October 19, 2011
Technology Solution Delivery

Fire Prevention

Veterans of large, multi-team, cross-functional programs understand how difficult it can be to synchronize so many moving parts to deliver value to their customers, especially when resources must be pulled for constant fire fighting. Teams typically experience some type of frustration during the project lifecycle. Everybody works really hard, but always spend more time than expected on operational “keep the lights on” activities. Corners inevitably get cut in order to meet unrealistic deadlines. Unforeseen customer requests, which are always urgent, can force constant starting, stopping and reprioritization of projects. You know the list of projects requested by the business is growing, but you’re not sure how long it is and don’t care, because you will never get to most of it anyway. If your program is good at putting out fires, perhaps life would be better if the fires never blazed at all. Perhaps you would like to do more strategic projects in a less chaotic environment. The answer may be to assess your Program Management function. From my experience, you can accomplish this in five steps over the course of six to eight weeks.

The first step is to create a project repository. Some words to live by are, “You cannot determine where to go until you figure out where you are.” The importance of a project repository is to provide program leadership with visibility into all of the projects being demanded of the program. Be warned, seeing a full list on paper for the first time can be a shocking experience. Start by identifying and interviewing business owners within your company or organization, as well as IT and support colleagues. It is important to understand all types of projects, and not just those requested by the business. As you interview these people, gather basic information that allows you to understand the projects enough to categorize and eventually prioritize them. A predefined questionnaire is a helpful tool to expedite this process. Some key things to learn about the projects are description, objective / benefit (i.e., increase revenue, reduce cost, mitigate risk, etc.), preferred delivery date, etc. The key data to gather will be somewhat unique to each organization, but the idea is to capture enough information to understand high level priority and level of effort.

Once you have a comprehensive repository, define a simple prioritization methodology. I have found this works most efficiently if you start with a qualitative “gut instinct” assessment of each project. Of course, it is important to understand what the Business Owners think, but most of the time they believe their own projects are high priority. As a cross-functional program team, discuss the priority of each project quickly using the data you collected in step one to make relative comparisons between projects. Typically, high priority projects rise to the top and low priority projects fall to the bottom quickly. Next, create simple quantitative parameters to provide checks and balances to your qualitative assessment. I like to use a simple balanced scorecard approach to come up with a single numeric grade (1-5) for a project in terms of total value and then apply the scoring system across the spectrum of projects. This helps you to move the projects at the bottom of high priority and the top of low priority into a true medium category, and also helps to rank the medium priority projects.

The next step is to work with IT and support colleagues on high level parameters to estimate the complexity and duration of each project. Do not get too bogged down in extreme detail at this point, because the goal is only to understand enough to make a determination of “small,” “medium” or “large” with ballpark estimates associated with each category. This will differ based on organization, but maybe small is two months, medium is four months and large is six months.

With this information, you can now move forward with creating your twelve month program roadmap. I like to use a high level Gantt chart format, which is a visual deliverable depicting project beginning and end dates, lifecycle phases and project overlaps with colors to indicate different types of projects. Share the roadmap with Business Owners and leadership to help them understand what and when things can get done. Once the roadmap is approved and baselined, it becomes a valuable management tool as it provides a basis from which the Program Manager can have informed discussions with Business Owners and leadership when demand changes during the year. It also provides a solid foundation for Project Managers to dive into details on approved projects. Putting together a twelve month roadmap is like a puzzle. Start with the obvious pieces, and then layer in other projects around these that make sense based upon priority, complexity, critical path and resource capacity.

Once the roadmap is complete, move to get approval by your steering committee or governing body and then continue to update it as the year progresses. I recommend a thorough review of the roadmap and new projects at least quarterly with your management team. You will be amazed how much more efficiently your program will operate by being able to be proactive in dealing with new projects as opposed to reactive. It will allow you to get ahead of the demand and will speed up your next annual planning cycle, because you will have a basis from which to start. Most importantly, you will be able to explain the opportunity cost associated with “fire fighting” that takes place in every organization. Perhaps with a more complete, top-down understanding of your program, you will be able to prevent fires before they start.

To learn more or to schedule a Program Management assessment, contact Kenway Consulting at

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