Surviving Process Without Going Berserk

How to find the balance between domination and anarchy.

Thomas Cutting, a certified project management professional at Keane Inc.
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Thomas Cutting, a certified project management professional at Keane Inc.

Image Credit: Seth Joel
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Hadrian's Wall stands as a monument to the battle between process and freedom. Built by the Romans in northern Britain between 122 and 130 A.D., the 74-mile barrier marked the final frontier of the vast and powerful Roman Empire. On one side stood law and order. On the other, men painted themselves blue, screamed like banshees and went all but berserk in their fight to remain free.

Likewise, process- and quality- focused methods like the Capability Maturity Model and ISO 9000 impose law and order within an organization. Studies have shown that the consistent use of processes increases repeatability, productivity and quality while decreasing project delivery time. But these same processes can appear as a wall to the business people who are pressured to get their ideas to market. The project team ends up on the battle line between the program management office (PMO) enforcing the procedures and the business people seeking to retain their freedom.

I have seen project managers burn out striving to please both groups. Here are some practical ideas to keep process from driving everyone berserk:

Question processes. Processes are not always as helpful as intended, but a successful process matures over time through the addition, adjustment and removal of pieces.

In my own experience, a form used to track project defects was one of those processes that offered limited payback. Its intent was to record the point during application development where defects were introduced so that we could determine how to improve. The time it took to record and analyze the information was disproportionate to the results, however. We questioned the process, found it unnecessary and removed it.

Educate everyone. Once a process is understood, it's important to communicate it to the project team and other stakeholders affected by it, including the business stakeholders. Warning: People frequently resist a new procedure. The temptation for project managers is to shirk responsibility by saying, "The process group makes us do it." While initially this may get you sympathy, ultimately it will cause frustration and animosity toward the processes and the project.

Reduce redundancy. Having multiple meetings or reports with the same purpose is just as insane as it sounds. One strategy to avoid this is to combine the team and business status meetings. Another is to combine multiple projects for the same business unit into one status meeting. If multiple groups need to receive status reports, agree on a common format to avoid duplicate efforts. Be aware, however, that if the original reports serve completely different purposes, combining them may not offer any benefit.

Manage meetings. As meetings are combined and more people and projects are involved, it becomes increasingly important to manage meetings well. Share the meeting's purpose ahead of time, along with material to be reviewed. If an agenda isn't sent prior to the meeting, at least list the main discussion topics on the invitation.

If status meetings tend to immediately turn into working sessions, be sure to spend the first five minutes reviewing the status of the project. Make sure that risks and issues are openly communicated and discussed. These tend to get overlooked in order to get to the more "important stuff." Move them to the front of the agenda.

It's vital to keep minutes of each meeting. If something isn't written down, it's as if it was never mentioned.

Know your limits. Many project managers today are running more than one project at a time. It's important to know how much is too much and to be able to say "no thank you" when offered additional projects. Conservatively, even small projects will take an average of six hours of project management time per week to handle basic tasks such as status reporting, status meetings, maintaining the schedule, and handling risks and issues. This doesn't include design or technical discussions. When managers become overcommitted, productivity and quality quickly fall. If you try to focus on everything, you'll accomplish nothing.

Enlist your resources. It's not necessary for the project manager to do everything. Find items that can be offloaded to team members. If a team member is looking to move into a management role, introduce him to some of the activities and become a mentor.

Call on your management. You are not alone. When there is trouble with resource availability or productivity, or if you need help escalating issues or obtaining approvals, involve your management. This allows you to remain focused on the project without stepping on any political toes.

Announce achievements. Become the mini marketing department for the team and project. Recognizing the accomplishments of team members in front of the business stakeholders will encourage them to continue striving for success and will highlight the value of the team for everyone.

These practical steps will keep you from going berserk and running screaming from your cube. It may even persuade the business people to leave the blue paint and bagpipes at home.

Cutting is a certified project management professional at Keane Inc. Contact him at Thomas_E_Cutting@Keane.com.

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