"I was just assigned my first project! Now what?" By Terry Quanborough, PMP, FCMI, DMS, MBCS, CITP, MNZCS
Congratulations on your assignment. At this stage you are possibly overwhelmed after the initial adrenalin rush. There is so much to consider and this paper provides a few prompts to ensure that you start on the right track and get some traction!
Get a Mentor/Coach:
Do not be too proud to ask for guidance. Request a more senior project manager, who has a good reputation, to be your mentor and when they agree, use them as a sounding board throughout the project life cycle.
Does anyone else in your organization know that you have been assigned this project? If you came from a technical background, do they know that you are now the project manager and not the technical person? Will everyone be cooperative? Will stakeholders make themselves available to you?
Get this project announced via a project charter or mandate and if your sponsor does not know how to write one, then write it for them to distribute. It gives you the opportunity to position the project your way and should always include high-level project background, justification, deliverables, assumptions, constraints, predicted timescale and budget expectations.........although detailed planning not yet done.
The Charter should also announce you as the Project Manager, your terms of reference, authority level, escalation path etc. If an Account Manager or Business Relationship Manager is assigned to your internal or external client, it is worthwhile to ensure that the Charter states that you manage all project decisions. This ‘may’ stop interference!
The Charter will open doors as you conduct the project.
If you don’t have a Sponsor or Project Steering Committee (PSC), get one set up and use your mentor to assist.
Ensure you have access to your Sponsor and your PSC otherwise you have a recipe for disaster. In some cases the tyranny of distance does not allow, but perhaps you need a Sponsor and PSC in closer proximity. It may be ‘career limiting’ to suggest changes but you could give it a try, depending upon your specific organization environment and politics.
Are the PSC members likely to be aloof or are you able to socialise with them individually e.g. coffee, lunch? Try this and you may be surprised at the reaction. It is also a way of qualifying them as stakeholders and their support for the project and you! It is another reason to get ‘in their face’ on certain project issues.
Formally or informally get yourself on the PSC rather than just the person reporting to them. Remember the middle word is Steering and they should be assisting you to steer the project to a successful completion. You are all in this together!
Ensure the PSC know their roles and responsibilities as members and if they do not, then define them or get your mentor to define them. When you write your Project Plan, ensure that the project hierarchy has PSC at the top. This stops any question of PM ego but also highlights that the PSC have a significant project role to play.
Emphasise to the PSC that you will need time to undertake initiation and planning activities before development starts. Many sponsors expect immediate progress once a Project Manager is appointed and this needs to be managed as it is not good project management.
If the PSC fail to meet or they cancel meetings, this should be escalated whilst recognising that the Sponsor may be complicit. If you have a Project Management Office (PMO), why not get them to deal with this violation of agreed quality assurance and project compliance?
Build your knowledge:
Many project managers stumble headlong into their projects without detailed background reading. Ask what documents exist and get them all; e.g. Business Case, Proposal, Contract, High-Level Requirements and Estimates, Estimating Package. This will help you get a rough idea of the risks and help identify the stakeholders, in conjunction with your sponsor. At this point don’t get demoralised as you may feel you are in ‘information overload.’ Use the PMBOK® Guide Fourth Edition, as a framework guide to remind you on what to consider in the various process groups.
If you are not trained in the project methodology that you must use on this project, then you must get trained.
Projects consist of people, processes and other items such as technology. All are important but people are the major factor that can contribute to project success or failure; thus identifying your stakeholders and determining communications with them is vital to your image and effectiveness and on-going stakeholder perception of you and your project. Get this wrong and it’s all uphill. Setting and managing stakeholders expectations is a critical item. Remember that stakeholders may include clients (internal or external), the sponsor and steering committee, your direct management, functional / resource managers, project team, vendors and regulatory authorities. A good tip is to add family and friends to your stakeholder list as a reminder to maintain a balanced work / social life as a tired project manager is usually ineffective.
Do not forget to think about stakeholders who may be involved after your projects transition into a production / working environment. These may include business continuity, disaster recovery, operations, help desk, maintenance and support, as these are also people who must be engaged early in your project planning.
Develop a stakeholder list and analyse each stakeholder in terms of their expectations, concerns and influence. You can now plan and document your stakeholder management strategies for each stakeholder. Due to the delicate nature of this document it is recommended that it be kept confidential.
