Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation, and then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.
Jerry is responsible for a major enhancement to the inventory control system and began meeting with me a few weeks ago to make sure his project begins successfully. He has a team of four people assigned for about six months. I’m concerned because the project is just a few weeks old, and he’s already missing some of the early deliverable dates.
“It’s never a good sign when a project starts off slow and starts to miss dates,” I said. “Sometimes you never catch up. What’s the reason for the initial delays?”
“I don’t have a good handle on it yet,” Jerry admitted. “The initial estimates may have just been too aggressive.”
I asked Jerry what the team members were telling him when they missed a deadline.
“It’s been a variety of things,” Jerry noted. “In one case, a person didn’t get the activity started on time. In another instance, I had a mix-up in communication and had two people working on the same activity. Another time, the person said that they could have had the work done, but they thought it was due the following week.”
I was a little confused. “Your work plan looked good. How are you assigning the work to your team?”
“We have an internal status meeting every week,” Jerry explained. “I make the assignments then. I think I am being clear on who needs to do what, but maybe not.”
I offered a suggestion. “Let’s take your work plan and visit your team members. Let’s ask them to tell us what they’re responsible for working on during the next 30 days and what the due dates are.”
So we did just that. The results were not surprising: Two of the team members were pretty clear on their assignments and the due dates. One team member thought that an upcoming completion date was a due date for a draft deliverable.
Another team member, who was expected to have her work underway, said she was held up because she was waiting on the arrival of some software. However, the arrival of the software didn’t affect her assignment. She should have been 50 percent through her activity already.
The purpose of talking with the team members was not to try to catch Jerry doing something wrong. I had a feeling that the project was in a bit of trouble because Jerry was not being crystal clear on what work was assigned to each team member. This turned out to be the case.
Some project managers make the work plan available to the team members and ask them to work on what is assigned. This takes a very mature team and one that is used to working independently from a work plan. If the team is not experienced in this approach, miscommunication about what is due and when can easily occur.
Other project managers assign work in team meetings. The problem that can arise with this method is that the discussions aren’t always organized and can leave team members uncertain about what they should be doing. Feedback suggested that the latter problem applied to Jerry. He had a great work plan, but he had not organized the team status meetings well; the meetings tended to move back and forth among topics. Jerry was trying to assign work to people during this discussion, but when the meeting was over, team members were confused about what was assigned and when the due date was.
I have two specific areas of improvement for Jerry. First, he must conduct his status meetings with more focus and a standard agenda. If a project team meets every week, the discussion shouldn’t be wandering aimlessly. He and his team should quickly get into the habit of covering progress, issues, risks, upcoming events, etc.
Since Jerry is also assigning work at these meetings, he should set aside a portion of the meeting to discuss the assignments. The team can go over the work plan and Gantt chart so that they can get a picture of what they are doing today, as well as upcoming work. Jerry should not end this part of the meeting until the team members are sure of their assignments. Many project management tools can also print to-do reports that list each person’s work on a weekly or monthly basis. These will help reinforce the assignments after the meeting is over.
Second, Jerry can take several actions during the week to ensure that team members know what they’re supposed to do:
- Meet face-to-face with each team member, asking each one about their assignment and when it’s due. Jerry should weave these questions into a discussion so that the team members don’t feel like they’re being tested. They should be able to give exact responsibilities and due dates.
- Team members should also be able to tell Jerry what work is on their plate during the next 30 days. If they’re not clear on what they should be doing and by when, they may be duplicating efforts and missing other activities.
- Jerry is currently receiving his status update at the weekly meetings. He should ask the team members to let him know as soon as an assignment is completed. This will keep Jerry more up to date when work is due on days between the status meetings.
- If communication problems persist and cause more missed deadlines, Jerry should take this a step further and ask the team to report when they believe the work is 50 percent complete. This will give Jerry and the team member another opportunity to validate that expectations are in sync.
Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.