Project Management — “NO SURPRISE” Model

Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable - Jane Austen


I have spent the last 14 years of my life managing projects , I am a Project Manager by profession. My experience has been with dealing with projects in the Information Technology space and dealing with a lot of international customers and large teams.

As a Project Manager and later as a senior manager managing large development teams, I have been closely involved in identifying, training and nurturing Project Managers. In the last few years, I have been leading training for budding Project Managers and this blog speaks further about that.

While there are many ways of explaining what Project Management is all about and what a Project Manager is expected to do. Through the course of my sessions and interactions, there is one thing I communicate upfront and clearly — the role of a Project Manager is to ensure there are “NO SURPRISES”.

Dilbert Comic Strip

One can speak about a Project Manager and his role from multiple angles — Managing Triple Constraints, Understanding/Adapting to various Development Methodologies, Managing Project Lifecycle, Expert on Nine Knowledge Areas of Project Management, Managing Teams and more. For me, all of this boils down to managing projects in a NO SURPRISE model.

As a Project Manager, core Project Management skills like what I mentioned above are essential — There is no two ways about it. What I am trying to emphasize here is the underlying philosophy which Project Manager’s need to posses.

What does the “NO SURPRISE” model mean for Project Managers?

# Communication is the most critical element, this is true for both internal teams and customers. Right communication eliminates ambiguity and ensures transparency, this is the underlying philosophy which needs to be followed.

# Emphasis on advance planning and avoiding last minute rush — Upfront planning and management ensures that managers focus on key elements of the project and don’t firefight.

# Focus communication on the most important items of the project— It is imperative to keep the stakeholders appraised of the project status, key issues/risks/dependencies and manage them right.

# Tradeoff’s are essential on any project. Scope vs. Schedule, Technology choices, Adding people to meet timelines vs. Managing Effort/Cost and more. It is important that these scenarios are analyzed and stakeholders informed on the basis of the decisions. The options have to be analyzed and presented with Pro’s and Con’s.

In many of my training sessions and project reviews, I focus on the above message and give people example of how they can avoid giving “Surprises”

One of my key projects was for a leading F100 customer which was a “Responsive Web Design” (RWD) application. The customer had engaged an agency for the Creative Design and engaged with my team for the development component.

The project had a fixed go-live date given some of the campaigns planned by the customer team. Through the course of the project, the team was thrown in with multiple challenges and had to make a few choices to meet the deadline.

# Scope vs. Timeline — The entire scope of the project was not achievable within the timelines set. The customer was given options to trade off low priority scope items to meet deadlines. This upfront expectation setting helped in aligning all stakeholders to the project priorities and deadline.

# Scope Management — Some of the creatives provided by the agency were not feasible from a “RWD” perspective. The initial couple of weeks were focussed on review and revisions to design to make it feasible. Any delays in resolving the scope would have made the deadline difficult

# Testing focus — RWD projects need to be tested across a X*Y*Z matrix of OS, Browsers, Form Factors. The team recommended to the customer which combinations will be focussed on from a testing perspective and finalized the testing priority.

# Expectation setting with teams — All teams needed to put in additional effort to meet project timelines and this was well communicated with all stakeholders. Everyone responded to their responsibilities — Development team with Build & Release schedule, QA teams with certification, Customer teams with feedback and prioritization. All of this helped in ensuring there are limited communication issues and hence limited surprises.

Key takeaways from this project — The Key Success Factors were identified upfront and major issues identified/resolved initially to make sure there was limited fire fighting while crossing the line on a tight deadline project. Avoid over commitments, setting realistic expectations was critical to ensure there were “NO SURPRISES”. I am not saying there was no trouble on the project, I am saying that trouble was minimized and manageable.

Summary: It is imperative to have the core skills of Project Planning/Tracking/Monitoring and understanding of the Project Management Knowledge Area for a Project Manager. However Project Managers need to understand the underlying philosophy of managing projects / stakeholders and that is one of “NO SURPRISES”