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 a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
I heard through the grapevine that Larry’s project was in trouble. His team was working on system testing for a contract management application for the legal department when a major change in business requirements surfaced. I stopped by Larry’s office to see how he was responding.

“Tom, you know what a difficult time we had gathering business requirements to begin with,” Larry reminded me. “We finally gained agreement and we have been focused on delivering to those specifications. Now, at the last minute, a new change has emerged. I’m not sure we can support it at this late stage.”

“I haven’t seen a status from your project for a while,” I noted. “Just where are you at right now?”

“We are just starting system testing,” Larry replied. “With a little luck, we were going to be completing the system in four weeks. I issued a freeze on new requirements three weeks ago. The sponsor agreed that we would respond to all new change requests as part of a follow-on phase II project.”

“If the sponsor agreed to the freeze, then what is the nature of this change request that is causing all the noise?” I asked.

“The legal department just changed how they process and approve contracts,” Larry said. “They now want major changes to how the contract workflow process is handled in the system. Our best guess is that it will result in a four-week project delay.”

“This is obviously a scope change. Have you taken the information to the sponsor yet?” I asked.

“I’m hoping we don’t have to take that step,” Larry said. “Based on our agreement with the sponsor to freeze the requirements, I am hoping we can deal with this after implementation of the original system.”

I thought about what Larry said so far and told him he needed to rethink his position.

“Freezing requirements is a good technique to defer the requests for minor changes that come up at the end of the project,” I said. “However, don’t forget you are trying to deliver a workable solution to your customer. Implementing a solution that no longer meets their business needs doesn’t make sense.”

Mentor advice
The reason we start a project is to deliver business value that is defined and agreed to in the project definition. Project managers use a set of project management processes to execute and control the project as effectively and efficiently as possible. However, sometimes project managers start to see the process as more important than the business value that the project is designed to deliver.

Larry’s project is a case in point. On the surface, it looks as if he is doing the right thing. His sponsor has agreed to put a freeze on any requirements changes so that Larry’s team can focus on delivering their product as-is. The purpose of the freeze is to stop small changes and other nuisance requests. These requests can be deferred until later.

However, in this case, the legal department has made changes to its business processes. Although this has come at an inconvenient time for Larry’s project, he cannot use the freeze as a reason to defer the request. If he does, then the solution he delivers will not be workable and may cause more problems than it solves. This change needs to be processed through scope change management, including taking the business needs and the project impact to the sponsor. Given the nature of the change, I believe the sponsor will approve it and the corresponding increase in project duration and cost.

The bottom line is to use your project management processes to deliver increased business value. Don’t let them get in the way of delivering that value.

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 keep your perspective?

What’s the best way to approach projects so that you’re more concerned with the overall business goals and not the means you use to reach them? Post your comments below.