Outsourcing

Tips to help your project managers successfully track an outsourced project

If your project managers work with vendors on outsourced projects, they need to understand how their role changes when working with contractors as opposed to staff members. Make sure they're asking the right questions and monitoring progress effectively.

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.

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. Are there industry best practices for templates, or a checklist of questions? We want to hold vendors to their commitments.

Rebecca

Answer
Many project managers (PMs) are not sure what they should be doing when they are asked to manage an outsourced project. Part of the uncertainty is because some of the project roles are reversed when your company outsources work to a third party.

On a normal internal project, the PM assigns the work and manages issues, scope, risk, quality, etc. The PM makes sure things are done on time and that the project is progressing as it should. He or she is held accountable for the success of the project.

Other people perform a quality-assurance role to make sure that the project progresses as it should. A formal quality-assurance group may do this, but it is more likely that the project sponsor and the CIO will perform this function. You and the sponsor are likely not interested in knowing all the details of what is going on, but you need to ask the right questions to feel assured that the project is moving forward as it should.

With an outsourced project, these roles are still in place, but different people perform them. If the work is truly outsourced, the vendor PM plans and assigns the work and manages issues, scope, risk, etc. Your internal PM then needs to perform the quality-assurance role.

He or she needs to ask the right questions to make sure that the vendor is doing its job correctly. While your internal PM doesn’t necessarily need to know all the details of how the vendor is managing and executing the project, he or she has to feel comfortable that the project is progressing as expected.

What to look for at the beginning
If your internal PMs have never worked on an outsourced project before, use these guidelines to help them accomplish this task. First, look for the up-front deliverables that you expect all projects to have. For example, is there a project definition document?

Your internal PMs need to make sure that the vendor PM has defined the project correctly and to your satisfaction and that you have formally approved it. The vendor must also have a project workplan.

As the project moves forward, your PM 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 the project sponsor should formally approve the important ones.

If there is a partial payment being made at a milestone, your PM needs 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 with your internal PM.

The type of questions an internal PM should ask at the beginning of the project are:
  • 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 workplan been created?
  • What project management procedures will the vendor use to control the project?
  • Has the vendor been clear on what resources they need from your company and when they will be needed?
  • Have a number of agreed milestones been established to review progress so far and validate that the project is on track for completion?

Ongoing questions
As the project progresses, you must continue to ask questions to determine the current state of the work. You may have weekly status meetings, but there should be a formal quality-assurance check at the end of every milestone.

The types of questions you would ask at every milestone include:
  • Have the deliverables specified in the project definition been completed up to this point?
  • 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 Rebecca's e-mail, I have seen a number of templates for this type of quality-assurance role but nothing that I would put at the level of a best practice in the industry.

Many checklists also focus on internal projects and don’t have the right questions for a vendor relationship. Now that you have some ideas on the role you play on an outsourced project and some examples of the types of questions you would ask, you can build a checklist that will allow you to better understand the types of questions to ask in a vendor relationship.

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.


How do you monitor an outsourced project?
Do you follow some of the guidelines that Tom Mochal suggests in this article? Are there other ways to ensure that both you and the contractors are on the same page? Share your suggestions with us in an e-mail or post your comments below.

 
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