Many IT initiatives require multiple internal teams, external consultants, and hardware and software companies. Here's how to assemble and manage a winning coalition.
In all but the simplest projects, multiple parties are generally required to get the job done. This may be a straightforward arrangement, where one team provisions hardware and another does software configuration, or it may be a large team spanning a half-dozen companies and a similar number of internal teams.
For the latter scenario, establishing roles and monitoring the various teams can be a project in itself, and one that can dictate the project's success or failure. Here are five tips I have found particularly helpful in such situations.
1: Don't assume a project manager is the best fit
While coalitions can bring together unique and complementary capabilities, they require significant care. This may seem an obvious task for a project or program manager, but that is often not the case.
Coalitions usually require complex project management, as well as an additional relationship management element that may not be within your project manager's capabilities. An otherwise straightforward task, such as sharing project information, will be subject to everything from different companies' IT security policies to political battles on which partner "owns" various aspects of the project.
2: Be mindful of the calm before the storm
When the coalition is first assembled, there are likely smiles all around. Your team has probably spent months assembling the coalition, working through budgets and approvals, and is now excited to begin work.
It can be tempting to interpret all the goodwill as a sign that success is nearly guaranteed, but this is a critical mistake. During these first few hours of working together, try to identify key leaders and key "doers" from each coalition partner; often, these roles are not occupied by the person who is nominally in charge, or who is driving a series of elaborate PowerPoint slides.
3: Play close attention to the storming stage
You've likely heard of the Tuckman team framework of Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. For coalitions, the storming stage can be even more profound, as you're essentially assembling a team of teams. When vendor teams are involved, this process can be even more acute, as each vendor will be forming their own internal coalitions, and you may have to adapt to personnel changes and vendor nuances.
4: Add a D to your RACI chart
One of the better tools for defining the role of each member of the coalition is the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, or Informed) chart. You identify key coalition tasks on the vertical axis of a chart, and individual coalition members on the horizontal. At each intersection, identify whether that person participates in completing that item, and hence is responsible, or they "own" it and are accountable. Consulted is a more nuanced item, as this indicates the person should have some decision and oversight authority on that item vs. merely being Informed as to its status.
I suggest adding a D to the chart for a Decision Maker designation, so it's clear who has the ultimate authority to determine or change direction for a coalition task. If you find every task has a dozen people who are decision makers, you're likely setting the coalition up for failure, as you're subjecting the task to a dozen participants' inputs, vetoes, and directional changes. The Consulted and Decision Maker roles should be handed out sparingly.
You'll also find that some coalition partners want to be consulted and informed on nearly everything, but not take any responsibility. This could be legitimate if that person is a key leader or a subject matter expert, or it could be a sign that person wants to direct the coalition without actually doing any work.
5: Request clear and frequent progress updates
Each coalition partner likely has internal teams and processes that they'll use to help deliver their piece of the initiative, so it can be difficult to determine what work is actually being done. No one likes to report that they're behind, so you'll likely be awash in charts and reports showing impressive completion rates and green statuses -- that is, until you suddenly discover critical components of the project have begun to struggle, seemingly overnight. This can happen with any initiative, though with coalitions the multiple layers of management and leadership further obfuscate what's actually occurring.
To remedy this situation, clearly articulate how progress will be measured, and routinely request demonstrable outputs. If you're building a complex document, track each section and regularly review drafts; it will quickly become clear where you're missing pieces. If you're producing software, demonstrate key functionality and employ people from outside the team to vet what's been done to ensure technical progress is legitimate rather than a carefully scripted demonstration of an otherwise incomplete project.
Coalitions can bring exceptional resources and people with impressive skills together, but they also require careful, dedicated management to ensure success. Tightly managing the coalition, spelling out the role of each participant, and closely monitoring output rather than fancy status charts will help your coalition succeed.
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