In an earlier post I talked about managing expectations – a central theme to ‘project management according to Robin’ (The book is called ‘What they didn’t tell you about project management in class’ – click ‘home’). It is a sentiment worth revisiting. In the previous ‘expectations’ article I was in fact talking about this particular client (story continues from previous post). They started me thinking: ‘good products, good people, what’s the problem?’ I narrowed it down to two main contributing factors, expectations management and assumptions. I’ll talk about assumption – being the mother of all evil – later. Now, once more with feeling, lets revisit expectations management.
The issue with sales people is not just what they promise but the perception that, should the client buy the product, the product implementation is going to be a doddle. After all you’re not going to sell a product by telling the potential client that the implementation is going to be a nightmare.
As the project manager, your view of the world is a bit different. You know that there will be unforeseen obstacles and there will be trauma. This is a problem because if all they’ve heard so far is ‘It’ll be fine!’ then the first obstacle will sound alarm bells instead of a call to arms.
If they’re less worried than you then you’re deceiving them which is not only ethically wrong but impractical. They need to be nervously waiting on the sidelines for the opportunity to leap into the game. The alternative is that they’re sitting in the boardroom prematurely sipping champagne and when you do need them, the engagement begins with the the presumption of incompetence on your part. Yes you’ve done this before and yes you’re confident of success, but every project is a new adventure. There will be obstacles and some may well need intervention at the executive level and this is the message that you have to get across before you begin. The challenge is to do so without directly contradicting the sales person and without scaring the client to the point of undoing the sale – but it cannot go unsaid.
Talking about, and documenting, risks, contingencies and escalation procedures comes under the heading of ‘project management methodology’ but the primary benefit to the project manager is that it enables you to adjust sponsor expectations; to have them understand that there WILL be bumps in the road and their involvement with the project extends throughout the implementation and not just the decision to proceed and the sipping of champagne at the successful conclusion. If you’re still having difficulty or if you are uncertain that the message is getting through, then say it plain. For example:
‘I bet salesman Sue told you the implementation would be easy. Yes we have done this dozens of times but every implementation comes with its own unique problems. Make no mistake, this is going to be a nightmare, but a manageable nightmare and in the end the benefits will be enjoyed long after the pain has been forgotten. ‘
<sarcasm> you can see why I’m such a popular project manager </sarcasm> My first project with the company was quite traumatic. Unfortunately the CEO was a personal friend of our company managing director. The first call my boss received went along the lines of ‘Is he mad?’. Luckily my boss weathered the storm and did not intervene, instead replying, “He’s doing his job”. After a week of kicking and screaming on both sides of the fence the product was installed and doing its thing. My presence was not exactly welcomed at first and despite the implementation success I was not sure if my intervention was appreciated. I was in the kitchen sipping a cup of tea contemplating my future when the chief implementer (the real project manager who I was mentoring) walked in. “Damn!” Irene exclaimed as she dropped her work bag on the table, “Smoothest implementation we’ve ever had!”. The memory of that moment is one of the happy thoughts I draw upon if I’m feeling low.
Early on in my career I was always nervous about engaging the sponsors. No one likes to be the barer of bad news. What I’ve found since then was quite a surprise.
If you have managed your sponsors expectations well, then they will be pleased to hear from you. Even business executives need to feel needed and coming to them for help will give them the opportunity to flex their political muscles and do the management thing that they’re paid to do. It also makes them feel like they are still ultimately in control, at the top of the tree; and that you are working for them; and that if there is bad news they’ll hear it from you first – which is a trust thing. On more than one occasion when I’ve nervously gone to the sponsors with bad news they have reassured me that ‘it’ll be OK, we’ll sort this out’. At the time I found their enthusiasm slightly disturbing. It was like giving a pumped warrior the command to engage the enemy. In any case they weren’t mad at me.
It’s so much easier it is to stick to timelines and budgets when the company executives are on the roller coaster with with you instead of sitting in a padded board room imagining plain sailing. If there is a big picture reason why your project has to wait, they’ll be the ones explaining it to you instead of blaming you.