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 real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.
I had an uneasy meeting with Ray last week. Ray is the project manager responsible for developing a new financial forecasting application for the finance division. On the surface, he is competent and confident in his abilities. Unfortunately, he is also the poster child for people who love the newest and sexiest technology. I started off by complimenting Ray for being on budget and on deadline, but I also mentioned one item of constructive criticism.
“I guess my only concern comes from looking at the details of your workplan,” I said. “It looks like you switched programming languages in the middle of the project.”
“Yes, we did.” Ray confirmed. “When we started the project, there were two potential statistical and modeling tools that were candidates for us to use. We picked the one we thought would be the best. However, as the project progressed, the competitor brought out a new release that was clearly superior to the tool we were using. Our team determined that we could complete the remainder of the project sooner and cheaper using the other tool.”
I could have foreseen that answer. “I see. I also noted that you decided to utilize the new server operating system that our company just approved. Why didn’t you use the standard operating system that most of the other projects use? How will the new operating system impact the end users?”
"That was a no-brainer." Ray said. I could tell he was excited to discuss the technology, but he was also getting a little annoyed about the questions. "I like to go with the newest stuff. Besides, we have a few contractors that know the new operating system, so we were able to complete the activities faster. As far as the end users, they just need to get their desktop machines upgraded."
I concluded that in the isolated context of this project, all of these decisions seem reasonable. But I had one last question for Ray. “Have you considered the people and cost implications of these decisions over the life of the product?”
Look at the big picture
Most project decisions are made in the context of the current initiative. In general, decisions that allow deliverables to be completed better, faster, and cheaper are good. However, project managers also need to be able to remove themselves from their current circumstances and look at how decisions will affect people and costs over the product’s entire life cycle. In most cases, no matter how long the rollout project lasts, most total life-cycle costs are incurred in the ongoing operation and support of the product.
In Ray's case, he has made a number of decisions that may make him look good from a project perspective but may cost the company dearly in the future. Look at the product he is delivering and how it will impact the support organization. First of all, his decision to start with one statistical modeling package and then switch to a second package will require the support people to know not one, but two, tools. The support staff will also need to become familiar with a new server operating system, in addition to the standard one that most systems use. Furthermore, everyone who utilizes this solution will need to have his or her desktop machine upgraded. This scenario is going to substantially drive up the long-term support costs. Ray may be on to bigger and better things by then, but his short-term decisions on this project, driven by a desire to learn new technologies, will probably cause the company unnecessary expense and aggravation for years to come.
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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