Develop a communication plan (separate document or part of project plan) and talk with stakeholders about their preferred communications (level, frequency, media etc.). Plan meetings in advance (agendas) and do not leave out any stakeholders otherwise they may go feral! If you have committed to do things for stakeholders, follow through in a professional and timely manner, e.g. minutes, documents, general information.
Ensure that all stakeholders understand the Change Control process and its benefits to the project.
Give no surprises to stakeholders, that bad news is OK and should not be censored by you or others. A good project manager will have discussed (conditioned) stakeholders prior to documenting issues and problems to them. It is dangerous to send Status Reports by email if there is anything contentious or that may be misconstrued!
Where possible, why not print the Status Report and personally deliver it and explain any items that may cause them concern? This shows professionalism and gives you another reason for meeting PSC members. “Oh, while I’m here, will you give me support on this issue at the next meeting?”
If you have a virtual team, you must attempt to get everyone to attend the kick-off meeting. Although this may cost the project; they get to meet each other, the sponsor, you and other stakeholders. Failure to do this may cost the project a lot more in the long run, due to lack of perceived identity, ownership, urgency and management.
Keep your project team informed and give them a copy of your Status Report that will be sent to PSC. If time permits you may let them proof read it before you officially publish.
Do not cancel project team meetings unless absolutely necessary as it is vital to maintain teaming and portray urgency throughout the project.
If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail and this should not be an option, otherwise your project management career may be very short!
If you make assumptions during planning; document them e.g. “Project approvals and sign-offs will be given by the PSC within a maximum of 5 working days and this will be scheduled into the project. Any overrun will be treated as a change.”
If you have a 12 month project try and have at least 12 milestones as clients, management and your team will see regular success (deliverables) resulting in a motivated project environment. If necessary ‘manufacture’ some milestones and don’t forget to celebrate milestone achievements.
If your project team is identified or in place before planning commences, get them involved in the planning process e.g. Work Breakdown Structure, Risk Management, and Project Team Ground Rules. Are there checklists available to assist? e.g. Project Set-Up, Risk Identification. Determine and obtain approval of deliverables acceptance criteria upfront, do not leave it until testing or commissioning as it is much too late.
Will you approve timesheets and invoices prior to the costs hitting your project? If not, how can you be held responsible for the budget if you have no control? Get this fixed.
Now that you are a PM do not be too proud to get peers (other PM’s) to check your work e.g. plans before you submit for approval. Peers will give you objective feedback that will improve the quality of your submission and improve chances of prompt approval.
If a Project Management Office (PMO) exists, use their review services.
- Do not panic but maintain a sense of urgency at all times
- Do not be afraid to spend more time upfront in planning, as you will reap the rewards later
- Ensure you have a rigorous Change Control process. No ‘freebies’ to be nice!
- When scheduling ensure you:
- estimate honestly (not just to fit a forced end date)
- know the difference between effort and duration
- consider learning curves
- consider contingency
- determine and understand the critical path
- Review your stakeholder analysis and risk register regularly
- Keep on the front foot and look for potential problems and take preventative actions (Proactive v Reactive)
- Stay close to your stakeholders (Remember that a quiet stakeholder is not always a happy stakeholder, be they clients, management, project team, suppliers or users)
- At all times protect your project team
- Communicate openly and honestly with your project team and listen to their ideas
- Always be positive and supportive in front of project teams members as negative vibes from you will manifest itself in lower morale and reduced project performance
- Manage and develop your project team and ensure they will accept negative as well as positive feedback
- Ask the project team for feedback on how you are doing and when you make mistakes be professional and admit it – remember that “people who do not make mistakes do nothing!”
- Focus on a deliverables mindset and not activity
- Do not become a control freak as this shows distrust of your project team, but your team should be aware of project status and how their delayed tasks impact the overall project
- Celebrate milestones
- View your Monthly Status Report as a powerful tool not as a chore, and ensure that it is delivered on time and is accurate and complete
- Add the names of Sponsor and PSC to your monthly report plus ‘date of last PSC meeting’ as this may ensure they meet as per agreed policy or project agreement
- If you have a PMO use them as a support structure that can add value to your project
- Do not be accessible 24/7 as you need your down time in order to be effective
- Projects can be stressful; take time out for personal pastimes e.g. family, sport, music
Remember that for things to happen spontaneously they need to be planned well in advance!
Good luck and “may the force be with you”. It is time!
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