The End of Fairy Tale Beginnings

Spellbound stakeholders can chain your project to the dungeon of disaster. Here's how to lift the curse for a happily-ever-after ending.

"And they all lived happily ever after." That's how fairy tales end. Unfortunately, IT projects are more likely to have fairy tale beginnings than endings.

As our story opens, the project is held captive by the wicked stepsponsor who doesn't care about you or the initiative. An overcommitted team lead is clearly bewitched, and an underproductive technical resource plays the role of ogre. Add an evil troll oversight manager and a gaggle of invisible users, and even Pixar would have a tough time managing a PG rating.

Riding his faithful steed, the project manager gallops in to save the day... and gets blindsided by the antagonists in the first act, destroying all hope for the project.

These characters aren't really villains; in fact, they're key stakeholders whose support is crucial to the success of your project. But they're spellbound by their current mind-sets. Unless you can cast a counterspell to disperse their negative energy, the risk to the project is overwhelming.

Here are some ways to identify enchanted stakeholders and release them and the project from almost certain doom.

The Wicked Stepsponsor

The sponsor's role is vital. He is expected to approve milestones, supply funding and run interference for the project. Either an ally or a foe is better than someone who lacks interest in the project entirely. If your sponsor acts as the project champion, you have to resist adding extras, but you can work with his energy. If he is against the project, help him identify the reasons it should be dropped instead of fighting a losing battle. If your sponsor isn't involved, however, the risk of not fulfilling the project objectives spikes. Watch out for any of the following signs of evil:

• Whenever your project is discussed, the sponsor switches the topic of conversation.

• Status meetings are regularly canceled.

• Funding for any other project pillages your budget.

Thomas Cutting, a project management professional and senior principal consultant at Keane Inc.
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Thomas Cutting, a project management professional and senior principal consultant at Keane Inc.

Image Credit: Seth Joel

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But you can break through that cold exterior and engage the uninterested sponsor. Here's how:

Think like him. Understand his priorities, how he best receives information (e-mail, voice mail, face to face), his group's pressures and the direction in which he wants to move. This knowledge will increase the effectiveness of your communication.

Keep communications brief. News flash: Sponsors have a limited amount of time. Lengthy reports and e-mails get ignored. Tailor the status reports and use Gantt charts or graphs to communicate faster.

Determine and communicate project benefits. Projects are undertaken for a reason. What pain was this one intended to stop? Is it a regulatory requirement, or someone's pet idea? Quantifying the expected benefits allows the sponsor to weigh them against project costs. A simple projection of return on investment, focused on the sponsor's pressures and priorities, will communicate the benefits.

Create and articulate the goal. Using the identified benefits, create a short statement that explains what you plan to accomplish. A good example would be "to accept online purchases, reducing transaction fees and saving $100,000 annually." Equipping your teammates with a goal gives them focus and helps them articulate it.

The Troll Oversight Manager

You won't always be the lead manager, and unless you're a control freak, this shouldn't present a problem. Manage your resources and deliverables, and report progress to the manager who oversees the milestones and direction of the overall project. But he can conjure up trouble if he redirects your resources and efforts. Watch out for the following trollish tip-offs:

• He scrutinizes the schedule and accepts the activities and basis of estimate (BOE) yet demands a 10% cut.

• Instead of discussing progress, issues and risks, he drills immediately into the details of the data-mapping diagram.

• He redirects your resources to tasks outside your scope of effort.

Here's how you can charm the troll:

Discover why he needs control. Is he new to the role? Does he lack confidence in your abilities? Does he feel threatened? Knowing the cause of his anxiety will help you tailor your approach to increase his confidence in you and himself.

Be sure of your BOE and explain it. But don't get defensive; logical conversations spark enough arguments.

Create a detailed schedule. Incorporate the BOE in the schedule with comments on key activities or tasks. Use the 80-hour rule (assign resources only to tasks that require less than 80 hours of effort) to replace padding with realistic estimates.

Track actual hours and estimates to complete (ETC). Capture actual task-level hours and ETCs from the individuals who do the work. The team members can ignore your estimates, but if they determine the estimate, they own it.

Understand and articulate your status. Clearly communicating accomplishments, destination and direction diminishes the manager's need to step in.

Show some backbone. Heroes need to sound convincing. Be sure of your facts and speak confidently. If a question arises that you are unprepared to discuss, request time to research before answering.

The Bewitched Team Lead

He brilliantly designs solutions and finds flaws that could destroy system usability. Unfortunately, he can offer only a passing comment while dashing to his architecture review board meeting. Your project is low on his packed priority list. Signs of sorcery include the following:

• He is committed to every project conceived because he is the go-to person for the perfect solution.

• The one meeting of yours he attended ended with, "That won't work, let me get back to you."

• He still hasn't.

Here's how to break the spell:

Team an analyst with him. The analyst can meet one on one with him and be the project liaison, taking the team lead's ideas and driving them to completion. This reduces dependency on the team lead while developing other people's skills.

Determine the priorities of all projects. Yours may still be the lowest one on the list, but by officially declaring that, you can set stakeholder expectations. You may even be able to convince your formerly uninterested sponsor to raise the status of the project.

The Technical Resource Ogre

To compensate for the overactive team lead, you have the company's least productive resource. His defense for surfing the Web is that the project manager hasn't assigned him enough work. Your challenge is to make him contribute. Here's how you can recognize the ogre:

• Everything he delivers is late but accompanied with very creative excuses.

• He requires help to complete assignments but seldom asks for it before it's too late.

• Whatever he delivers has bugs.

Your own incantations can light a fire under the unproductive technical resource. Here's how:

Find out why he is unproductive. Does the ogre need training? Has he been promoted over his head? Is he overcommitted or being subjected to outside influences? Many causes have relatively simple solutions. Resolve the problems, and you may gain a loyal, valuable asset.

Mandate status reports. The simple act of reporting accomplishments each week will illuminate his lack of effort. It won't be long before he realizes it and starts asking for more work.

Reduce dependency on him. Sometimes it isn't feasible to reform a poor performer, and it may be necessary to work with your human resources department to remove him.

The Vanishing Users

Sometimes users just disappear. They may be content with the current system. Change may require more work or, worse, the new system may replace them. Sometimes they are not informed of the change and are not involved in defining the solution. Here are the traits that can render users invisible:

• They don't want any change. Who needs central heating when you can rely on dragon's breath?

• There are still problems and discontent from the last upgrade.

• They're sure they could design a better system themselves.

But you can get invisible users to show themselves.

Identify the users and get to know them. Without understanding the users of the product, you can't deliver anything useful.

Include them in the kickoff meeting. If you have already had it without them, schedule another one. Involve them in the process. Let them show you how to improve their lives. Great enhancements come from users, and their involvement will reduce the learning curve.

Set expectations. Expectations define the standard for project success. If users set their own, you will inevitably fall short. Work with them to weigh their expectations against your requirements, budget and schedule.

You will face other perils in your epic journey to project excellence, but if these five are aligned against your initiative, they will kill it every time. If you use these suggestions to combat the wizardry, however, there's a good chance that you and everyone else will live happily ever after.

Cutting is a project management professional and senior principal consultant at Keane Inc. in Cypress, Calif. Contact him at Thomas.Cutting@keane.com.

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