CXO

How can you tell if an outsourced project is on track?

You know how to keep your own staff members accountable when they are completing a project. But tracking the progress of an outsourced project requires more effort on your part. Here are the questions you should ask to keep the vendor on task.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. Mochal shares member questions and the answers he provides in a column each month. So often, IT pros tell TechRepublic that they receive the most insight when they learn about real-life situations faced by other IT pros.

Question
Have you seen any best practices for ensuring that an outsourced project is progressing as it should? After talking to several of our project managers, it seems everyone has a different method for managing vendors. Most of them just have weekly conference calls for status updates. That can be effective, but it is probably a minimum requirement and does not give us the diligence we need to ensure that the vendor is on schedule. What templates do you recommend?—Rebecca

Answer
Many people are confused when asked to manage an outsourced project. The reason? Some project roles are reversed when you outsource work to a third party. This reversal may cause uncertainty when it comes to tracking the project’s progress.

On an internal project, the project manager makes sure things are completed on time and that the project is progressing as it should. They are held accountable for the success of the project. A formal quality assurance group (or the sponsor and project manager) is tasked with making certain the project is on track. They are not interested in knowing all the details of what is going on, but they need to ask the right questions to feel comfortable that things are progressing as needed.

On an outsourced project, the vendor employs the project manager, who monitors deadlines. The vendor project manager is planning and assigning the work, and managing issues, scope, risk, etc. Someone from your company performs the quality assurance role.

In your case, you are normally a project manager. However, in this situation, you need to also take on the quality assurance role. You need to ask the right questions to make sure that the vendor is doing the job correctly. You do not necessarily need to know all the details of how they are managing and executing the project, but you have to feel comfortable that the project is on schedule.

What to look for at the beginning
First, look for the up-front deliverables. For example, is there a project definition document? You need to make sure that the vendor has defined the project to your satisfaction. You should approve this document.

The vendor must also have a project work plan. As the project moves forward, you must be aware of the key milestone dates, and there should be a formal checkpoint to ensure that the deliverables produced up to that point are complete, correct, and on time. You and your sponsor should formally approve the important milestones. If there is a partial payment being made at a milestone, you need to ensure that the criteria for payment are all defined and that they are completed.

Depending on the nature of the project, you may require regular status meetings and formal status reports. Here are questions you should ask at the beginning of the project:
  • Has a project definition (or similar document) been approved by the appropriate stakeholders and managers at your company?
  • Is there a contractual agreement that spells out the expectations of both parties in terms of deliverables to be produced, deadlines, payment schedule, completeness, and correctness criteria, etc?
  • Has a comprehensive project work plan been created?
  • What project management procedures will the vendor use to control the project?
  • Has the vendor been clear on what resources he or she needs from your company and when they will be needed?
  • Have a number of agreed upon milestones been established to review progress so far and validate that the project is on track for completion?

Ongoing questions
As the project is progressing, you must continue to ask questions to determine the current state of the work. You may have status meetings weekly, but there should be a formal quality assurance check at the end of every agreed upon milestone. Here are the types of questions you should ask at every milestone:
  • Have the deliverables specified in the project definition been completed?
  • Have the appropriate deliverables been agreed to and approved by the company?
  • If the vendor has met expectations up to this point, have any interim payments been released?
  • Can the vendor clearly explain where the project is vs. where it should be at this time?
  • Will all the future deliverables specified in the project definition be completed?
  • Are issues being resolved in a timely manner?
  • Are scope change requests being managed, and is the sponsor formally approving changes?
  • Are risks being identified and managed successfully?
  • Should the contract or project definition be updated to reflect any major changes to the project?

What about templates?
To answer the second part of your e-mail, TechRepublic has published several templates and checklists designed to assist project managers. The top two items below are templates that I created for TechRepublic. I will caution you that these items were created with internal projects in mind.

Send us your template for keeping vendors accountable
Do you have a proven method for keeping vendors on schedule during an outsourced project? Tom would like to receive a template or checklist from IT pros. Please send an example to us, and we'll publish the best items that we receive. It's a great way to share your expertise with your fellow TechRepublic members, and you could win a nifty TechRepublic coffee mug.

 

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