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.

The dilemma
I recently met with Liz, a sales and marketing manager. She’s overseeing a project that involves implementing a marketing-information database.

“The vice president of marketing has given us time to make sure the database is implemented correctly, but he doesn’t want to hear excuses if it’s late,” Liz said. “Our project manager, Donna, is doing a good job, and the team is actively building the database now. Still, I’m nervous because of the high visibility. We can’t afford to fail.”

I acknowledged Liz’s nervousness. “That’s a natural feeling. In fact, you and Donna are on the hook for the success of this project. If there are problems, the VP is going to look to you for answers. It won’t be good enough to say that Donna was the project manager and it was her responsibility.”

“That’s exactly my point,” Liz agreed. “The problem is that my background is finance. For instance, I reviewed the business-requirements document that was created by the project team earlier, but I can’t tell if the information is good or not. I want to be able to track the projects adequately and at the right level, without getting involved with the details. But I don’t know what questions to ask.”

“It’s hard for functional managers to be subject-matter experts for every project in the organization,” I said. “Your boss shouldn’t expect that you have that level of knowledge. However, there are questions to ask to make sure that the projects are proceeding as expected. These questions are part of your quality-assurance role.”

Mentor advice
Managers want to give responsibility and autonomy to their project managers, but they also maintain some responsibility if the project is in trouble or fails. Most managers are not experts in all aspects of the projects in their departments. Thus, managers generally need to rely on quality-assurance techniques, which ensure that sound processes are used to create project deliverables. (On the other hand, quality control is all about ensuring that the deliverable itself is complete and correct.) If a manager cannot validate directly that a deliverable is of high quality, they at least need to feel comfortable that the project team used a solid process to build the deliverable.

In Liz’s case, she was uncomfortable reviewing the business-requirements document that was produced by the project team. Liz probably cannot look at the business-requirement document and know for sure whether the requirements are correct and complete. However, she can ask questions about the deliverable, how the business requirements were created, who was involved in generating the requirements, who reviewed the documents, and who approved the document. If the project manager can explain and justify the process used to create the project deliverables, there’s a good likelihood that the deliverables are acceptable. If the project is also within its budget, effort, and timeline estimates, then the manager should take some comfort that the project is on track. Similar questions regarding the other deliverables can be asked as the project progresses through its life cycle.

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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