Of course, we wish all of our projects went perfectly and ended with a nice customer signoff, payment or whatever followed by a successful rollout…then onto the next project. Reality says that just isn’t usually the case, right? In Part 1 of this four-part series on different corrective action that PMs must often take, we’ll examine corrective action that is often taken to rescue the project itself.

1. The Project

The scenario

Let’s assume you’re running a project and the outstanding issues that are necessitating corrective action really have nothing to do with the management of the project itself – meaning the project manager. And let’s continue down the personnel vein and assume that issues aren’t with the team – at least not from an administrative standpoint. We’ll get to the team in another segment of this series. They could be issues with the team from an ability standpoint (meaning maybe you need more technical expertise in a particular area). If the issues aren’t personnel, but focus more on budget, timeframe, bugs, skills, etc….how do you cope? What potential corrective action measures can you take?

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to remain somewhat general. I’ve found that corrective action that must be taken on a project usually centers around one or more of four basic project areas: the skills of the resources, the project budget or financial situation, the project schedule, and the issues and risks that can arise. Let’s examine each of these.

Evaluate your team’s skill set

While the problem may not be with individual attitudes, customer interaction, or motivation, it may in fact be an issue with the skill set of one or more project team members. An early to mid-project snapshot of the project technical needs may give you a revised look at what you really need to get the job done – and it may not be what your project team can currently offer. If that is the case – or if they don’t seem to have the skill set to get the project through a current round of issues - work with the team and the customer to identify what skills truly are needed. And then seek those out from the appropriate resource manager in your organization. The key is to not overload the project with personnel because you will then have a budget issue on your hands – figure out a transition plan and work it out with customer oversight and input.

Bring the financials to the forefront

If the project budget is becoming an issue, bring your team immediately into the management and oversight of the project financials. Making them knowledgeable and accountable not only gives you another set of eyes for the budget, but also makes your team members aware of budget issues and your oversight of it – instantly making them more careful and accurate users of the project’s precious financial resources. Trust me, it works.

Make collaboration happen

You may be great at revising and distributing a weekly up-to-date project master schedule. But there’s no ownership of its individual pieces if your team and customer never look at it. Long before PM software was collaborative, I forced schedule collaboration on a floundering $30 million project by making individual peer managers responsible for portions of the schedule and then tied it all back together every week before the weekly status call with the customer. It worked – the managers became more accountable to timeframes and tasks and my staff and I turned the project around within a two-month window. Now we have more collaborative tools – it’s a good idea to give access to the schedule to your team and maybe even your customer with a tool like Seavus’ Project Viewer. The key is to make it collaborative - share the project schedule and make your team and customer own their tasks.

Re-examine the risks

It never fails that project teams overlook some or even many risks that could come up on a given project – meaning they’ve made no plans for risk avoidance or mitigation should those risks arise. Go back to the risk list and re-evaluate the current plans and collaborate with the team and customer to identify new potential risks now that the project is in full stride. This is a good action to take mid-stream even on a healthy project, but it’s a critical action to take on an unhealthy one.

2. The Customer

Customer satisfaction is always a concern on any project or engagement. It just is. Customers can be a quirky bunch. And customer satisfaction is one of the three key determiners of project success – the other two being on time delivery and on budget delivery. While these last two are pretty clear cut, the customer satisfaction variable is not. You can being doing what you think is a perfect job managing the project, the team, the customer and delivering successfully on the project and still end up with a dissatisfied customer at the end of the project and you may have trouble even understanding why. It could be your view vs. their view of a requirements interpretation that ended up costing them extra money through a change order, or it could be testing issue that was beyond your control…who knows. It could be one of a million things.

For the purpose of this article, let’s assume that there is already an issue with customer satisfaction on a project you’re managing. I’m more concerned about things that can’t really be fixed just by working through some issues. I’m more concerned with customer satisfaction issues that focus on how the project manager is handling things or how the project is being run in general. What corrective action can we take now to increase customer confidence and turn around customer satisfaction – especially when it involves the actual management of the project and the interaction we are having with the project client?

