The simple way to save yourself from trouble on a project

All of us in the project management profession have been there before — you’re a few months into the project, and for one reason or another, things aren’t progressing the way you’d like. The customer hasn’t participated, this vendor or that didn’t come through, or you didn’t get the resources internally to get to where you wanted to be at this point. To add to the problem, the customer has just received their first quarterly invoice. They haven’t read the contract, and are questioning why they are receiving a request for payment when they haven’t seen value or are behind schedule. Sound familiar?

While we’ve all found ourselves in this position, its easy to avoid with a simple technique that will take you next to no time. The proverb that says that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is especially true in project management. The process of setting expectations up front with a customer can save you from situations like the one I’ve described above, and have other positive effects on the outcome of the project. To do this, take a page from the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

Part 42 of the FAR describes a post award orientation to achieve ‘a clear and mutual understanding of all contract requirements, and identify and resolve potential problems’. It’s intended for use with new or disadvantaged bidders, but anyone can request one. The section describes in great detail that the meeting is intended to be an orientation to the contract. In doing so, the intent is not to change it’s requirements, but to provide clarification, awareness, and alignment of the specific terms between the two parties.

This same concept can be used in all of your contracts. Whether you have immensely clear single page agreements, or a multitude of master agreements, statements of work, and PO’s, you can benefit from reviewing these documents with your customer. The meeting does not have to be long or laborious, and can be completed with next to no preparation. Just tell your customer that you want to align on important expectations, such as scope, schedule and billing terms. Attach your signed contracts to the meeting invite, and open them up when the meeting time comes. Review, line by line if necessary, the specific parts of the contract that you know have caused confusion in the past, or that you think your customer might not be aware of. Be upfront with when you will bill them and expect payment. Review the detail of the scope and document any areas where you might not see eye to eye. Schedule follow ups on these areas. While you’re reviewing the document, pull up an email and take notes on what you agree to and discuss. The meeting works best from one PM to another, but don’t hesitate to bring in additional expertise if you need to. Once you’re done with the meeting, send the notes to the customer as evidence of your discussion.

This simple act of aligning on expectations will help you avoid the situation described above, and will put your customer at ease. The meeting will also bring out early any areas of major misalignment between expectations and what’s been contracted. It’s better to address these early on in the project for the most part. Finally, this review of the details gives you the opportunity to speak one on one with your client in the beginning phases of a project, building valuable rapport and trust in you. On your next project, I encourage you to try this simple method, and if it works, share the tip with others!