Don't Make Me Pull Over!

How to improve your project processes without inflicting pain.

Back in the days before minivans and huge SUVs, road trips were painful. Our summers always included a 10-hour trip to visit our grandparents in New Hampshire. At the peak, there were eight of us: Mom, Dad, Mike, Karlyn, Richard, Chandler, Andy and me. Forget the comforts of DVD players, iPods and video games; our car didnt even have air conditioning.

We didnt bother much with seat belts, either. If it was the station wagon, Andy and I would stretch out in the way back. In the Ford Fairmont, I remember sleeping in the back window while cruising the interstate.

Today, there are laws against such things. Our parents would have been locked up, and we would have been sent into foster care. How in the world did we survive without laws governing our car trips? we ask each other sarcastically.

Working in the program management office (PMO), I get the same question from project managers with each new process. You can see it in their eyes: Why do we need a procedure for that? Ive been successfully doing this for the past 10 years!

To ease the transition to new processes for members of your IT staff, try using these guidelines to SHIFT EM in the right direction.

Start where you are. Dont assume that youre starting from scratch. Determine where the organization is before making drastic changes. Chances are, something was attempted in the past that can serve as a solid basis for change. Also, if you ignore the previous effort, you will immediately alienate the people who worked on it. If you use it, youll engage them.

Harvest from the team. Somehow, projects are being completed without a defined process. Gather what is working and document it. This builds buy-in more quickly and decreases the effort needed for development and training.

Improve what you have. Project managers bring ideas and templates from previous lives. I call these WICFs, from the phrase, Where I came from ... this is what we used. Take these tried and trusted methods, and fuse together different pieces to make the new one better.

Fill in the gaps. The resulting process will have holes that must be filled. There are two approaches. The first is to create a team of actual users of the process and serve as a facilitator as they complete it. The second is to create a straw man and let users tear it apart. The second method is usually faster initially, but it may take longer to gain buy-in.

Take feedback. Get people to pilot the process, and get their feedback. At one client, upper management forced us to make drastic changes to existing processes. When the pilot group saw the modifications, they soundly rejected them. Ouch! It takes tough skin to receive that kind of feedback. Remember that the objective is to make things right, not win a fight.

Enable ownership. Ultimately, the processes belong to those who use them, not to the PMO. From the very beginning, aim your development, training and communication toward instilling a sense of ownership. You are there to document and maintain the results. Establish a way to request changes and keep the proc­esses relevant.

Make it work or throw it out. During audits, you may discover broken or obsolete processes. Pieces that are out of whack with reality need to be adjusted or just dumped. Doing so builds strong credibility for the PMO.

One last point: Without the support of upper management, you will fail. You may develop a stellar-looking set of processes, but you wont be able to enforce them. On our road trips, Dad was our upper management and the ultimate enforcer. I can still recall his voice after five hours packed in the car. By that time, wed be fighting horrendously. He would turn his head, causing the car to swerve dangerously, and yell, Dont make me pull over! something no one wanted to happen.

Cutting is a project management professional and a member of the program management office at Mercury Insurance in California. Contact him at TCutting@MercuryInsurance.com.

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