seminar, book after book, that the first thing you should do when you join a project is review the project plan before you agree to it. That all sounds like sensible advice except for one small detail. Reviewing the project plan is not the first thing you should do. It’s the third. I’ve explained and justified the first two priorities in earlier articles. Regardless of whether you agree, I’m sharing what has worked for me.
When you come onto an established project, the project plan was already signed off and posted to the team repository. If the team replanned before you arrived, then that should be available too. So they show you the plan and you can stop searching, right? Well no, that’s not right.
In my experience, there is usually more than one plan in a project. There’s the established plan of record of course. This is the one that the sponsor signed off on. But then there are several informal variations of that plan which various elements of project staff are actually following. I’ve never joined a project in trouble that didn’t have this.
First, some project staff create their own replan for self-serving reasons. You need to find who they are because you will eventually have to deal with them. Don’t pull the “I’m in charge” card and foolishly send them fair warning to take their own agendas underground.
Third, some project staff might actually be following an inaccurate, obsolete, or badly understood version of the plan of record. To improve communications, you need to find the soft-spots in how information permeates the team. Communications is another item lower on my priority list, but now is a handy time to gather some input to that.
On one problem project, a subcontractor was under fixed-price contract to produce a system component to a set of requirements. For reasons I never understood, the prime contractor kept changing requirements and the sub kept conceding to demands without requiring contract modifications. When I joined the project, this sub was tragically behind on schedule, cost, and quality. They were struggling under their own management’s pressure to wrap it up and to stop the bleeding. Remember, this contract was fixed price. As a consequence of this pressure, decisions were made daily at the lowest levels to do whatever they could just to get the thing out the door. Not surprisingly, the prime kept rejecting deliverables due to quality problems.
Following my priority list, it didn’t take long to work through my priority list, find the root causes, and devise a plan to remedy. The first root cause I found was that there were two plans. One was the official plan which didn’t resemble anyone’s reality by the time I got there. The other plan was informal, simple, and boiled down to assuming that each shipment to the prime would be the last one.
The starting point was to recognize and acknowledge that both plans were useless. It took 2 months of working with the sub full-time to reach a compelling argument they could sell a project replan internally to their upper management. Their management resisted the budget impact of a replan that allowed their team to address the quality problems. Fortunately, they agreed. During the 3rd month, the team transitioned to the new plan and, actually, a different mindset. By the start of the 4th month, deliveries to the prime were consistently arriving with only minor defects. In the 4thmonth, this sub had stopped being one of the culprits in a barrage of system-integration issues. And they had one plan that would be successful.
Well if you have a mortgage and children and car payments and student-loan and good insurance and on and on, are you going to stand your ground on someone else’s principle and get all picky and demanding with the people who sign your check? Of course, you’re not.. Often, you find that your best available option is to take on an impossible job and clean up someone else’s mess but not on your own terms.
The first is to track fatal flaws in the plan along with other risks. Unfortunately, that’s trickier than it sounds. How you word the risks you present becomes quite political. How do you tell upper management you have no confidence in delivering on the assignment you just accepted? For the most part, ways to do this come with years of experience. I can’t give you a formula for couching status on a hopeless plan. I can do it, but I find it impossible to generalize about it. Perhaps this could be a new blog discussion.
(Stay tuned for part four of this series next week).