The Case of the Missing Customer

By | 2 February, 2011

83c2446a0896df0a1f4af01c940ae1d9_XLIt was a dark and stormy night my friends. The type of E-mail storm that pushes the mail account to over capacity in a few minutes.

I was sitting in my cube wondering if my earned value would allow me to either purchase my dream car (a Lada with white wall tires) or less of a beating at the next project steering committee.

That’s when she walked in.

Over the years I had seen many Project Managers but none that could speak CPI as she could. A single look at her communication plan and any PM would fall off his critical path.

My name; not important as you will see it soon enough (at the bottom of this article).

My job; help Project Mangers when they are confused and need support.

Call it job security for life.

“Can you help” she says; nobody can refuse a beautiful risk plan.

I ask her if she can afford my consulting services. She was told her project was in jeopardy because she had lost sight of her customer and did not understand why.

I asked her to walk me through her project plan in a open kimono approach, “show it all” I told her. She willingly revealed it all, as she confirmed doing:

  • Structured project reviews with status, accomplishments, issues, risks and financials.
  • Working with the delivery steady state teams to ensure both high quality and on time project activities while providing interim milestone related deliverables as production.
  • Engaging the contract manager in order to build customer sign off documents that would have the proper objectives and measurements for the post project life cycle.
  • As a true PMP she had in her weekly activities, team motivation activities to ensure the individuals would remain highly focused.
  • Her project plan had obviously included reviews with her up line management team and made sure they were part of the most appropriate communication plan.
  • To ensure internal processes and dashboards had the quality required she had been working closely with her Project Control Officer. As a PCO/PM team they had established a true partnership that would allow him to represent her any time she would have had schedule conflicts.

She paused…..and asked me, who is the missing customer?

It was a classic case, one I had seen occur with many PMs, junior and senior ones.

So I asked her one question: who is the end user?

She asked me “What is an end user”?

Project Managers often forget about the end user.

The rigidities  imposed by either: project plans, delivery team requirements and/or organizational processes that often make us loose site of the end user who is, in fact, the true customer.  Project execution has structured layers that separate us from understanding the end user’s needs and their ways of operating.

The IT business office often dissociates itself from the customer, and business organizations often disassociate themselves from IT.

Recent observations show me that IT justifies itself within methodologies that no longer validate customer operations. In reverse, business organisations often operate assuming IT will provide and supply what they need to operate.

The benefits are structured project deliveries. The impacts are customers that do not understand IT project execution and a Project team that does not know how to adapt project plans to customer needs. These new realities become more than obvious when projects become troubled.

What should (or can) be done by the project team is relatively simple; ask questions.

Ask questions that will hopefully trigger further reviews of the solution and execution BUT with an end user focus. Organisational boundaries can easily be taken down with proper communication and willingness.

With a splash of humour above my objective was to present what represents one of the many areas of focus we all, as project managers, need to focus on while the project execution landscape evolves.

The golden years of project management may be behind us; PMOs will now need to bring a refined project management value statement.

There was a time where project management in an IT shop was done by the employee who had shown the most organisational and people skills within a team of IT savvy individuals(also referred to the team lead that had over the years demonstrated success in implementing complex projects). This person usually had followers/supporters in his or her ability to resolve implementation issues, but also had his or her detractors that believed the compromise was a loss of technical skill.

The success of these individuals brought organisations to understand and value them, and value a project methodology that was structured and applied firstly at a team level and then to be implemented at an organizational layer.

This evolution supported Project Management specializations to form and develop unique skills which distanced themselves from the technical spectrum and focused on an ability to communicate and track project evolution.

The usage of, as an example, PMP or PMI in current CVs or in job search activities is a demonstration of this evolution and of this need at the industry level. What could represent the next evolution and how should a Project Manager evolve to maintain a true value add to an organization? Is project execution threatened by the fact it can be described as a set of work products and compartments to be applied under condition X, Y or Z ? Can Project management be offshored to serve a onshore customer ?

Unfortunately I do not have the answer, but I have the suspicion the answer is Yes.

