Think defensively? Hmmm...when would that come in to play? That doesn't seem like confident, aggressive, problem solving project management, does it?
The reality of it is, we must manage our projects both offensively and defensively in order to be successful. We must manage offensively as we continually look for ways to cut hours on our project, deliver a phase or complete a task earlier to make up for lost time in the schedule, and look for innovative ways to provide for and serve our customer to keep their satisfaction level high throughout the engagement. But we must also manage defensively because issues always come up on every project and on some of those projects they can be catastrophic. You’ll never be able to predict them, so just be prepared.
Here are four defensive practices that I recommend every project manager incorporate into how they manage their projects…’just in case’…
Always get approval and formal signoff. Always remember, a handshake or a verbal agreement just isn’t enough. If it’s important to the project, then it needs a signature. If it’s important work that you’ve delivered, then it needs formal approval. Because at the end of the day (or at the end of the project), if there’s any dispute over anything – especially a monetary dispute - and the customer is coming back to say you did not deliver satisfactorily on something, having a formal approval from the customer for your deliverables will effectively close the issue. Get signoff when things are delivered and when everyone is happy so you don’t have to fight battles later on if the project and the customer relationship turns sour.
Keep records and document the important stuff. You want everything to go well, but there’s no guarantee. And since more projects fail than succeed, the odds aren’t with you. Plus, there’s no guarantee you’ll see the project through to completion. You may not gel with the customer and they may want a different project manager. That’s the bad scenario. Or you may get pulled off to another project – maybe a more important project. That’s the good scenario. Either way, having all of your project status reports in order, having a history of your project schedule that you’ve been updating through your web-based project management software, and making sure that issues lists, risks lists, and budget forecasting is up-to-date will definitely cast a positive light on you to senior management and the customer in either scenario. You will have made it much easier to onboard the next project manager as you leave the project. Very positive.
Always keep the project schedule up to date and in the proper detail. Just as you need to document everything and keep several iterations of the status reports and hold on to all project deliverables for future reference or handoff, it’s also very important to keep the project schedule up-to-date and in as fine of detail as possible. A well-maintained project schedule is often your best defense when you’re trying to combat unplanned or out of scope work. If you’re shooting from the hip, you won’t be wise to the extra effort that your developers are putting in to some ‘small request’ that the customer slipped to them during some informal design review. But if you’re managing the project tasks and timeframe tightly with a well-documented project schedule from your online project management software, then you’ll quickly recognize that extra work when tasks start taking longer than you originally planned. And by catching it quickly that way, you’ll help keep your project budget on track because the extra work either won’t be charged to it or the project budget will go up when you negotiate change orders for the additional customer requests.
Send your project status reports up the chain of command in your organization. Finally, act defensively by including your senior management on your normal status reporting distribution. And be sure to include your latest up-to-date project schedule from your project management software. If your company leadership has your project information in front of them every week – whether they are looking at it or not – they have no excuse to be surprised if issues arise. If you’re project is up against a wall and needs new technology, more funding, or additional resources, it will be much easier to defend yourself and your need if you can say to the CEO, “I’ve been sending you my status report every week so you can see the issue escalations and you can see the need was become greater.” Try it – you won’t be disappointed.
Summary / call for input
These four practices aren't going to guarantee success on any project. That's not what these practices are for. But they will help you be accountable and show accountability for the areas you are responsible for. And if there is ever any question as to whether you and your team acted responsibly, these practices will help document that you did.
What about our readers? What do you think of this list? What would you add to it? What are your thoughts on defensive project management and do you have any horror stories to share where these practices may have helped?