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
Ray, a consultant hired by the company, is about halfway through a project for the Finance Department to create new financial forecasting models. On the surface, the project was going fine, but during the last few weeks, it started to lose ground.

“We encountered a number of problems during the past few weeks that are really starting to bog us down,” Ray said. “We are still not in bad shape, but we are going to miss our dates if we don’t pick up the pace.”

I asked about the particular problems the team encountered.

“You will be glad to see that I have been using an Issues Log to track the problems,” Ray said proudly. “We currently have six problems that require resolution. However, our main Finance customer is tied up in quarter-end financial closing and has not been as available as we need him.”

I knew right away that six issues were too many for a project Ray’s size, so I asked for a few examples. He began ticking off a list of problems from his Issues Log:

  • A glitch in the modeling software either needed to be solved by the client or the vendor. However, Ray had asked the team not to contact the vendor on its own without the customer’s approval.
  • The application could only generate a 40-page report before encountering memory problems. However, the client has reports that will be much larger, and Ray wanted to get the client’s input on this issue.
  • It was also unclear how the application should pass parameters into the Web pages. Ray wanted it to be consistent for all the reports.

I stopped him midsentence: “Okay, I think I get the picture. I agree that these questions need to be answered before you can proceed. However, I don’t think they are issues, because you don’t need the customer to help resolve them. I think you have all the expertise you need on the team already.”

Mentor advice
Every project has questions and problems that arise every day. Some of them are so trivial that the decisions are made quickly before you can worry about them. While some problems require collaboration between team members and the project manager before they can be resolved, you may also encounter problems that the project team cannot address. These should be classified as issues, since you need the help of others outside your direct project team to resolve them.

Ray was burned previously on this project because of some technology decisions he made. He may now have gone overboard the other way and may not feel comfortable making any decisions at all.

This indecisiveness is now causing delays on the project. Ray needs to allow his team to address these problems and drive them to resolution. On the first problem, for example, his team should just go ahead and call the vendor for help.

The third question about passing parameters is a technical matter that the client is not going to understand anyway and is definitely within the team’s control to resolve. If there’s uncertainty over whether a decision can be made by the team, think about the following questions:

  • Is there an effect on effort, duration, or cost? If there is, the resolution may require outside help.
  • Will the decision require you to go out of scope or deviate from previously agreed-upon specifications?
  • Are the problem and resolution politically sensitive?
  • Will the decision require you to miss a previously agreed-upon commitment?
  • Will the decision open the project to future risk?

If none of these conditions exist, then the team members can make the decision. Most of the decisions that are required on a day-to-day basis don’t meet these criteria and can be made by the team or individual team members. Ray should allow his team to resolve all the problems on the list to get the project back on track.

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.

Do you have a plan for communicating with vendors?

As a consultant, do you put together a plan to resolve problems when you need a vendor’s input? How do you know when it’s okay to call a vendor and when you can take care of problems yourself? Post your comments in the discussion below.