Be honest, if I said, “The salesman was more agreeable than a two dollar prostitute with a ten dollar customer” does a recent sales experience spring to mind? The salesman’s job is to get the money, or at least a commitment to pay. If you’re the project manager tasked with making it happen, then by the time you get involved the salesman is long gone. She is busy seducing her next victim while you turn her promises into reality.
You’re starting with a client who’s expectation is ‘this is easy’. Your first job is to shatter that illusion. The expectation is that you’re there to throw the switch and help knock the tops of the champagne bottles. The reality is that you are sailing in uncharted waters and despite the best plans and preparation there will be challenges and you may need the client to step in and help. Knowing that, to begin the project telling all and sundry to relax, “This is going to be easy” is downright irresponsible if not outright dishonesty. Of course it’s do-able and you’re confident of achieving a good result but there will be obstacles and some may well need support from the highest positions to overcome. That’s the mindset that your sponsors (the client side) must have if you are going to have a positive and productive working relationship. So how do you do it?
Step one: Take a course in ‘organisational change management’. In ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’, I talk about the significance of organisational change management to project management and I’ll cover it a bit more in future articles but for now: Talk to the victims of the change. If it’s an IT project you’d call them ‘users’. Solicit all the concerns, negatives, fears. Don’t sell the project, just listen. Some of the concerns will be valid. This information is gold, it’s advanced warning of a hurdle that you now have time to dismantle. Some concerns will not be valid but they reflect the kind of resistance in the workforce that you’ll be working against and just bringing them out in the open will help to defuse them. Silly sounds even sillier out loud.
Take this information to your sponsors along with your project variation methodology. Sit down and explain to them how you will keep them up to date with regular weekly reports, daily if it’s a high risk project. Talk about the concerns coming from the workforce and how you plan to manage them. Talk about how you plan to manage variations, should they be required. Confirm that they are the ones who have the authority to make the hard decisions if elements of the triple-constraint are compromised (time, cost, deliverables). By now your client is perhaps a little bit scared (which is good) and a little bit angry (less good, but understandable). You may use use words to placate like, “We’re confident that the job will go smoothly” and perhaps, “We’ve done this before” BUT do not undermine the good work that you’ve done. Add, “But every implementation comes with it’s own challenges”. Right now the sponsor is imagining themselves reporting to the board that something has gone wrong. It may be that the budget or time-frame is extended there and then to minimise the risk of your sponsor having to front the board with bad news. You are in a strong position to advise them as to whether this is appropriate but either way, the fact that you’ve had this conversation is invaluable. In some ways their reputation lies in your hands so don’t be afraid to ask for their help. “I may need your help with…” is not a bad thing for them to hear. Firstly it reminds them that they still ultimately own the project. It reassures them that you will come to them if things go wrong but most importantly it engages them in the project. A ‘hands-off’ sponsor who does not feel in control will manage you the only way they know how, to criticise.
For a vendor client I introduced a project methodology which saw the sales staff retain sponsorship of the project on behalf of the vendor. In that way, unrealistic promises did not reflect poorly on the implementation process. Traditionally the CEO would get involved to put out the fires. The salesman might get a slap on the wrist and the same would occur at the next implementation. By closing the loop, the sales and implementation teams learned to support each other.