How to Manage Verbal Requirements

imageAll the project management practices advocates that the requirements should be properly documented. I agree to this. But it is not very infrequent that you get the requirements over the phone or verbally. Someone just called in and asked you to some changes in the module that is currently being developed. And if you are not unlike me, you know the consequences sometimes are  very drastic in nature.

Let me explain this by an example. Once there was a psychotherapist – highly educated and very talented. He decided to open a clinic in the city. Once everything was done, he called up a local painter and asked him to paint his signboard. The painter did his job very well but when our psychotherapist saw this, he fainted. He then starts shouting at the painter. And painter was not able to understand what went wrong. What actually happened was that the the painter was asked to pain ‘Psychotherapist’ on the sign board. However, he painted ‘psycho the rapist’.

I hope you can now imagine what happens with the verbal or telephonic requirements. So how to cope with these? In practical scenario, you cannot avoid verbal requirements. I follow a process, which I call ACR (or Accurately Confirmed Requirements, as my teammates call this) to cope with such situations. The three step process goes as below:

  1. Accept the verbal or telephonic requirements – since you cannot avoid this, it’s better to accept this strategically.
  2. Confirm – once you have received the verbal or telephonic requirements, review them in your head to make them more clear. Once you know clearly what the caller wants, draft a mail. Write down what you understood and send it back to the person who gave you the requirements. Ask him to confirm whether your comprehension of his thoughts is right. This will help you both to be on the same page.
  3. Record – After getting the confirmation from originator of the requirements, document it. You may need to update the requirement documents or project scope statement.

ACR is always followed by the planning and execution on the new requirements.

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Save Your Project From Communication Gap

imageToday, In a casual discussion one of my colleague told me that he has forwarded some queries on a proposed project to his boss. His boss will get it clarified with the client and update him on the same.

This reminded me about one of my project long back. There project team was forbidden to talk to client directly. All communication happened through project manager only. The mode was like

team member <–> team lead/architect <–> PM <=> client PM <–> client’s technical team

  • Result: one week time to get a query answered. That too with insufficient or incorrect answers.
  • Consequences: slow project progress, unhappy stakeholders.

One day, fortunately, we got a new project manager. And the forbidden forest became easily accessible. Now you could directly talk to the person who can solve the query, be it client PM or client’s technical staff. This small change accelerated the project progress. Rest as they say is history.

I learned certain stuff from this and created a theory that communication gaps kills the project. When I started managing the projects, I always emphasize on the following three factors:

Communication gap kills the project

The more channels in the communication medium, the poorer is the quality. There are two factors – one, indirect communication slows down the process; two, at each level there is loss if information. Indirect communication results in a slow and incomplete message. This raises another set of queries – which again slow down the progress. This may gradually kill the project.

Communication should be as direct as possible

Direct communication resolved the issue in a faster way. When knowledge possessor and knowledge seeker talks directly, there is no loss of the information. Further, any query which arise out of the answer, will get answered immediately. As a project manager you should keep the communications between teams as straight as possible.

But don’t forget the keep the stakeholders in loop

This is most important. You must always be informed about the information that is being exchanged between the cross team members. This is required for the good health of the project. This will help you to  – 1. keep the project scope in control, 2. keep the project documents up-to-date and 3. Keeps you up-to-date on the current state of the project.

These three things will add rocket fuel to your project and make your life somewhat easier.

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How to Finish a Project On Time

imageIn the previous post, I explained why a project gets delayed. Here I will explain how to deliver a project on time. Keep the following four things in minds and you will be able to deliver your project on time.

1. Manage your scope very carefully

Project scope tends to increase. There are several reason for this. Sometime project team itself increase the project scope. A team member thinks that feature-X is a blasting idea and it will be very useful to the end user. He may be right in his thinking but time to implement feature-X was not estimated. So doing so will either waste the buffer time or consume a slice of time from some other task. A project manager should always keep an eye on the project scope. Having the requirements defined very clearly and reviewing the tasks status regularly helps in keeping the scope under control. In my projects, I always welcomes the new ideas from team members. However, I take the decision after carefully reviewing the current status of the project, available time and other factors.

2. Implement a change control process

In continuation to keeping the scope under control, you MUST implement a change control process. Project stakeholders tends to change the scope of project. This happens because someone just discovered a new idea which he thinks will make the project super successful. As a project manager you should welcome such ideas. However, do no jump to implementation immediately. Instead, follow your change control process. Estimate the impact of suggested change on the timeline and cost of the project. Evaluate of the new idea can be implemented in the next phase of project. Communicate your estimations to all stake holders clearly explaining the impact of implementing the new idea on the delivery of the project. Get the approvals on new timelines, cost or resources as applicable before you begin implementing the idea.

3. Keep you plan up-to-date

Always keep your project plan up-to-date. If you are using any software tool to manage your project, the task becomes easier. You project plan should be able to provide you actual vs. planned progress. As I mentioned in my other post, You always need this figure to communicate to stake holders. Your project plan should always be updated in real time to provide you correct figure.

