Maintaining momentum

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What's the difference between projects that fail and those that succeed?

According to veteran project manager Ed Esposito, it boils down to the difference between traditional project management, which focuses on administrative tasks, and proactive project management, which is about mitigating risk.

"With traditional project management, you make a formal project plan and then have a lot of meetings to report status. Proactive project management always looks out to future milestones, identifies the risks and puts together a contingency plan," says Esposito, director of IT services for health insurance firm Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts in Boston.

Esposito should know. His group has just finished a complex network upgrade on time and on budget. With the help of outsourcer Inacom of Omaha, Neb., the 20-person team upgraded a Fast Ethernet LAN to a mixture of Gigabit Ethernet and SONET and replaced the Hewlett-Packard OpenMail system with Microsoft Exchange. What's more, the company rolled out 3,500 new PCs as part of a standardization effort. With the LAN upgrade complete, the company is ready for the next step of NextGenBlue, a massive enterprisewide network overhaul to support emerging business applications.

The basics of good project management are well known: Get buy-in from management and users, communicate project goals, set a critical path, manage deviations from that path, and above all, pray. But seasoned project pros also have a number of tricks up their sleeves to help keep their plans on track. Here are some of the best project management tips from the trenches:

Get help when you need it. Like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, many companies attempt to mitigate risk by calling in an outsourcer to perform the upgrade while maintaining control of the overall project, says Steve Furman, vice president at Robbins-Gioia, a project management consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

Train project management neophytes. They need to learn how to set milestones, approach problems analytically and create contingency plans before they can take the reins for the first time, Furman says.

Pick the most user-friendly tool you can find. Many project management packages are extremely robust and are designed to handle multiyear software development projects. If you're in charge of a simple network upgrade, you won't need - or want - that degree of power.

At Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Linda Murawski used Microsoft Project 98 to keep on track. Although it's not yet Web-based, the tool is totally intuitive for Windows users, says Murawski,who is director of IT operations for the insurance company. And Project 98's dependency-management capability was critical for risk management. For example, the team was contractually obligated to finish upgrading its pharmacy management software prior to beginning the rest of the project. If the pharmacy rollout had not gone as planned, it would have affected the rest of the project.

Don't make people jump around. In recent years, it has become popular to have team members work on whatever task was the highest priority at the time, changing tasks many times throughout the course of the project. This is the wrong way to go, Furman says. "The efficiency factor drops dramatically when people hop around."

Completing a long-term project requires each team member be singularly focused for long periods of time, he says. And that's exactly what Blue Cross/Blue Shield did. "We had assigned roles and responsibilities that held throughout the project," Murawski says. "It doesn't make sense to jump people with a particular skill level to where they may not have the appropriate skills."

Involve suppliers early in project planning. "We're seeing supply chain management becoming an integral part of the network upgrade project. Vendors have to be involved early on to ensure they can meet the needs of the project," Furman says. Blue Cross/Blue Shield's outsourcer ensured vendors could meet the deadlines well in advance.

Do estimates from the ground up. Most projects have a budget and time line that was to some degree fixed by senior management. Don't just leave it at that, Furman says. Throughout the duration of the project, have all team members continually validate or adjust the dates. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with unrealistic goals.

Keep users involved every step of the way. Esposito and Murawski involved key users from all of the business units in the planning stages. In addition, no segment of the project was considered finished until it had been tested and signed off on by those same users.

Focus on the good. Pressed for time, most project managers manage their projects by exception reporting (i.e., "Tell me if something is wrong.") Enlightened project managers encourage their team members to discuss things that work and to share knowledge and best practices.

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