Managing multiple Project Server instances over the years has taught me that Project Management tools amplify your project process and project communications effectiveness. If your process and communication effectiveness is good, a tool will make this situation better. If there’s a communications issue or process breakdown, a tool will create “chaos at light speed”, amplifying the underlying problem.

The first step of any Project Server or Project Online implementation is to review your current communication and process framework. Using a question-centric approach like our Effective Simplicity™ approach can help guide you away from potential communication gaps and issues.

Projects are Conversations

Projects have been around for as long as humans have worked together to achieve common goals. They weren’t called projects at that time as most interactions were face to face.  The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. Feeding the tribe, fighting off invaders or building shelter for the family were a form of projects.

The efforts grew in size as did the number of people involved, as time passed. The need to capture the conversation between all parties became more critical. Project plans were born as a technique to keep track of the overall conversation. Thus, project plans represent the latest state of the conversation between everyone involved with the project.

The diagram below is a simplified representation of the ongoing conversations related to just one project.

Project Communications

Effective Conversations Require Commonalities

Projects represent a formal conversation that is a temporary reorganization of your work social network. There are some requirements for this conversation to happen effectively.

  • Common language
  • Defined information outcomes
  • Information cadence
  • Defined audience

Notice, there is no mention of common approach. Having a single approach for all projects is a bit like having the same logic for all software. It just doesn’t work as business needs vary. Rather, the touch points between projects should be common, allowing project plans to be customized for the given business problem but still able to share information across the portfolio.

Common Language

Common language implies that the terms being used have the same meaning across the organization. If Marketing, Customer Support and IT are using different terms for the same concept or the same terms for different concepts, a conversation breakdown is imminent. For example, a Go Live date may mean the date that the software is placed into production by IT. However, Customer Support views the Go Live as the first date in which they can start generating tickets. As these are different events, unnecessary confusion with external stakeholders is bound to occur when communicating Go Live plans.

Detailed Information Outcomes

Defined information outcomes are the questions you need to answer with the data captured in the tool. The use of questions focuses your thought process on concrete examples that are easy to communicate, easy to define what is in scope and easy to judge value from the outcome.

For example, you’ve defined an Executive audience who have the following three questions.

  • What is the total project investment for this fiscal year for each of the CEO’s strategic initiatives?
  • Which quarter will key value propositions by CEO strategic initiative be realized?
  • What is overall variance trend of our project investment from original plan?

For each of these questions, you can discuss the desired outcome with the target audience, allowing the definition of clear and concise data to be collected to answer the question. It’s also easier to track progress on the question rather than attempting to ascertain progress from a list of functional configuration steps. Questions also help drive clear implementation requirements. Once these requirements are gathered and tracked according to each question, you can make more intelligent adjustments to overall scope by excluding questions rather than blindly cutting tool scope.

To drill down, the first question will require the scheduling of project costs and assignment of project contribution to strategic initiatives. The scheduling of project costs, which can be done using Project’s cost resources, can be a significant training effort for PMs new to cost scheduling. Using the drivers in Project’s Portfolio Management functions can capture the strategic initiative contribution. Portfolio Management functionality requires good schedule and cost data in order to be effective. This may represent a larger implementation effort than you are able to take on initially. Ultimately, you can do both but now you have a clearer picture of the impact.

Information Cadence

If you’ve ever been in a conversation with your significant other and had your mind drift, you quickly discovered how  a lack of timely information can lead to a serious issue. Information cadence within the organization is about ensuring that the right data is maintained and available on a regular interval. For some organizations, that means projects are updated weekly on Fridays. For others, a monthly cadence is more appropriate. Setting an information cadence expectation ensures that everyone is listening for the same information at the same time.

For example, one client has all updates made by Friday evening as standard reports are generated on Monday morning for the project review meetings that begin on Monday afternoon. The cadence ensures these meetings have the latest information.

Defined audience

Within the project, the importance and significance of a member’s role changes over the life of the project as information needs change to achieve work.

Tools such as RACI attempt to model the project’s social interactions. Communication plans also attempt to do this, but from a different perspective. However, RACI, communication plans and other tools of that sort represent a one-time look at how the project members and stakeholders interact. These models fall down as soon as the project starts and reality takes over.

The question-centric approach maps the audience to the question, enabling you to easily monitor and manage the needs over time. If the question mix changes for a given audience, it is easy to gauge the impact and required work.

Starting Well Prevents Later Issues

Starting your project management system design, using a question-centric approach, will help you avoid later issues by ensuring you are meeting the most important needs of your audience. Clear definition of audiences and questions facilitates clear communication of value propositions. The questions also enable clear prioritization and scope control. Tool configuration becomes a means of supporting a conversation rather than being a driver of conversations. Within this framework, the result will be a much leaner Project Server implementation.

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