4. Identify any deviations and fix then quickly

If you have your project plan up-to-date, you can easily identify any deviations from the plan. This is the time when you need to land your helicopter at a particular point and look into the problem. You may need to talk to team leader/member to understand the reason behind the deviation. Whatever is the reason, fix it ASAP. If fixing the reason is beyond your control, communicate immediately to stakeholders. Don’t be shy to seek help and guidance from stakeholders.

There are many more factors that may affect the timely delivery of a project. But if you follow the above four basic things, you can dramatically increase the chances of delivering your project on time.

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Why Project Gets Delayed?

imageOne of the core responsibility of a project manager is to complete the project within estimated timelines. However, 80 percent of the projects fail to finish within the timelines. Why?

If you look at the process of estimation, there is always a sufficient buffer. When a project is estimated, sufficient buffer is added to the tasks by the person-resources. A project manager then added his own buffer before committing the finish date to stakeholders. The amount of buffer depends on the experience of project manager and nature of the project. Still, projects are commonly tends to miss the guidelines. In this post, I am going to explore some basic things that helps to finish a project on time.

Why projects gets delayed?

Before I explain how to finish a project on time, you should understand why projects gets delayed. There are two basic factors – The Student Syndrome and Parkinson’s law.

The Student Syndrome

Wikipedia defines student syndrome as:

“Student syndrome refers to the phenomenon that many people will start to fully apply themselves to a task just at the last possible moment before a deadline. This leads to wasting any buffers built into individual task duration estimates.”

The student syndrome is not specific to students. It is very commonly observed in the project team members.

Parkinson’s Law

According to Parkinson’s Law

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

To explain this, let us take an example of a typical team member who is assigned to task A. Task A takes 3 days to finish. However considering the buffer, team member gives an estimated time of 4 days. While executing the task, if team member finishes it in 3 days, it is most unlikely that he will deliver the task at the end of third day. Instead he will do some extra effort on the task to add some nice-to-have features and deliver it on the fourth day. This has two effects – change in the scope of work; and the buffer of one day got wasted.

These two factors explains what lies at the bottom of delay in project delivery.

Other Factors

There are many other factors that can delay the project delivery. Some of these are

  • Unmanaged scope
  • Lack of change control process
  • Static project plan
  • Unable to zoom-in on the problem area

Once a project manager understands above two factors, he can take some steps to overcome this situation. In the next part of this post, I will explain how to succeed in delivering the project on time focusing on the other four factors.

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The Importance of Project Milestone

imageHave you ever notices that little black color diamond on the Gantt Chart of your project plan? This is a task in the task list with zero work and zero duration. Still wondering what I am talking about? Hey! I am talking about Milestone, or Project Milestone to be more precise.

If you happen to use MS Project (or any other project management software for that matter), you know what I am talking about. A milestone is a task with zero work. Just like a road milestone, this represents that you have reached a certain point in your project.

Many time project managers tend to ignore this tiny diamond. They put it in the task list for shake of showing something completed. However, this little thing is more useful – you can use it to motivate your team!

Use milestone to show major deliverable

You can use a milestone to show when a major project deliverable can be produced (delivered). In your weekly status reports, you can show how far you are from reaching this milestone. This is very helpful in big projects, where the progress towards the 100% completion of project is slow. Your initial weekly reports shows one digit percentage; which may not impress stakeholders. However, if you have defined milestones carefully, you can show the percentage complete with respect to the next milestone. This will be an impressive figure. You should than show the overall percentage completion of the project.

Forecast the completion of next milestone

In my earlier blog post on how to report project status, I advocated that you must forecast the completion of project. However, if you are using milestones, it’s better (and easier) to forecast the next milestone rather the the whole project. The reason is simple, with your experience and available data, you can peek into the near future but not far away. If your milestone is planned to be completed within a month (or week), you can judge the situation better than one year (project completion).

Use milestone to motivate your team

I have seen many project managers emphasizing on the task completion rather than achieving something. Hey Jack! Complete this task by EOD today is their usual way of talking to their team members. The problem here is that the task has no meaning to the Jack. He won’t feel anything after completing the task except it was a damn long day. Use milestone instead of task. Think – Hey Jack! you know what, our team is achieving this milestone this week. And your contribution is very important in this achievement. If you can complete this task today, we will be on easy track and we can share this with our stakeholders. Now, Jack has a motive to work. He has something to achieve rather than just finishing the task. You can expect more than 100% from Jack.

Finally, to summarize the long story into one line – Take the full advantage of tiny diamond by knowing it’s power.

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How to Report Project Status

imageAlmost every Project Manager is required to report project status to the sponsor and stakeholders. Unless you are the sponsor of your projects and you are the only stakeholder, you need to provide progress update to n number of people – sponsors, stakeholders, and your boss of course. Even if stakeholders do not ask for the status report, it is for the good of Project Manager himself to provide periodic status report to stakeholders.

