Each project brings its own challenges, whether it's custom-build solutions with complex requirements or just a simple project with tight deadlines. Managers must have the foresight to instinctively predict each unique set of challenges and adapt accordingly. Project management is a key element that stands out for every project, and it can present challenges for numerous reasons.
The Ideal vs. The Reality
I have had the opportunity to be involved with projects from both finance and data perspectives. Within these projects, I have worked on activities ranging from building new reports to mining data for analysts. There are some cases where projects operate exclusively with internal stakeholders who possess a strong understanding of the necessary requirements and have fostered a trusting working relationship with their teams both internal and external.
In these project environments where requirements are clear and deliverables are few, it is easy enough to manage through email chains and quick water-cooler meetings.
In reality, what becomes very apparent is that project environments are often less than ideal. After the projects starts, it becomes apparent that the traditional project management structure is not a scalable solution.
Where stakeholders extend beyond 10 people, add in working across time zones, and the challenge of managing a project skilfully becomes prevalent. Structure management elements like that of steering committees are a powerful tool to ensure that the project progresses, but this is not a replacement for allocated project management resources on complex projects like elaborate software implementations.
Over the past few years, I have had extensive experience delivering projects completely remotely and whilst living outside of the organisation. Though working alongside remote teams (often in various time zones) presents a wide array of challenges, I have been able to translate the aches and pains of these projects into a successful way of working.
Common Pitfalls of Remote Project Management
Taking on these complex and remote projects over the years, I have seen a myriad of situations play out time and time again. Most issues are predictable and completely justifiable considering the innate circumstances and complexities of large remote projects, yet these challenges need to be outlined and addressed to run a successful project.
Below I've outlined some common pitfalls of remote project management:
- Who me? - Unclear roles and responsibilities, both internally and externally can derail a project. Work can get missed or glazed over when task ownership is not clearly defined It is essential to identify who is tasked with the " what and why". Distilling this on large scale projects can be especially difficult.
- Grasping the bigger picture - The difference between a good and a great project manager can often be linked to the level of understanding associated with subject matter expertise. Though the PM does not need to know the ins and outs of technical integration, speaking the language and having insights into the day-to-day challenges of the wider project is essential. There are many obvious qualities to a project manager, but domain knowledge can be the make or break of project success.
- Keeping it in the family: External consultants working with external contractors - Projects are devised to deliver value and transition this value into a core part of the business. This is most effective when the project team is composed of (at least) some of the integral members of your permanent business. The key stakeholders act as internal stalwarts, ensuring not only a companywide understanding of the project deliverables and the "buy-in" to them, but also, they act as a source of institutional memory of historical process and systems etc.
- The telephone game: Communication is key - Poor communication between stakeholders is common. It’s essential to establish and maintain a clear communication plan for a project; you could be delivering the best technical project ever, but unless the right people are in the loop about it, then it won’t be successful. Leveraging instant messaging applications like Microsoft Teams for group conversations can massively reduce meetings and calls while keeping everyone in the loop.
How many is enough?
For new software implementations, it is essential to have two (or more) project managers; one representing each of your external vendors/providers, and an additional one for managing your internal change. These project managers complement one another and form a key part of the project governance structure.
What makes a good PM?
There are many aspects that are desirable when assigning a successful project manager, below I’ve outlined what we look for at VantagePoint.
- Project ownership - Project managers act as the link between project stakeholders and help drive (and steer) the conversation in meetings. A holistic knowledge of the solution is key to understanding if the team has delivered upon working items. This, in turn, informs us how to proceed with the next steps of each project. Second-hand information like that of summary emails and meeting notes from internal and external catchups can be ineffective for a variety of reasons. Having a project manager leading these meetings ensures that no time is wasted, and all actions are assigned ownership and are promptly delivered. Project managers are in constant communication with a focus on enabling the right subject matter experts to facilitate the progress of key deliverables.
- Communication - Project updates or daily stand-ups are only effective with a PM who is on the ball; we no longer have time for the meetings for the sake of “being in a meeting”. While working remotely, it easy to let 30-minute calls fill up your diary and this is definitely to be avoided.
- One point of contact - However, project management is not all plain sailing, so being open and empathic means that you can be the “go-to” person that the project team can confide in when they need support. The PM can also be the point of contact for issues once they arise, shielding members of the team from issues not relating to their specific work items and saving them from unneeded distractions and stress. Part of this is building a strong enough relationship amongst the teams, both external and internal to challenge each other when there are disagreements.
- Workflow management - Taking on the challenges of a project management role can have several difficulties. One key problem can be with keeping track of the various workflows and ensuring that all stakeholders have a clear view of the progress/status of the deliverables.
- Structure - Put down the notebook containing pages of scribbles and advocate for software-driven solutions like Azure DevOps to help capture and track project deliverables. Project management can and should be collaborative. Tools can make it even more glamorous!
Good project management can be the deciding factor of whether a project is successful, this is especially the case when working at a distance. Sharing this responsibility with external stakeholders who have the knowledge of the software, have implemented solutions and live and breathe projects, mitigates most common project management risks; responsibility sits outside of the organisation so you can focus on what you know and do best.