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How a Project Manager is Vital to Project Success

Author: Amy McDonough Posted In: Project Management

No matter the project, no matter the industry, those who are looking to modernize applications or upgrade systems should follow a common path to delivery. And who makes that happen? The project manager.

Let's use two examples from the perspective of a project manager. One is a large public utilities firm with a challenge to transform a 15-year-old incident tracking tool and resolution workflow. The second is a start-up wanting to take learnings from the first version of their site to transform their next iteration. 

Start with discovery

To start, a project manager learns everything there is to know about an organization's current system and processes. In the case of the large utility company, a week-long inception workshop provided the necessary background. Because of the age of their tracking system, it was out of support, difficult to use and time consuming for their developers to maintainThe years of workarounds to satisfy users, regulations, and a growing business, created a labyrinth to navigate. This also meant increased labor costs, inefficient incident resolution and a system that was no longer able to keep pace with innovations to the function it was supposed to track. A frequent problemEach inception workshop has a similar flow and goals, with participants coming from a cross-section of product stakeholders.

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near one.”

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

The large utility company invited a long list to the inception workshop, from communications, plant managers, regulatory compliance, corporate, as well as IT. Participation by each group invested in the product is essential to the inception workshops as it ensures all perspectives are understood and it is not only about technology.

You also need people in the room to make necessary decisions, without having to defer to those who are not around. In addition to learning about the current product pain points of the incident tracking system for the large utility company, it was important to document existing and ideal process flows, envision what it will take to be successful, gain an understanding of the technical structure and create future project goals. All these elements then contributed to an initial story backlog to seed the project, with estimates to deliver the must-haves. The project manager is there to learn about what is important to the client and ensure that we have all the elements created to a level of detail that will allow the team to get started quickly.

Getting Started – Project Kickoff

Successful projects do not just happen. Even those using Agile methodologies need vision, conversation, and planning. Start by setting expectations. Complex projects require daily, two-way communication. If a client is not familiar with the process or how to fulfill their role, it's important to train and offer examples of what the team needs.

In a recent project with a start-up to revamp their site, a client product owner had never participated in a project that used Scrum. We explained the process and terms, taught him how to use the tools, and started the project working on everything as a team. While this might have slowed down the project at the beginning, it created a collective understanding of how the team would execute and communicate.

“If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

~ Yogi Berra

The start of a project can be an anxious time for individuals who are working with new people and products, so it is important for project managers and scrum masters to encourage the team to get to know one another, broadcast sprint or project goals in a visible place, and share timelines. In working on our project with the start-up, over a donut taste-off gathered from three area hotspots, the product owner walked the team through the roadmap he created to show how he envisioned the new parts for the app coming together. Based on this conversation, our development team recommended a slight change to the technical approach. With this shift in mind, together we created goals for the first sprint, then pulled and refined stories from the backlog to start modernizing the app. The roadmap, goals and stories were all housed in tools that were visible at anytime, anywhere, to anyone involved in the project, from client sponsors to the development team.

Making it Happen – Project Execution

Back to our example project with the large utility company to overhaul their incident tracking application. Once the development started, the team and client got into a great flow. We had a sharp vision of what we were building, we were creating stories together that described what was needed, those stories were being developed and tested during sprints, the team showed off the results in demos and the client provided feedback. Like all projects, it was not perfect, but it was going to plan until the client decided to make a big shift.

“The more time you spend contemplating what you should have done…you lose valuable time planning what you can and will do.”

~ Lil Wayne

At the beginning of the project, our client said they wanted the new incident tracking application to be available on a variety of devices, including laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. The old system was only usable on company computers and the client assumed that everyone would want it on their other devices. When they began showing users the new application, they heard a lukewarm response to availability on mobile platforms.

To better gauge the need, we helped craft and execute a user survey that showed the lukewarm response was real. A majority of users (86% of a large, representative sample of users) said they would not make use of a new incident tracking process on their phones. Based on the response, the client decided to eliminate the mobile component from the project.

Communication and the vision for the product were both challenged as we had to change course. It was not as simple as saying we could delete the mobile stories and everything else moves up in the backlog. Front- and back-end design had to be tweaked, development changes made to already completed back-end work. And since there was newly available budget, functionality was reprioritized with new features added. Team morale also took a hit when well-liked teammates who were mobile experts had to roll off the project.

Project managers know they will encounter issues during their project. The successful PMs know that when major changes are required, it is no time to panic. Share on XIn our example with the utility company, the project manager needed to keep the team calm and focused on what was most important to meet our goals. We continued to develop, demo completed work and came together as a team for fun retros and happy hours. We took the feedback from the client and teammates to keep improving how we delivered as well as the new application.

Finish Line – Project Closure

Throughout both projects, we had ongoing conversations about what the must-haves were, and maintained estimates to get there. As each project came closer to the end, together we used our team velocity and other metrics to determine the finishing point. For the start-up, with the product owner, we presented a final roadmap of functionality to their Board and gained their buy-in on what it would take to sign-off. This occurred well in-advance of the project end and set everyone’s expectations on the final deliverables.

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

~ Warren Buffett

Releasing an approved app into the wild is often not the only work at the end of a project. We may be involved in user communication, training and most often, knowledge transfer. After spending months on an app, we are sometimes handing off maintenance to a team at the client who has not been involved in the creation. This was the case with the large utility company, stories in our final sprints involved sharing sessions, documentation and checking code from the client maintenance team.

The moment a project is approved is both a great and bittersweet one. There is a lot of satisfaction gained from completing work that people are happy with, but it can be tough to wrap up something that consumed your thoughts for so long or part with colleagues you got to know well. While your business can rest assured you have achieved your highest priority goals and gained terrific value, closure for us typically arrives in the form of a full project retrospective and an epic celebration party!