Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Best Way to Improve Project Performance?

Dave Burstein of PSMJ is one of the smartest guys I've met in this business. So when Dave speaks, I listen. Several years ago I hired him to conduct a client survey as part of a comprehensive project management initiative I was leading for my former employer. When we met to discuss strategies for improving project performance, Dave offered several suggestions. Then he said, "If I was only going to do one thing, it would be instituting monthly project reviews."

We took his advice and implemented a process of third-party reviews for all projects over $50,000 in fees. The payback was immediate. During an initial training session to teach our senior managers how to conduct the reviews, our role playing exercise identified a looming problem with a major client. The project manager, one of our best, had simply overlooked the danger signs. Catching the problem and addressing it early saved us an estimated $600,000 in project losses.

I've been advising clients to do project reviews ever since. Well, trying to. It sounds so simple in concept that I've had trouble convincing clients of the substantial benefits. But having administered the review program for a national firm and participated in several reviews myself, I understand Dave's advocacy of them. So why are they so effective?
  • They provide an independent, expert perspective on how the project is progressing. Even the best PMs can miss developing problems, overlook solutions worth considering, or fail to be fully responsive to the client's needs and expectations. A review can avert a disaster, or help make a good project a great one.
  • They force PMs to properly track the status of their projects, something that many are negligent in doing. Preparing for the regular reviews means the PM must routinely evaluate how the project is doing relative to meeting goals, budget, schedule, cash flow, etc. Thus reviews provide an early warning system to identify problems before they become more serious—and difficult to solve.
  • Reviews are far superior to classroom training in helping PMs develop their skills. They are a great way to reinforce training, serving essentially as a hands-on coaching session. Done properly, reviews are welcomed by PMs. The tone of the reviews is crucial to their success. They are intended to be a collaboration between the PM and reviewer, not a fault-finding inquisition. The reviewer should serve more as coach than critic.
Review Content

I recommend keeping routine reviews to no more than 30 minutes unless problems are uncovered that take more time. In advance of the review, the PM compiles information on the following:
  • Budget and schedule status
  • Billing and collection status
  • Status of deliverables
  • Significant project changes
  • Potential risks or problems
  • Proposed corrective actions for variances
  • Assessment of the client relationship
  • Any other important issues
How Reviews Are Conducted

Typically, a senior manager is assigned to conduct the review. This is often the principal-in-charge or client manager. Ideally, the reviewer should not be heavily involved in the project so he or she can bring a relatively objective, third-party perspective to the review. For large complex projects, a review panel may be preferable. The reviewer and PM determine the optimum review interval, but monthly is suggested for most larger projects.

Dave recommended having the PM make a presentation to the reviewer, using a standard PowerPoint template to compile the typical review information. This provides regular practice for polishing presentation skills, plus it lends the review a bit more gravity. While the review should be supportive and comfortable for the PM, it's nevertheless serious business. Both the interests of the client and the firm are at stake.

How well your projects are executed determines how well your firm performs overall. Among the many elaborate tactics that your firm employs to try to improve performance, have you tried one of the simplest and most effective?

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