From experience, I recommend trying these two immediate actions.

Increase customer participation

First, immediately revisit project tasks and look for specific items that can be ‘owned’ by the customer. Or, if non exist, invent some that make sense, revise the schedule and get it to the customer for them to review in a tool like Seavus’ Project Viewer. If the customer is doing little other than ‘overseeing’ your efforts, then they have little to do other than look for your flaws. The key is to get them more actively involved. Rather than continue to give them the opportunity to scrutinize your every move, turn them into active participants on the team. Does it drive you crazy when you’re working hard around the house but your kid or kids are lying around watching TV or playing video games? What do you do? Give them work! I guarantee if you do that with your customer they’ll start looking more at the big picture of the project and their role in it and less about everything you might be doing that isn’t pleasing them 100%.

Start holding weekly status meetings and delivering a revised schedule every week.

I’ve taken over numerous projects that had frustrated clients and one of the biggest common issues was the lack of organized management at the PM level. Weekly meetings weren’t happening, no status reports were being distributed, and the project schedule was weeks out of date. Even if all that’s happening is some issue fixing to get through implementation, you still need regular meetings and you still need to be tracking everything with a project schedule. And status reports should be MANDATORY. Especially when things aren’t going well. It’s during those times that you must go into overdrive and prove to your customer that you really do have a handle on everything. And they won’t see it if they aren’t seeing regular and timely communication, regular schedule deliveries, frequent status calls, and up-to-date status reports. Plus, creating and delivering those things will literally force you into a more productive and efficient mode of managing the project.

3. The Project Team

In the third part of this series I want to look at how the project manager might take necessary steps to resolve issues that arise with the project team. The idea is to be aware, look for signs and be proactive about taking action to correct the situations before they become problematic for the project, for the rest of the team, and for your customer. Once you’ve allowed it to cross that line to causing customer dissatisfaction or project issues, it’s hard to fix both that perception and the overall problem.

Below are four potential issues project managers might face on projects that they are managing where team members have basically caused the issues and corrective action is taken. I’m speaking from experience here because I’ve had each of these come up more than once on my projects over the 20+ years I’ve been managing IT engagements.

Project budget issues

Many project budget issues can be traced right back to the primary individuals charging time to your projects – your own project team members. At the end of the day, we don’t always look back and document where we spent our time. We may not even do that at the end of the week. On Monday morning, when Accounting is asking for either our head or our timesheet, then – and only then – do we set about the arduous task of documenting what we spent our time on the previous week. And of course, we think we can remember everything we did, right? What I’ve just described is everyone charging time to your projects. They may be able to remember 40 of their 50 hours they spent last week, but those final 10 hours are the ‘grey’ hours. They were legitimate hours they spent working on someone’s project doing real work, but no one remembers what project. If you’re the quiet project manager who’s not tracking his budget closely, those hours go to you.

The fix is to manage your budget closely – and if you’re not doing so already then start now. And, involve your team. Because if they know you’re watching the project budget on a daily basis, then your project will not be where they charge those unknown hours. And your project budget will remain healthier for it.

Resource conflict issues

Our team members are often working on other projects. If we begin to run into issues with their availability during key points in our project, then it is imperative that we take corrective action. A couple of years ago I was leading a team that was performing a case study in the IT arena. I can’t give specifics, but it was similar to this interesting one I ran across recently on an IP trunking business case from Allstream. I didn’t realize it immediately, but I wasn’t getting the focus from one of my team members that I needed and his tasks were slipping – all due to his other project commitments. It isn’t always enough that we carefully manage their time using a collaborative tool like Seavus’ Project Viewer. That will track their time on your project, but if they’re being pulled to a more critical project than ours, then seeking out a comparably skilled replacement may be the only answer. If prioritization of work is the issue, than a meeting with the resource and his direct supervisor may be the right step to take. Either way, corrective action must happen quickly so that project tasks don’t begin to slip. Missed task deadlines on projects can quickly have a domino affect leading to missed milestones and possibly a delayed deployment. Swift corrective action is the only answer.

