Project Management – No Surprises!

by Margo Boster

by: Margo Burnette & Mark Boster

The first rule of project management must be NO SURPRISES. This rule applies to both the customer and the contractor chain of command. Mark often refers to cars that have “warning lights” on the dashboard that light up when the oil presser is too low or the temperature is too high. He calls these “too late lights.” Once the light comes on, it means the problem is critical. These lights are analogous to problems with project execution that start small but grow into major issues that affect schedule and cost. Problems need to be identified and reported early and monitored regularly.

We have worked as Project Managers and with Project Managers on contracts for many years. One challenge we often see is a Project Manager telling the customer what they think the customer wants to hear instead of being forthright; particularly when they are not going to meet key deliverables on time or stay within budget.

We both have experienced first-hand when Project Managers did not keep us sufficiently informed. When Mark was at the Department of Justice, a contractor was behind schedule on a major system roll-out. Two of the team’s technical leads were talking in the men’s room when Mark, who was the senior IT person in the Department, walked in and overheard them discussing that they were not going to make the deliverable dates and how they should “cover” to the customer. (There are many lessons to be learned from this one incident – among them, contractors should always know the customer’s senior leadership and be able to recognize them, and that bathrooms, hallways, and restaurants have ears.)

Another example of Project Managers telling what they think the customer – and managers –wants to hear is when Margo was an IT Director in a Federal agency. The Project Manager and the contractor Project Manager continually reported they were on schedule for delivery of the first release of a system. Imagine her surprise when the customer came to see her asking why they were not going to meet the due date. The Project Manager had reported to Margo that the customer agreed to a later date. At the same time, the Project Manager told the customer that Margo had directed that a Beta version, instead of the operational version, would be released.

In both cases, the Project Managers probably meant well but that does not excuse them from keeping all parties accurately and completely informed. Their determination not to convey the truth to their senior management or to the customer when the issue was identified created an embarrassing situation for their management and a loss of confidence by the customer.

We have seen far too often when Project Managers believe incorrectly that they can somehow “work it out” before anyone finds out. This approach is almost always wrong, creates a bigger problem than necessary, and creates turmoil. Project Managers must always remember the first rule of No Surprises, and that forthright communication is a key contributor to no surprises.

The following are some suggestions for Project Managers and senior leadership to keep in mind:

Tell good news often but always tell bad news early. Don’t try to “manage by hope” – expecting the problems to work themselves out.
If you want a customer to be understanding in bad times, build a solid relationship in good times.
Recognize early in the project the minor issues that might contribute to a major delay. Someone once said, “How do you get behind by 3 weeks? The answer is — one day at a time.”
Engage the customer and your managers to help identify possible solutions. By making them part of the solution, you will increase the range of options and improve the overall team performance.
Have established metrics and reporting mechanisms to de-personalize the slippages. Good or bad, the metrics are about the project; they are not about you. Report metrics accurately – do not make the reporting be a personal statement of how well you, as the Project Manager, are doing.
Thoroughly screen candidates to establish that they have the emotional maturity and common sense to do what is necessary to avoid surprises.

While no customer or manager wants to hear that you are not going to be able to meet key deliverables, they will figure out soon enough that the project is behind schedule or over budget. So why try to hide it from them? Talk with them, tell them as soon as possible, and look for possible for alternatives.

Let us hear from you – What situations have you had or seen where Project Managers had challenges in their projects, how did they handle it, and what lessons are there to share?

  • As a younger project manager in the early 1980s when I first had infrastructure projects flow from a few tens of thousands to a few million dollars, I constantly was writing change orders and keeping my client’s project manager and financial officer in-formed for their written approvals. At one point, Dr. Chico Batra, the most senior program manager in the 2,000-person engineering firm where I worked as an Associate and VP of Water Resources, tell me, “Project management is merely common sense. The problem is that common sense is not very common.” Years later, in the early 1990s when I was Geosciences Team Leader for an 800-person engineering firm, I learned another good PM lesson from Jayon Larijani, my assistant, which was to think through a project and rethink and rethink, working scheduling backwards from the end to the present, making adjustments as needed, and of course, informing you clients – some firms or organizations have several clients to keep informed!

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