I can not imagine the evolution of all other areas of IT with some success to an off-shore model to not be applicable to Project Management (or at least some project management).

Let me take you back to my opening story where we are loosing sight of “end users” and of their needs. I would think moving project execution to an offshore model would lead us in the same direction. Is it truly a bad evolution?

Probably not; I can imagine some project execution from an offshore outfit to answer very well the needs of projects implementing “black boxes”. More and more I am seeing situations where an “appliances” or black boxes, which are stand alone solutions, get selected by customers as answering their needs.

Hosting via internet solution falls into this category of IT solution and as all others of the type probably requires little project management.

So where is the need for Project Managers? In my opinion: in their ability to “over deliver”.

Over delivery can be achieved by interpreting the principles of a project methodology and applying the elements that are required but more importantly in a manner that distinguishes it self from all others.

Each project should in a sense be creating a new methodology ready to be changed and adjusted for the next project.

In my humble opinion, the moment we as project managers think we have found the way to deliver projects in the most efficient manner is the day we have stopped being Project Managers.

Our worst enemy is stagnation, or a stale project model.

Management is the ability to handle exception or uniqueness – and to ensure it becomes seamless.

Our value proposition is a project management methodology that is unique that relies on the needs of the customer at that moment and of the situation at hand.

Each customer is unique, and each project is unique by definition of being a project. Why do we force a methodology to be applied and to fit? Probably because the methodology has been interpreted as being bigger than the requirements.

So how should a PMO institute a moving target?

The first step is acknowledging and understanding the principles that go along with an ever changing method of project delivery. The templates and base structure must be one that is open and adjustable to each project. The project reviews assume an understanding of each individual initiative and of each individual customer.

An important milestone would be for a PMO to evolve beyond the Red, Yellow & Green dashboard as well as passed the Earned Value, SPI, CPI and other metrics and use them all as important guides – not key measures in themselves.

Each project needs to establish its success criteria probably at the deliverable level. The organization needs to track to that objective. Once a PMO can establish an understanding of the unique objectives a project must have the PMO can then understand the aggregate needs a customer organization would have and hence bring a UNIQUE valued Project Management proposal.

The PMOs that can see the value in delivering to the individual need will then gain the ability to provide highly skilled Project Managers that can be justified in terms of skills and effort levels.

Selling project management in its purest model on projects that require little management as do Black Boxes is becoming a daunting task; but selling Project management skills that are adapted to the needs of the project and the customer gains an easier path to closure.

Project Management is no longer a required service to IT delivery; unless it demonstrates itself as unique, it has reversed itself back to being over head.

Reaching over the levels of abstraction between project managers, through the PMO and other organizations and process, to the end-users themselves will go a long way to bridging the perception gap between project managers and their “missing customers”;  providing an opportunity for PMs to excel again at over-delivering beyond the expectations of a static methodology and process.

Further more project managers should rise to the challenge of pushing the methodology they are governed by to the next evolution. Continuously strive to adjust, tweak, improve,  to make better, enhance the way in which they execute to address and meet the real end user-user needs this industry should be leading with.

Lastly, and probably most importantly, as practitioners within an organisation or as practitioners working independently we should all look to push ourselves to be better then we were on the previous project.

This will make us unique and a true value for the end user: The ones we all work for.

These simple steps should resolve the mystery of missing customers on projects.

Author: Frederic Lempereur, PMP

Frederic has been a project manager since 1997, and was certified as a PMP in 2003. He has primarily focused in infrastructure service projects, but has adapted his tools, techniques and processes to facilitate organizational change and to support events. He has been actively involved in the design and improvement of PMO processes, organization, and has served as a portfolio lead managing teams of project managers and integrating their projects/activities against a broad array of customer requirements and profiles. Fred loves a healthy debate on good project management and its values. He’s less accepting of Project Managers who feel superior based on certifications or diplomas without solid street knowledge to back it up, but finds those willing to want to learn and change a refreshing and welcome addition to his team.

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