Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Project Manager Early Warning System

This incident happened in 2002. We, a team of 7 people, were at client's place to get sign-off on the Requirement Specification for a major program.This included our Program Director (PD). Customer was one of the leading leasing companies in Europe. The project involved migrating and re-engineering systems from Mainframe to Java.  We were also to train the current employees of our customer in new technology as part of the contract. 

The whole program was very sensitive since there was lot of opposition to it internally on the customer side. The training contract was also politically sensitive as their employee's continuation depended on their comfort with what was being taught. At the same time, the customer management had a lot at stake as they wanted to show their sincerity by ensuring that the best training was provided. Our training department sent a trainer from India for this purpose.

As a part of the conversation one morning, our PD inquired how comfortable i was in providing training to a group of people on internet technologies.  I agreed immediately and got to know later that the trainer was perceived as an inexperienced person ( though he was a full time trainer with suitable qualification and experience) and that his boyish looks didn't work with a group of people in their 40s and 50s. Client employees wanted the trainer to be replaced. Now, if the trainer had to go back and be replaced by another person, that would have been a set back to our organization (lost time and impacting other projects) and given enough ammunition to a group of people (within our client organization) who were not in favor of the project. 

So our program director, who had some how sensed this, moved in swiftly and made the announcement about training by 'an experienced person'. My 3 hour session went on well.  And was followed by the  continuation of planned training and other project work. In the whole process, the PD set the program back on course, ensured that our trainer and organization didn't lose face and also saw to it that our client management was kept happy.

Years later, when i started managing projects on my own, i recalled this incident as an example of how to sense ahead of time that something was wrong , and manage the impact.  'Ahead of time' need not actually be 'way ahead of time' but is all about being early enough to sense that something was wrong before others do  and set it right.

This little bit of time is similar to what is credited to champion sports persons like Messi and Federer  and we all know how they play their game.  Developing the art of sensing early and acting on it accordingly is one of the key differences between an experienced and master project manager, irrespective of the body of knowledge they follow. This art doesn't necessarily come through experience and has to be consciously cultivated.  I call this the Project Manager Early Warning System ( PMEWS).

Now how does a project manager work on developing a PMEWS? It is easier to develop one's own PMEWS if people train themselves on the following skills.
  • Ability to be in touch with the people who are closest to the ground level; this is important because real useful information can't be got by throwing around one's positional power, while operating in one's own plane.
  • Ability to establish a communication channel that provides real news about the project; there should be an element of trust that enables proper communication to happen at the time of need. without this, just being in touch doesn't really help.
  • Ability to differentiate Signal and Noise; look out for everything  and be on the watch for something different or unusual or superficial statements like 'everything is fine' that don't go into details. This capability comes over a period of time.
  • Ability to retrospect; thinking and linking events that happened. Keeping a log of events and connecting the dots backwards also helps. Retrospection allows us to study a situation and learn our lessons
  • Ability to learn from other people's experience and link it to one's own experience; this involves reading books and papers on project management and more importantly understanding how the lessons can be applied in one's own context.
  • Ability to develop one's own set of heuristics; Develop a set of  rules, through trial and error, while keeping in mind that the rules are all context and individual specific.


  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

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  2. Projects usually compete for resources (people, money, time) against other projects and initiatives, putting the project manager in the position of being in competition.

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