Project management: When and how to get users involved

Tips for keeping customers in the loop.

Sometimes, you learn lessons the hard way.

"Early on in my career, we'd start our implementation and we'd be nose to the grindstone throughout an entire weekend," says Bob Pate, Network Operations Manager at New Orleans-based law firm McGlinchey Stafford. "We'd be so focused on finishing the project by the time Monday rolled around that we were leaving our customers in the dark."

Pate knows better now.

Getting customers involved is critical, but so is striking the right balance so that everyone is aware of what's going on, but isn't overloaded, says Joe Moore, Applications Support Manager at the firm, who also is a Project Management Institute-certified Project Management Professional.

In an interview with ITworld contributing writer Beth Schultz, Pate and Moore offer these tips for keeping customers in the loop.

1. Don't leave customers in the dark

Moore: The fewer surprises for users the better we’ll be in the end. So from the software perspective, very often the first thing we do is create a plan that lists all the communications that we want to use during the project among the project team itself as well as to the end users. And then we keep the proper audience informed through e-mail and sometimes from our intranet home page.

2. Get user buy-in

Pate: you've got to get user input even for something as simple as a screen design. It just makes the buy-in and acceptance of a project so much easier. The first five years of my career, I was still putting together a screen based on what I thought worked best, but, in all honesty, 75% of the time, I was way off base.

3. Pick the right pilot testers

Moore: We learned from a document management system upgrade we did earlier this year to make sure users in the pilot group are geographically dispersed--meaning that we’ve got users from all of our different offices as opposed to in just a few focus offices--and that they represent the different positions--attorneys, secretaries, admin staff and so forth. In other words, get a broad range of pilot group members.

Pate: You can’t just work with people who are IT-friendly; we involve people who are sometimes critical because those criticisms can be constructive and can help make the overall product implementation better. We have some people who are very resistant to change. We have other people who want the newest technology--now.

4. Close the loop

Moore: We'll occasionally do user surveys afterwards. "Does the software work as advertised?" "Did we do a good job in the implementation?" We ask them, "Did you know what was going to happen? What do you think of the changes?"

Pate: We also recently started sending out more in-depth and technically detailed surveys for those people who have been involved in the actual projects and implementations -- meaning, primarily, our own team members. We tell them to go ahead, be blunt and frank because that helps us tremendously in identifying weaknesses in our project process or even in some areas of our management style.

__________________

This tip is adapted from "What I've Learned About Being A Good Project Manager" by Beth Schultz.

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