Issues in front of the project client

Ever had one of those project team members that reacted to every problem like an over-concerned four year old? Well, I did. My lead developer on a project a few years ago was very quick to over-react to potential issues on the project. Had he been sitting next to me, that may have been ok. But he wasn’t – I was working remotely most of the time and he was sitting onsite with the customer. You get the picture…and it’s not a pretty one. Needless to say, the ‘sky is falling’ attitude he had with every issue that came up scared the heck out of the project client and initiated several phone calls from the client to me and to my superiors. I had to either correct his customer-interfacing skills quickly, or replace him as the customer was requesting. They liked his skills, but they were concerned about his ability to handle pressure – as was I. After careful discussion, I managed to convince him to step back and assess issues with me and the rest of the team before reacting in front of the customer. He corrected his behavior and eventually gained back the confidence of the customer.

Let’s face it – most of our developers on our IT projects have big egos. They are certain that they know a lot more about everything than we do. That’s one reason why I feel that it’s critical for an IT project manager to have a technical background. Our very skilled technical leads on projects will sometimes try to blaze their own paths. I’ve usually found this to be more apparent on smaller projects where that developer may be the only one on the project. As the project manager, you must do one of two things…micro-manage them or replace them. I usually try to see if some one-on-one discussion and short-term micro-management solves the behavior, but if it doesn’t, then the resource must be replaced before he takes the project off track by performing unassigned work and work that is not covered as part of the project requirements.

4. Your Career

For the final segment of this four part series, we’ll look at corrective action you, as a project manager, may look to take in terms of your career. Any failed project, major missed deadline, customer misunderstanding, or team management issue could put a dent in your career progress so it’s always good to keep in mind ways you can put yourself in the best position possible in case you need to take some corrective action or begin to look for your next position in the project management marketplace.

In my opinion, trying one or more of the following strategies to get noticed, get better, or stay current is great corrective action to take as you try to get your project management career back on track or get over a recent bump you may have experienced on an engagement or within your organization…

Connect with your executive management

I’m not one to wave my arms to get senior management to notice me…I never have been. And you may be that way as well. Project managers are a fairly independent bunch by nature anyway. But if you’re finding yourself on the wrong side of the fence with your senior leadership more often than not, then it may be time to show more accountability to them. Let them know how much work you’re doing – and how hard you’re working at it. Increase your visibility.

How do you do this? By involving them in your projects. You may not be able to physically involve them in each of your projects, but you can go out of your way to tell them about the projects – even if you are just putting them on your distribution list of status reports, budget updates, resource forecasts, and project schedule revisions. When you start sending them all this detail and they see it and realize that you’re the only project manager in the organization giving them this much information, they will take notice. One cautionary note: this does start to put you under the magnifying glass, so you want to be sure that they’re seeing positive stuff about your projects. Be sure that you are staying on top of everything and maintaining your projects in good standing.

Go for the professional certification

If you’re hoping to land a job with another organization in order to advance your career, you should seriously look into obtaining project management professional (PMP) certification through the Project Management Institute (PMI). The cost is definitely a consideration so be prepared. PMI membership is around $130. The test for certification will run you a little over $40. Ongoing training on a yearly basis to maintain your membership can be as much as $2000 – especially if travel is involved. But it may be your only chance to even get in the door for an interview in these economic times, so if you’re bent on changing organizations or if you’re about to find yourself out of a job, it may be in your best interest to make the time and spend the money to get certified.

Become more techie

If you find yourself floundering in an IT world and you lack a technical background, this should not come as a surprise. What should be a surprise is that you’ve made it this far. If you’re going to continue to manage technical projects, then you must gain some technical expertise yourself. Take classes, learn one or more programming languages, go to a technical conference, and read, read, read. Seriously, you can stay pretty current and gain great technical knowledge by blocking out several hours every week just to read technical articles and blogs on targeted sites on the Internet. But if you really want to succeed on your specific projects, then gain specific knowledge that pertains to the types of projects you’ve been leading and the types of technology that you’re usually implementing.