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Sep 25

The 11th Hour Project Manager

I’m struggling this month.  I recently started work on a new client engagement and the work is well underway.  It is structured as a program, and I am now the seventh of seven project managers, each with a portion of the program to manage.  All seven of us are senior PMs, could probably manage the overall program if need be, and are good, hardworking resources.

The engagement is critical to the client, with a goal of being completed by year end.  My involvement stems from the fact that the program as a whole is behind schedule, and they are trying a “divide and conquer” approach.  Each of the PMs has anywhere from 3 to 7 individual projects within the program, and all of projects are at different phases of the project lifecycle that we are following.  The PMs are part of an IT group, and are working in concert with a systems compliance team, as well as the respective business owners for each application that we’re working on.  All of the IT and compliance resources are also matrixed, which invites other challenges in terms of competing projects and milestones that have to be met within the program as a whole.

Yes, the engagement is as dry as it sounds, but the client works in a regulated environment, and the work is a necessary evil that has to be completed in order for the company to remain compliant with government agencies.  Additionally, there are three program sponsors, one from each of the three groups engaged (IT, compliance and the business), and they don’t always see eye to eye, either.  Even at this late stage of the game.

I’ve been involved in this type of validation and compliance work before, but usually on new systems that are moving into production, and only one or two systems at a time.  For this engagement, the systems are already in place, but need to follow a more rigorous documentation process to ensure they are working correctly.  Yes, it is as dry as it sounds.

The foundation of my struggles is that I’ve joined this initiative in the 11th hour.  I can perform the tasks and responsibilities I’ve been assigned, but the die has otherwise been cast in terms of being able to influence the approach or strategy of getting the work done, and creative ways of being efficient at the program level.  Over the past few weeks, the engagement has sucked the creativity right out of me, to the point where authoring this month’s posting was starting to become a challenge.

Perhaps you have been in this situation as well.  If you are anything like me, it becomes frustrating, because you have a particular leadership and management style, approach, and/or strategy, and it has been successful for you in the past.  The challenge for me is finding ways to adapt to the environment, work within the constraints, and find ways to be successful in consideration of the circumstances.

Understand the Mandate

One question I always ask when being brought on board for a project is “What is the mandate?”  I always like to know what business conditions exist that are causing this project to be undertaken.  It can be very telling as to the resources that are made available to the project, how well funded it is, and what prioritization others involved in the project will make this work compared to other work they are responsible for.  In this case, the project is required for this client to remain compliant from a regulatory perspective.  They wouldn’t willingly engage in this work if they didn’t have to.  With that in mind, and knowing that the IT and compliance teams are highly invested in the success of this program, it became very apparent, very early in my involvement, that to the business owners, this is just another thing they have to do.  It’s probably not in the business manager’s annual goals and objectives to participate in this engagement, nor do I think the project tasks are their highest priority on any given day.  My strategy of overcoming this is to stretch beyond thinking about the normal one or two steps ahead in managing project tasks, but actually four to five steps ahead, and provide as much lead time and visibility to required tasks as possible.  Historically I have found that while being very busy all day long, most managers will make sure they stay on top of their assigned tasks if given enough time to fit it into their schedule.  If I can give them a heads-up with more lead time, they will find a pocket of time in which to get the work done.  The projects within the program that are struggling the most seem to be the ones where the business owner is not well engaged, and “doesn’t have time to do it…”   I’m trying my hardest to avoid that.

Influence What You Can

As I mentioned, I’m certainly too late to the party to really make a contribution at the program level, but I can focus on the individual projects I’ve been assigned and make a difference.  This engagement in particular is not one where someone could splash land in the middle of the program and make a bunch of waves to rock the boat.   I have quickly built relationships with the technical project team members, and some of the compliance staff.  I’ve tried to be as timely as possible with communications to the team, and regularly reach out to see how I can help them and/or remove obstacles that are keeping them from reaching respective milestones.  Some things are out of my control, and as we march towards year-end, I’ll need to be prepared to be nimble and flexible to keep my work on track within the constraints of the program.  I will not use the program level challenges as an excuse, but rather continue to react and adapt within my projects, remove any dependencies from resources on other projects, and keep my team on track as best as possible.

Leverage Relationships

Fortunately, each of the other six project managers was at one point in my shoes – they were the “new” PM to the program and had to go through the learning curve that I’ve experienced the past few weeks.  I was encouraged by the IT Program Manager when I first came on board to leverage them as much as possible, as chances were that one of them has encountered any and all of the issues and challenges I will face while engaged here.  For me, as with every project and client engagement, I’ve already picked up a few things along the way.  It’s been helpful to avoid the “rookie mistakes” within this program, while still having some autonomy to put my style and approach on the projects I’m responsible for.  It’s helped keep me on track thus far.

Ultimately, despite the struggles and initial challenges, I am starting to hit my stride as far as my individual projects are concerned, and doing my best to not get caught up in the program level politics or broader issues amongst the sponsors.  For this engagement, I will look to make the most of the circumstances, and perhaps if I do well enough with these projects, they’ll extend me for a subsequent phase of work that I can influence from the beginning.  But for now, the clock is ticking, and it is time to get back to work.

The following originally appeared in September 2014 as a post on BEALEADER – a widely recognized blog that focuses on aspects and attributes of great leadership.  The original post can be found here.  This article has since been selected as one of the Top 10 Articles for all of 2014 by BELEADER based upon page views on their site.