Managing cross-functional team demands diligence

Project managers who work with cross-functional team members face a number of challenges, including the need to schedule people who work outside their department. Follow Tom Mochal's advice to stay on top of resources and keep your project on track.

Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. He first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations, and offers a solution based on practical project management practices.

Jerry has been doing pretty well over the last month or so, after we worked on making sure his team members were clear on their work assignments. However, he has another concern—team members are missing their due dates. This issue doesn’t appear to be related to the first problem.

The dilemma
“Jerry.” I said, “I see from the work plan that you are trending over in some of your activities. It looks like they haven’t affected the critical path yet, but they probably will soon.”

“Yes, I am aware of the dates”, Jerry noted with a little irritation. “You know I have three people working on this project, but there are also a number of other people who I need from time-to-time. I’m having difficulty getting them allocated to the project.”

“Yes, the activities I’m looking at seem like database administrator work.” I replied. “I know that many of the DBAs are caught up in a database upgrade project. Is that impacting you?”

“Yes, it is.” Jerry said. “They are not the only ones. I need some help from the training department to help me train the manufacturing managers so they can leverage these new system capabilities. Now they are telling me that it will be a couple weeks before they are available.”

“Let’s talk about these people,” I suggested. “They obviously have other work to do in addition to helping you on your project. How did you let them know that you would need their help?”

“I sent the project definition and work plan to their managers.” Jerry said dryly. ”The resource needs from their groups were clearly spelled out. However, it didn’t seem to be of much use. Now that I need them, they still aren’t available.”

“Sending the project definition and work plan was definitely the place to start.” I said. “However, when you are trying to manage cross-functional people, you need to be more proactive than that.”

Mentor advice
I don’t know many project managers who have not been in a similar situation. We all know that it is best to have full-time resources assigned to the project team. However, many projects need specialty resources, and you don’t need them full time.

Jerry has a couple of good examples. He is going to need DBA help over a two-week period, and then again during system testing. Jerry is also going to need help from the training department to update the current training material. Obviously, it makes no sense to have DBA and training resources assigned full time. These specialists typically provide support to the entire company, and their skills may be requested for competing projects

At Blue Sky Manufacturing, we have a policy of sending project definitions and work plans to all managers whose staff are needed for the project. This strategy is designed to give them a heads-up on the resources being requested, and to give them a chance to respond if they do not have the resources available. However, this step is really the minimum requirement for making sure the people are available when you need them. The managers of these groups are also trying to juggle their personnel to best meet the many demands they face. Sometimes, this prioritization doesn’t match up with the particular needs of your project.

Managing cross-functional resources is a result of working in a matrixed organization, where project teams are staffed, in full or in part, with resources that reside in other functional areas. The project manager needs to be very proactive when managing cross-functional resources. Jerry did a good job with the first step. However, he needed to follow up by speaking personally with the managers of the groups to make sure they understood his resource needs and the timing. After that, he needed to send reminders continually of his requirements and dates. If Jerry had continued the dialogue, he would have had an earlier indication that there might be problems with resource availability. He could have raised this issue early, and utilized his own manager and sponsor to raise the priority level of his project. If that did not work, he could have better prepared to work around the problem and minimize the impact of the resource delays.

The bottom line is that you must be much more diligent when trying to manage resources that are not within your control. Otherwise you are relying on chance and good fortune to make sure that resources are available exactly when you need them.

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.

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