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A fruitful project launch

By Michelle LaBrosse

Executive Summary
Launching a project can be accomplished quickly and effectively with the proper focus and tools. Getting the right team together, advance preparation, using a skilled facilitator and avoiding bumps in the road can make your project launch a success.

There are few instances where the saying “Well begun is half done” is more applicable than in project management. The project planning and launch phase is the foundation on which the project proceeds; yet many managers spend either too little time on planning (and pay for it later) or suffer from “paralysis by analysis” – overthinking the process in a way that loses deadline time that must be made up for later.

When launching a project, it’s possible to navigate a middle course that combines a skilled facilitator and the group knowledge of the team in a way that creates a project plan quickly and effectively. The project team members become a force multiplier that gathers all the relevant information and creates plans in which each step builds easily upon the previous step. The data collected as a result of the planning also speeds the creation of the project schedules and the project. The consensus approach also speeds buy-in by relevant stakeholders as well.

This fast-moving model for project launch borrows elements from the Joint Application Design (JAD) approach developed by Chuck Morris of IBM Raleigh and Tony Crawford of IBM Toronto in the late 1970s. Originally, JAD was designed to bring system developers and users of varying backgrounds and opinions together to meet and discuss how to obtain quality requirements and specifications. Since then, JAD has evolved to meet the needs of projects and project managers in a variety of fields beyond IT. It is most effective for small, clearly focused projects, projects that can be launched in one to three days providing the right team is present and properly prepared.

Assembling the right team

One key element of fast-moving projects that JAD pioneered and project managers have adopted is a somewhat unusual selection process for attendees. Other brainstorms or workshops include the implementation team (which ideally should include end-users and people from other business units), with perhaps a “guest appearance” by the appropriate senior manager. The most senior staffer runs the meeting.

Project launches get off the ground more quickly, however, with a different approach – a more limited headcount, an active role for senior management and a leadership role for someone who has no relationship with the project – or perhaps the company – at all. Meetings move more quickly when there are no more than seven to 10 participating (as opposed to observing or recording) attendees who can advance the ball of creating a project charter quickly. The key members of a fast launch team and their roles are as follows.

  • The project sponsor. The executive who “owns” the project and is its champion must actively be involved from the very start. The sponsor must have the authority to assemble the team for the brainstorm, must have the seniority and knowledge to advise on scope and strategy during the launch meeting, and must have the authority to make decisions and allocate resources for the project. The sponsor’s participation from the very start helps ensure that the project remains on strategy and has sufficient resources to achieve the goal.
  • The project manager. The person responsible for the project –  the client of the brainstorm – who will collect the information to brief attendees ahead of the meeting, receive the results of the meeting and handle the implementation of the project.
  • The brainstorm attendees. The attendees should be a combination of staffers who will implement the project, end users and representatives of business units who may have practical information that bears on the project launch.
  • The scribe. The person who documents the decisions and planning in the session. The scribe is free to focus completely and impartially on getting an accurate record of the meeting and the decisions because he or she does not contribute any information to the discussion.
  • Facilitator/session leader. The presence of a facilitator is a distinguishing characteristic of a JAD-style launch meeting. The facilitator (or session leader) sets up the meeting, keeps it on track and is responsible for making sure a workable solution is reached as quickly as possible, but contributes no information to the meeting participants. The ideal facilitator is a neutral party with no ties to the project proposed and no stake in any particular outcome. A good facilitator combines the roles of event manager, moderator, diplomat, leader, investigator and coach. Good facilitators keep things moving, probe for conflicts, seek solutions and make sure everyone is heard.

Preparing for the launch

Fast-moving launch meetings hit the ground running by as much advance preparation as possible. In addition to finding the venue (Ideally, the launch meeting should take place off site with refreshments.), handling logistics and timing for the launch meeting, and selecting props and tools (whiteboards, PowerPoint, Post-Its, etc.), the facilitator identifies critical issues and how to handle them. A rule of thumb is an hour of preparation time for each hour of launch event time, but the planning time can run much longer. More upfront time spent in preparation by eliminating distractions and heading off bottlenecks means a faster-moving launch. The key elements include the following.

