Project management is as necessary to a systems project as the auditing function is to a publicly-held business. Projects need a person whose job it is to see the forest for trees: spotting potential wildfires before they start; implementing best project management practices; and ensuring project resources are working together to attain the highest quality results, on time and within budget. Both the Client and any outside consulting resources used to support the project have a reason to ensure the tasks are effectively managed.
Larger consulting firms generally offer the services of a Project Manager to assist with oversight of the project, depending upon the project’s scope, cost, number of resources, and time required to complete. Project management services are offered not because the Client is unable to do it on their own, but because they simply don’t have experience with the specifics of the project to justify the risk of doing it alone. Use of consulting services allows the Client to focus on their business at hand while leveraging the tools, methodologies, and knowledge that the consulting firm brings.
The Role of the Project Manager:
What benefit/role does a Project Manager (PM) bring to the project? Most Clients do not regularly implement systems or other projects in the course of normal day-to-day business. Therefore, they likely do not have trained PM’s on their staff. The ideal PM brings effective project management software tools, methodologies, training, knowledge gained from multiple prior implementations and upgrades, and an ability to manage across functional areas, priorities, and objectives. If a systems project involves multiple modules, business functional areas (e.g. HR, PR, AR, IN,) and/or vendors, the need for a PM that can operate outside of the organization becomes even more beneficial. Much like an auditor, PM’s can bring autonomy, perspective, and objectivity across multiple interests, political environments, and/or priorities.
So what is Project Management? There is much written about the phases and methodologies used in project management. Variations such as “waterfall” versus “agile” methodologies are selected based largely upon the uniqueness and/or clarity of design requirements associated with the end product when initiating a project. An experienced Project Manager will be able to determine which approach, or combination thereof, best suits the project. All projects follow 5 basic phases: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and closing.
The 5 Phases of Project Management – A Client View:
Phase 1. Initiating
A project is initiated by the Client to determine whether and how a stated change may benefit the organization. Systems projects should have a perceived value to the Client of at least three (3) times the cost (i.e. 3:1 value:cost ratio.) Value is derived when the project helps the organization to: a) meet its mission; b) improve its competitive edge; c) address an operational, system, or other weakness; d) increase efficiencies; e) increase demand for its product/service; or f) address business changes. Consulting services may be brought in to help with the identification and/or valuation of business needs and operational or systems improvements. Ideally, a Consultant assisting with project initiation is not limited to specific vendored solutions only but rather can make recommendations for product, process and/or technology based upon broad industry knowledge and best practices.
The output of the Project Initiation phase should include a Project Charter (or a more formal Request for Proposal,) wherein the client defines their business and product or service needs (“What”), known issues (“Why”), known constraints (“Who”, “When”, “Where”) and known assumptions (“How”) of the project.
Phase 2. Planning
Once the Client understands their business need (Project Charter), they move into the Planning phase. During planning they obtain estimates/quotes from vendors and/or Consulting firms. These Quotes are accompanied by an outline of the proposed Scope, including recommended product(s), fixed or variable cost(s), and estimated time to implement.
In order to develop Scope documents, a Consultant/vendor must go through what is called “discovery” in order to learn more about the Client environment, business needs, processes, constraints, risk tolerance, etc. Discovery helps to ensure that the best possible solution is found in order to achieve the highest quality for the Client. A project Scope and high-level Project Plan will be developed, outlining the work to be performed at a given cost and within a stated timeline (e.g. software, hardware, interfaces, reports and other customizations.) The Planning Phase can possibly be longer in duration than the Execution Phase!
Consulting firms take different approaches to pricing of their services. Some will quote on an hourly fee-for-service basis while others offer a fixed price for a specified scope of work. Clients that are able to define their required Scope should strongly consider getting a fixed price quote from any Consulting partners bidding on the project. Fixed price quotes shift the risk of effective project management to the Consulting firm to deliver the specifics of the scope both on time and within budget. Hourly fee-for-service quotes will shift the risk of ineffective project management to the Client with the added risk of managing consulting hours.
Phase 3. Executing
Once the project is approved with a fixed-fee or fee-for-service quote and a target timeline is established for a specified scope, it is time to implement. With a Project Plan and Scope in hand, the Project Manager and Client/Consulting team members will work together to stay on task. Regular status calls with the project team are mandatory. These are generally held weekly to help promote accountability, communication, and quality. The Project Plan will be updated throughout the project to reflect task status and actual or projected timelines. The Action Item/Issue Log is maintained to keep track of specific assignments (action items) and/or items that will impede forward movement within the Plan if not resolved (issues).
Key high-level tasks typically found in the execution phase of a project include, but are not limited to, the following. These tasks may be iterative (repeating) based on design requirements and/or testing outcomes.
- Product installation
- Review design requirements
- Table setup and training with client Application Administrators
- Data conversion/migration
- Development of customized interfaces/imports/exports
- Development of customized reports
- Process workflow training
- User acceptance (parallel) testing
- Go live/launch
Phase 4. Monitoring and Controlling
The Project Manager has the responsibility to compare progress made against the original Project Plan through a process called “progressive elaboration.” Progressive elaboration is the art of continually evaluating project scope, time, and resources/cost in order to ensure that the project maintains quality within the constraints identified.
There is no such thing as a “normal” or “cookie cutter” implementation, and Project Plans are always dynamic. All Clients are unique in their systems use, data requirements, organizational structure, legal or industry demands, etc. Therefore, every project will likewise encounter its own unique variations from a “standard” project plan. These variations are ideally identified during the initial Discovery phase, but often are only identified in the midst of the Execution phase (e.g. data quality issues within legacy systems.) To the extent that these variations significantly impact scope, resource/cost and/or time demands, the Project Manager must follow established change management guidelines in order to ensure a clear and timely response to such changes.
No plan is perfect. Effective change management assesses the impact of a change or delay and communicates it in the form of a Change Request to senior project management. This allows both client and Consulting management to assess the impact of the change and approve/decline the change as appropriate. Approved Change Requests become Change Orders that the project team then act upon to adjust the scope, time and/or cost of the project going forward.
Phase 5. Closing
Projects by definition have a clearly defined start and stop. After project tasks are completed and the client has approved the outcome, an evaluation is necessary to highlight project success and/or learn from project history. It is also a time to review future opportunities for additional enhanced services/systems. These may have been identified at the start of the project or in the midst of the project, though not approved for implementation at those times.
From a client’s perspective, closing is also an important time to review the project’s anticipated impact on your future success, including impact on:
- Corporate mission
- Business operational or organizational issues or weaknesses
- Process efficiencies
- Competitive advantage
- Demand for product or service
- Business, industry or system changes
Closing also helps to clarify the line between post go-live project support and ongoing production support. Depending upon how the Client obtains system support (i.e. through the product vendor or through a VAR’s support plan,) the closing meeting will define the process going forward for obtaining production support. The Consulting or vendor resource assigned to assist with the project will necessarily move on to another project and will no longer be directly available to the Client for product-related calls. The Client will need to determine their risk tolerance relative to support needs and to understand the options available for ongoing support (i.e. response time guarantees, cost per support instance or per support period, etc.)
Projects and project management processes vary from industry to industry; however, the phases presented here are seen as traditional elements of a project. The overarching goal of any project is to offer a product, change a process, or solve a problem in order to benefit the organization and to achieve these goals on budget, on time and within scope.