How is the Project Going? You know the feeling…you’re cruising along and thinking your performance – perhaps even the entire team’s performance on a project – is exactly what the customer expects, and then, BAM!…you find out that this just isn’t the case. In the most surprising moment of my career, I thought I was meeting with my manager to get a long-awaited promotion and increase in pay when, in fact, I was being let go because the company was struggling. So, maybe I’m not always the most intuitive person.
But, seriously, have you ever gotten to the end of a project, thinking things had really gone well, and then been surprised that your customer was not excited about everything that happened on the project – including how you handled the project and how your team performed on the engagement? Or, have you ever been pulled from a project and been replaced by another project manager, then been surprised that the customer wasn’t happy with how things were going? I have experience of the former scenario, but never the latter thankfully. However, I have seen it happen to others, and I have been the one called in to take over for a PM who the customer did not want around anymore. How does it get to that point? Does the customer just not like you? What did you do? Where did things go wrong? And can you make it right with the customer?
If this happens, and your project is like most projects, it’s usually not specifically an issue with you as the project manager, it’s just issues overall. It’s like when the head coach of a football team gets fired. Rarely can poor project performance be attributed to one individual, but someone has to take the fall. And on a project, it has to be the project manager first, because they are like the head coach. Replace the head coach and you still have the same team. The customer knows that, but they’re hoping a change in leadership may wake the team up and get things moving in a better direction.
There is still the issue of what got us to that breaking point-and whether it could have been avoided. And if so, how? I firmly believe that communication is the key to project success-and it starts and ends with the customer. If you keep the customer in the loop, keep them engaged, and keep checking on how they think things are going, then you are far less likely to find yourself suddenly out of a job or without a project.
Let’s consider the following actions or steps to take to make sure we avoid these uncomfortable and unfortunate situations…
Check in With the Key Stakeholders
It is absolutely critical that you periodically stop and take the pulse of the project. If you neglect the customer and fail to keep the communication flowing, to check on how they think things are going and keep them engaged, then eventually you are likely to create a rift or distance between yourself and the customer. If they know you care about what they think, in terms of project health, because you are asking on a regular basis, then they will come to you – even if you aren’t asking. That is what you want…you want to be the first to know if the customer is unhappy, because that is the best way for you to take corrective action, and it is in the best interests of the project. Also, check in with your team just as you would with the customer, because issues can come up with your project team that can affect the performance of both the team and the project. Again, it is all about frequent, effective, efficient, and meaningful communication. Practice that, and you can’t go wrong.
It is important to stay in tune with the way your customers think the project is progressing, and it is also important to check in with your project team on the same topic. Both have important viewpoints, and both may have very valid reasons to share why they think the project needs corrective action. Dissatisfaction and conflict are not always obvious – sometimes we have to dig to find them. However, that does not mean they do not exist. Moreover, just because your clients have not said out loud that they have concerns does not mean they do not have any. You must consult with them, and you must ask questions. In Part 1, we discussed this concept; now let us consider how often we should be acting in this way.
For projects lasting six months or more, it is a good idea to pause at least twice as a team to discuss the project’s health from the delivery team’s perspective. This is because each team member has often had some direct one-on-one communication with the customer. Was there anything said or relayed that could indicate problems or concerns? Does the customer seem dissatisfied in any way? Were there any casual negative remarks made about the most recent project deliverables that have not yet been relayed to the project manager?
Having informal periodic discussions with your project team as a whole, which are not part of a routine team meeting, is a good way to brainstorm and discuss any perceived problem areas on the project and potential corrective actions that can be implemented.
Likewise, pausing at least once with the customer, possibly around the mid-point of the project, is a good idea so that you can get a project health check and satisfaction reading from them. The customer may be a little uncomfortable going too deep into the discussion of overall satisfaction in the middle of the project, but just meeting with them and taking note of what is said, as well as what is not said, can give you a lot of useful feedback to act upon for the second half of the engagement.
It isn’t always easy asking someone how they think you are performing. It can be uncomfortable. I have never liked giving or getting performance reviews. They are painful and usually not very productive. I don’t think anyone truly enjoys those sessions. But in terms of your project customer, reviews really should happen; they must happen-especially if you ever sense that anything may be wrong. If you let too much time go by without checking on the project health with the customer and the team, you may be surprised to find your project halted, or yourself replaced on the project, or behind closed doors in a serious discussion with your CEO or other superior. Stay in touch; stay engaged with the customer. Always be aware of how they think things are going and how your team is performing with periodic health check breaks, and you will likely find your customer to be more satisfied with how you are handling the project. Corrective action taken early can mean the difference between a successful project and a cancelled one.
Author: Brad Egeland