  • The advance briefing. At least a week before the meeting, attendees should have a briefing document (or conference call or teleconference) that summarizes the project goal, the issues, the limitations and the expected deliverables of the project. Either the project manager or the facilitator may compile the briefing information, relying on information from the project sponsor and interviews with stakeholders. Besides clarifying the goals of the launch meeting, the briefing helps establish a team mentality and saves time at the launch meeting. The length and complexity of the briefing depends on the nature of the project and the experience of the team working together as a group. The pre-launch research also should probe for potential conflicts and problems. These can be addressed and solved during the launch meeting, brought to the sponsor’s attention, or, if it is a complex issue, have allowances made for the conflict within the project charter. Disagreements over scope, deliverables, assignment of responsibilities and the allocation of resources are part of most project launches – indeed, probably part of most human endeavors. Clear guidance from the project sponsor during preparation time and during the launch meeting can forestall many disagreements regarding project scope, project funding and formal roles and responsibilities.
  • The agenda. One of the main reasons project planning sessions run off the rails is because the project teams spend their time on the project process when they should be working on the project plan. The facilitator who is prepared can keep participants focused on the end game. Distributing the agenda in advance and asking participants to sign off on it is a strong signal to participants that the meeting will stay on track.
  • The ground rules. The agenda, however detailed, is only as good as the ground rules set to keep things moving. Typical ground rules include no cell phones, pagers or BlackBerrys; no side conversations; starting and finishing on time; prompt return from breaks; allowing everyone to contribute to the discussion; and keeping distractions to a minimum. Eliminating a five- or 10-minute break each hour, however, is a false economy. Attendees will keep their focus longer and better if they have a chance to get up and move around frequently, but to prevent distractions they all should agree that the break time should not be used to catch up on voice mail or e-mail. Other ground rules might cover how the team handles conflict or votes on different approaches to an issue.

Keep the launch meeting moving

At the start of the meeting the facilitator should confirm that everyone is literally on the same page with a brief review of the meeting’s goals and background. This is to prevent any wasted time from participants who might suddenly disagree on any of the information or ground rules. The facilitator also should be clear on which approach to planning the launch meeting will follow: top-down planning or bottoms-up planning for the deliverables of the plan.

Fast-moving teams can define the interim deliverables quickly with top-down planning. This technique starts the planning process with the ultimate output of the project; the team then works down into the details to plan how it will create that output. This approach works when the team knows what high-level deliverables are needed to create the project’s final deliverable. Thus, it works best with teams who have worked on similar projects in the past.

Teams who have not worked together on similar projects may try bottoms-up planning. The project team members brainstorm and identify all the aspects of the project that must be completed in order to create the final deliverable. These aspects are grouped to a logical order. This approach is used when the project team does not have a clear idea of the interim and high-level deliverables needed to create the final deliverable.

Whatever the method, it’s easy for attendees to brainstorm dozens of possibilities and scenarios. For best results the team should identify no more than seven interim deliverables in order to create each high-level deliverable. It is up to the facilitator to make sure there is a clear distinction between deliverables and tasks. (An interim deliverable is specified with just nouns. A verb and noun is a task to create a deliverable.)

One of the trickier aspects of a project launch meeting is the ability of the facilitator to manage the input of the attendees. No single speaker should dominate the group, nor should anyone be left unheard. Since the titles of attendees and the order in which they speak are sensitive issues that might influence the meeting and its outcome, and because too much dialog can get a meeting off track quickly, using a whiteboard and Post-It notes are effective ways to speed the creation of a project plan using a technique called affinity diagramming. The affinity diagram, also known as the Kawakita Jiro or KJ method, is a business technique used to organize ideas and data using Post-It notes.