In big companies the format of status reports is pre-defined. Some companies use software (and/or intranet site) that require project team member to enter various data and then automatically generate reports for the stake holders. This makes the task of Project manager easier. He at least does not need to spend time in creating status reports. And also he does not need to worry about what to include in the status report and when to send it.

But in many companies, they do not have any specific format. Project reporting structure varies project to project. In such scenario, it is very important to a project manager to develop his own format for status reporting. Tonight, I am going to help you out in status reporting. If you are not sure why you need to send status report, you can educate yourself by reading this article.

What to include in status report

First, you need to identify what information you want to include in your status report. A typical status report should show the current state of the project and how far it is from completion. It should also very clearly state whether the project is progressing as per schedule. You can include following items in your project report:

  1. Actual vs. planned efforts – When you begin a project, you plan for the schedule. In real world, it is very rate that the actual efforts are same as planned efforts. For this reason or that, there is always variance between the two. Always include a table in your status report that displays the actual vs. planned efforts of the overall project. You may also provide the same details for high level tasks as well. But do not include too much detail in your status report. Limit your tasks to a maximum of five.
  2. Percent complete – The one parameter which holds the interest of all stakeholders, regardless of their involvement and influence in the project, is %age complete figure. As a Project Manager, you always keep an eye on this figure. So it should be the easiest thing for you to include %age complete in your project status report.
  3. Actual vs. forecast (planned) spend – If you are also responsible for the project budget (in many IT companies, this is not the case always), you need to inform your project sponsor about the actual spend and forecast (planned) spend. While developing a project plan, you estimated the cost of the project. You arrive at this figure by calculating time, cost and schedule of carious tasks. As I mentioned in the point# 1, actuals are always different from planned. Hence include what you planned to spend on the project (up to the current state of project) and how much have you actually spent. You may also want to provide a very brief explanation of this variance.
  4. Number of open risks – Whether you do risk planning or not, there are always risks to a project. A risk may be as big as a roadblock to the project progress or it may be as small as one hour time loss. But risks are always there with the project. Hence it is a good idea to inform the number of open risks to the stake holders. If you want, you may include the degree of the risk as high, medium or low. So, for example, you can say 1 high, 3 medium and 7 low degree risks.
  5. Changes and issues – If you have got changes in the scope of your project, this should be informed. Some of you may have a change control mechanism in place which may require approval of project sponsor or stakeholders. So you may think that they already know about the changes. However, it is always a good idea to include changes in your status report. Similarly, if you are facing any issue, include that also. While including the issue, make sure that you specify if any action is required by the sponsor/stakeholder in order to resolve the issue.
  6. Forecast time and money – As a last step, forecast the amount of time, effort and money required to to finish the project. This is how much more time, effort and money you will need to finish the project as per the schedule. Always try to forecast as accurately as possible. Keep in mind that you should never forecast optimistically, always forecast conservatively. You never know when a sudden risk may appear.

When to send status report

OK. So now my status report is ready. When should I send it? Well, typically status report is sent on weekly basis. Whether it is Friday or Monday is something thing that you can discuss with your stakeholders. I like to send it on Monday morning because of two reasons – one, it gives true data of the week i.e. include weekend work, if and; and two, it reaches the stakeholders inbox on Monday afternoon, right when they are planning for the week.

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How Helicopter View Helped Me to Manage Projects in Better Way

As a Sr. Manager in a software development and service company, I have to manage many projects simultaneously. Being a core technical person, I have made myself freely accessible to my colleagues and project team mates. Even a junior-most team member has the liberty to discuss his technical problem with me. Although, I do not take other’s monkey, many time I found myself so engaged in the technical stuff that I hardly have time to think about the project as a whole. At least, this was the case until I discover Helicopter View.

As you know, a helicopter is capable of viewing things from a high altitude and zoom-in to a specific area if required. Imagine your project (or program) as a large landscape and different aspects of your project as specific attention areas in the landscape. From 50000 feet altitude, sitting in a helicopter, you are able to view entire landscape. You notice some disturbance at one area and you lowered your helicopter to view what’s happening there. You land your helicopter at the disturbance zone, look into the problem, solve it and then take-off again to 50000 feet altitude. You keep on doing the same day after day, week after week to make sure that there is no disturbance in the landscape you are watching.

The same zoom-in you can do in your project. Your project landscape comprise of many specific areas – scope, quality and schedule being basic three areas. Then you have stakeholder communication, team management, risk management, reviews and reports etc. If you are technically involved in the project like me, then you have technical issues as well.

Knowing the Helicopter view technique, I keep myself sitting at the helicopter at 50000 feet all the day. I keep hunting for disturbance areas by looking into the project dashboard. Whenever, someone wants me to come to 10000 feet altitude, I zoom in, look into the problem, gives directions how to solve it and then zoom-out quickly. I note it down into my reminder system to hover over the area again to make sure that the disturbance is over. I get in touch with the person, whom I helped, to check if the problem has been solved.

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