Monday 8 August 2022

Say a word about the poor project...

The topic of effective communication in the project worries many project managers. And rightly so. It is not right to treat communications "according to the residual principle", and ignoring communications is a direct road to the fiasco of the project and its leader. In support of the above, I would like to cite a real case related to the audit of the project a little more than a year ago.

So, audit. In fact, in project management, an audit is a structured independent review of the compliance of processes with good practices, aimed at finding areas for improving project processes and assisting in the implementation of such improvements. On either side, it's a positive idea. 


In our case, the audit of the project was ordered by the majority shareholder of a small food holding for a slightly different purpose. In his opinion, the project of introducing an information system (ERP) came to a standstill, and before closing the project, we had to figure out which of its participants was to what extent responsible for the loss of considerable money invested in the project.

We imagined that the results of the audit could be used for personnel decisions and litigation with the contractor, so we were wary of the proposal.

As a condition of our response to the proposal to conduct an audit, we stipulated the opportunity to communicate with several key project participants in advance.

The very first interview showed a high level of emotional aggression towards the contractor's team on the part of the Chief Accountant of the holding. 

At the same time, all the accusations boiled down to well-known formulations: 


"they are incompetent", 


"their system does not work", 


"our comments are ignored" and 

"everything is wrong there". 


The implementation manager on the part of the customer spoke reluctantly, complained about the sabotage of his colleagues, the lack of support "from above" and, apparently, already imagined himself in search of another job. 


The official sponsor of the project, the financial director, only a month as he worked in the company, and he clearly did not care about our questions. Overall, it's pretty typical of a dying project.

Not such an unambiguous feeling was formed when communicating with the project manager from the contractor.

On the one hand, he also complained about the resistance of the holding staff, lack of support and unwillingness to make the necessary decisions by the management. 


On the other hand, he was sure that the project was going to be closed unreasonably and even showed us the current schedule.

According to the current status, work on the project progressed with a slight lag, however, it does not prevent from the beginning of the next quarter to start the next phase - the trial operation of the system. To our surprise, we found out that the status of the project is discussed no more than once a month at meetings with the sponsor. 


According to the project manager, such a discussion, as a rule, boils down to expressing complaints and accusations against his team from the heads of the holding's divisions.

After listening to the parties, we still decided on a full-fledged audit of the project. 


The very first day of communication with a wide range of project participants confirmed us in the first impression that the customer was going to bury this project early. Yes, the project experienced serious problems, the causes of which lay not at all in the development of the information system. The problems of the project, which almost led to its closure and the loss of invested resources, were inadequate expectations of stakeholders and were the result of the lack of proper communication in the project.

Initially, the project managers on the part of the customer and the contractor, being good specialists in the subject area, directed their efforts to where they were comfortable: in the development of an information system. Somehow they did not think much about the communications of the project. 


And then, when the organizational resistance began, and it was not at all up to communication, all the time and energy was absorbed by solving problems and "pushing" the project against the background of growing resistance. It's like the parable of not having time to sharpen a shovel.

It is significant that the weekly status reports, which at first were still sent out, were based on the template of the internal report of the contractor company.

It was easier that way, so as not to prepare two different documents. So we received some requirements numbers, modules, labor costs and other technical aspects of development in the mail of the same Chief Accountant. Subsequently, the recipients of reports on the customer's side stopped viewing them, since valuable information for them was either absent or lost among incomprehensible details. Thus, the most elementary, but also the most mandatory part of the project's communications was lost.
We spent the second day substantiating our findings and developing recommendations. 


In the final presentation, prepared together with the project managers from the two sides, we showed the documented status of the project and recommended that its implementation continue according to the plan. Most of our further recommendations concerned the restoration of an effective communication system for the project on the basis of an appropriate plan. The upcoming phase of the trial operation of the information system involved active interaction of project stakeholders, and without established communications, its success would be doubtful.

To say that the management of the holding was shocked by our conclusions is an understatement. We are far from thinking that the case was completely without "organizational conclusions", but our recommendations were accepted, the project was continued and, as far as we know, ended quite successfully.

We have cited this story to remind you of the role of communication in the success of the project, as well as in the success of the project manager himself. There is an opinion that systematic communications are the lot of very large projects. That's partly true, but that's not the whole truth. A critical factor in the success of systematic communications will be for the following categories of projects:

  1. Large projects in terms of the number of participants, including a dozen or more stakeholders,
  2. Long-term projects of any scale, lasting six months, a year or more,
  3. Projects of any scale, involving a change in corporate culture or the usual way of life and activities of people.

In future publications, we will give recommendations and describe the methods of building effective communications for projects related to any of these types.

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