Affinity diagramming

The first step is to brainstorm, individually, everything needed to create the final deliverable. Suspending discussion during this step gives everyone an equal voice in determining what has to happen to create the project deliverable, and it avoids issues of rank during discussions. It should take about 15 minutes to jot down each item on an individual Post-It note. All the notes are placed on the template wall or whiteboard for the entire group to see.

The second step is to group the ideas into categories with the initial sort conducted by the team without speaking. This can be done in about 15 minutes with team members rearranging the notes and creating duplicates when needed. Only after all the notes are sorted into groups does the group discuss the titles for each category (such as finance legacy systems, system integration, etc.) with the category title corresponding to each team member’s specific roles and responsibilities.

One outcome of this organized discussion is a map that shows the high-level category deliverables needed to create the final result, grouped by responsibility/category, with interim deliverables listed beneath each category. With this map, team members can discuss and post the acceptance criteria for each deliverable.

Once the project team has identified what it needs to create the final deliverable, it needs to identify processes that may exist to create the interim deliverables. For instance, if the company needs to purchase items to create the interim deliverables and the company has a purchasing process, the team needs to follow that process and will need to allow time to secure the necessary approvals. If time is an issue, the project leader may need to step in and streamline the process, build in extra time or find another solution.

Since nothing occurs in a vacuum, especially in business, conflicts must also be addressed when putting together an effective project plan. A brainstorm among the attendees can elicit information on what else is going on inside and outside the team environment that could impact the project. For instance, if the team is planning an event during which the company president will perform a keynote presentation, the team must know if the president will be in town during that time. Other conflicts or issues can include vacations, other product or service launches, or trade shows or business conferences.

Once again, the team should record the conflicts on Post-It notes and place them with the group it affects. The team not only needs to identify how these conflicts may impact creating the deliverables, it should also list its suggestions for overcoming the conflicts and come to some agreement on how to resolve them.

Working with Post-It notes and guided by the facilitator, the team can work through discussing and planning the project step by step, putting its ideas on paper anonymously, discussing them with the facilitator as a moderator and voting on the best procedures.

Avoiding project de-accelerators

Despite the best intentions and the best planning, it’s possible for any project to be overtaken by events. It’s up to the project leader, the project sponsor and the team members to remove or prevent obstacles that could slow progress. Some of these can be avoided by addressing them during the launch meeting.

Feature creep. In a highly competitive environment, the search for product excellence and better client service – “We can make it even better” – can be a very compelling argument. However, there comes a time in every project when it’s time to cut the cord and finish the project. Clear communication procedures set during the launch meeting can head off a change in scope.

Poor team dynamics. Setting ground rules for team communication throughout the project during the launch can head off some team dynamics problems. Staying positive, being respectful and defining at the outset how team members will work together can help the project team weather the post-honeymoon stage. During the launch, it is helpful for the group to agree on how conflicts will be handled up front, setting the stage to move quickly through conflict when it occurs.

Stay on top. A key part of the launch session is to establish an ongoing monitoring system for the project manager. Setting a timetable for tracking progress regularly – at the end of each day or each week – makes it easer to make small midcourse corrections rather than face a significant problem that could delay the project’s completion.

Conclusion

Change happens. Customers change their minds, market forces change, new threats and opportunities arise that make the goal of the project obsolete, and new priorities surface to pull money, staff and resources away from the project. It’s better to spend a half day re-launching the project based on the new project agreement rather than create a final deliverable that no one wants or that is obsolete by the time it is delivered.

The good news is that you likely are able to use the progress on deliverables accomplished to date to shorten the project cycle time for the new project, and that you have a process that can accomplish a re-launch quickly and effectively.

Michelle LaBrosse is the founder of Cheetah Learning and the author of the Cheetah Success Series. She has been recognized by the Project Management Institute as one of the 25 most influential women in project management in the world. LaBrosse’s articles have appeared in more than 100 publications and websites around the world. She writes a monthly column, has a monthly newsletter and a weekly radio program. She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Manager’s program and holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton.

SIDEBAR
Learn about the difference between project management and alliance management at www.iienet.org/IM/sep-oct10/alliance.

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