20 Oct Project management: Pay the toll and save the day
We all have participated in a phased project where the completion of a particular phase was marked by much fanfare, speeches by folks with important-sounding titles, and perhaps an evening of free wine and cocktail wieners. Amid the outward appearance of celebration, people nervously discussed the myriad of problems remaining from that phase:
“Design is `closed’ but we don’t even have a process for shipping orders!”
“We were supposed to have 90 percent of our deliverables completed, but they just changed the definition of `completed’ so we could be done with this phase!”
“I’ve been assigned step 98 in the project plan, but all my dependencies are still in progress!”
This tendency to slip into the next phase of a project is especially prevalent earlier in the timeline, as the desire to keep the team “moving forward” often compromises the original standards set for the completion of a particular phase. Hopes abound that missed deliverables can be completed by running tasks in parallel, or asking for a few extra hours from the team. Meanwhile, the CIO sits in his or her “ivory tower” office far away from the project team, presiding over PowerPoint presentations with seas of green lights, or perhaps a few items noted as being “under watch.”
Eventually, however, interdependencies between activities create a bottleneck, whereby so many activities are relying on an incomplete task from a previous phase that the entire project becomes bogged down in finger pointing and repeated missed deliverables, as delays exponentially multiply.
Unfortunately it is often only at this “11th hour” that a toll-gate process is implemented, where the team is given a list of metrics that absolutely must be completed before any new activities can be commenced. The team is held “at the gate” until they can “pay the toll” of completing this set of objectives with measurable certainty. Popularized by several process improvement methodologies yet rarely applied to IT projects, the toll gate assumes two critical components to be effective:
• There are clearly defined, measurable objectives that will allow the team to pass through the gate, or be held until the objectives are completed.
• A body independent from the project team will review the team’s performance against the targets, and has an important say in the final ruling as to whether the team may pass the gate.
While conceptually very simple, it is surprising how many CIOs and business leaders do not manage to successfully adhere to these points. When defining metrics, important points to remember include:
• Ensure metrics are “set in stone” well in advance of the actual toll gate review. Even with the best of intentions, setting objectives too close to the end of a phase will encourage everyone to tie metrics to where the project is, rather than where it should to be.
• Good metrics are those that can easily be measured and compared. “85 percent of the 450 open defects must be in a “fixed” status” is an excellent metric; “Majority of defects resolved” or “Action plan in place” is not.
• In addition to defining metrics, develop a process of how they are captured and measured that is communicated to all interested parties. There are two ways to complete any task: do the work or lower the bar. Make sure the height of the bar is known and not subject to lowering!
An objective review during the toll-gate process is the other key to ensure success. While team members and project managers provide valuable input into the toll gate process, they are a fundamentally biased source of opinion. CIOs, stakeholders, and steering committee members may also be far from the details of the project, and have a similarly biased opinion.
The following guidelines can be used in developing an effective evaluation committee for your toll-gate review process:
• The review body should be involved from the very beginning of the project, helping define and approve the metrics that will be used for each gate and monitoring how they are being captured.
• Include one or more independent resources in the toll-gate review process, ideally with experience in implementing projects with similar technology, processes, and scope. Input from those who have “done it all before” provides a valuable sanity check
• Bring several people onto the evaluation committee who do not have any financial “skin in the game” for purposes of the toll-gate review. If your entire review committee has a large bonus riding on completion of the project by a given date, miraculously you will pass through every gate or metrics will be staggeringly easy to complete.
• Let the numbers be your guide. If appropriate time was spent developing metrics and a methodology for their capture, the toll-gate review process will be easy: you either “made the numbers” or you did not. The more opportunity for interpretation and passionate debate, the less effective the toll gate. This leads to the most important task of the review committee:
• Someone must have the courage to “pause” the project at the gate if metrics are not made, a role that often falls to the CIO. Passing a project through a gate with a long list of caveats defeats the purpose of the toll gate process, and sets the project up for future failure. Advance agreement among the review committee and project management will lessen the blow when it comes time to “press pause.”
Like most aspects of a project, with successfully planning and execution, the toll-gate review gives your project a defined set of objectives and metrics, allowing for team members and stakeholders alike to know where their project stands at any given time. It allows the CIO to closely monitor the pulse of the project without becoming mired in its operational details. Using these number effectively can spot and eliminate problems early, assuming the toll gate process is empowered to monitor and stop forward progress of a project should it not be able to “pay the toll.”
Toll gate reviews certainly add another layer of overhead to often-complex projects, and developing and implementing quality metrics and measurement systems will be an additional cost to an already stretched project budget. However, a simple calculation of your project’s daily burn rate, multiplied by a two- or three-month delay should convince even a hardened skeptic that the time spent developing and executing toll-gate reviews is a very wise investment.
Previous articles by Patrick Gray
• Patrick Gray: Demolishing the antiquated IT customer-service model
• Patrick Gray: Supercharge business value with breakthrough IT
• Patrick Gray: Death by deliverables a project management pitfall
• Patrick Gray: With tech implementations, it’s NOT the methodology, stupid
• Patrick Gray: Fire your CIO? If he’s not implementing strategy, show him the door
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