Bread Crumbs


A cautious project manager knows that all projects are at risk of failure. This week, Peter Clark explains how taking the time to leave a formal trail of communication between you and your customers can lead to a fairy-tale ending.

Hansel and Gretel knew that they were going to be abandoned in the woods by their wicked stepmother. The first time they were left alone in the woods, Hansel left a trail of pebbles, and they were able to find their way back home. The next time, he left a trail of bread crumbs. Birds flew down and ate the bread crumbs, and the children were lost and alone in the woods.

So what does this have to do with project management, anyway? All projects are at risk of failure, leaving us lost in the woods. The prudent project manager leaves a trail as he goes so he can get back home. This trail is created through communication with the project's customers about how their actions are affecting the success of the project.

A common project problem is customer/stakeholder unresponsiveness. Meetings are missed, specifications are not reviewed, and drawings are not approved. This traps the project in the fuzzy front end, and leads to schedule pressure. If the initial project milestones take longer than planned, there will be even less time for future milestones, which has a direct impact on the project's cost and schedule.

As a project manager, it is your responsibility to inform the customer/stakeholder of the impact his inaction is having on the project. There are a couple of strategies that you can follow.

The first strategy involves declaring a schedule slide. Send a letter to the customer stating that the previously agreed-to schedule required him to approve requirements by January 15. It is now January 30 - the schedule has slipped two weeks and will continue to slide day-for-day until the requirements are approved.

The second strategy involves sending a letter to the customer stating that he has missed the previously approved date, and giving him a drop-dead date to approve the specification. Inform him that after that date, you will consider the specification approved by default. Any changes after this date will require a change to the contract, resulting in increased cost and/or schedule delays.

Which strategy you use depends on your contractual relationship with your customer. The first strategy is most appropriate for internal development projects. In this case, it is presumably most important to deliver the correct functionality and to control the customer's costs. The second strategy works best when you are delivering software under a fixed-price contract, particularly when there are liquidated damages (damages assessed due to failure of the provider to deliver by a specified date). In this case, you should be most concerned about controlling your own costs, and with protecting yourself against damages.

Unfortunately, the most common strategy used is to say or do nothing. Project managers are often reluctant to upset their customers, and are afraid that the kind of communication outlined above will strain their relationship. They accept the burden of the schedule pressure and hope for the best. Project managers need to realize that needlessly increasing project risk benefits no one, least of all the customer.

This sort of communication with your customer should be formal. You should send a letter and follow up with a phone call. The letter serves as a record, and the conversation reduces the risk of miscommunication. If you agree to anything different than what was in the letter, be sure to follow up with a clarifying letter.

Resist the temptation to give the news verbally, without the letter. Remember, you are attempting to leave a trail of pebbles out of the forest. Verbal communication is like the trail made with bread crumbs; the birds will eat it, and your trail will be gone when you need it.

Your letter should be specific. It should refer to the version of the schedule that shows the missed milestone, the date that was missed, and the actual impact. For example, "The project schedule dated September 15, 2003, shows your approval being required by December 12. To date, your failure to provide requirement approval has resulted in a two-week delay in starting work on the product design. As the product design is on the project critical path, this has resulted in a minimum of a two-week delay to the project end date."

Your letter should be timely. After the fact, it is nearly useless to try and claim schedule delays caused by others. Communication regarding schedule delays should be sent no more than two weeks from the start of the delay, sooner if the schedule is tighter.

Your claim should be reasonable. Delays will only be accepted if the missed milestone can be shown to be on the project's critical path. Of course, any missed milestone will eventually turn into the critical path. Failure to approve an insignificant portion of the project by the declared date will not typically result in an overall slide in the project.

As powerful as this communication is at the beginning of a project, it is actually most useful at the end of a project, particularly when you are in a contractual relationship with your customer. If you are delivering the project months late, you had better have a plan to find your way out of the forest. Night is coming, and the forest is full of wolves.

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