When I was a younger project manager – much younger and more naive – I foolishly thought that every customer that stepped into a project engagement was ready for the project. They knew what they wanted, had the budget in place, a team ready to work on their side, if needed, and pretty much had at least good high-level requirements available to start the process. Some do have these things together….many, however, do not. And it’s amazing how many times project managers set project budgets and timelines assuming that most of these things are in place and therefore plan far less time in the upfront project organization and planning phases than end up being required. What happens then is unfortunate – they end up behind on the project budget almost from the beginning.
What should a well-prepared customer come to the table with in an ideal project situation? What would make the project easier to kick off on the right foot, get quickly underway, and headed in the right direction through those early project phases? From my experiences and perceptions, I’ve come up with the following four key things that, in my opinion, will make for a far better project experience if these are in place at the outset of the project. They may not be perfect and you may have to help guide the customer through fine-tuning one or more of these items, but at least you’ll be on the right track if the initial effort has been put in by the customer….
Available subject matter experts (SMEs). During the engagement you’re going to need access to some end users and subject matter experts because there will be questions you’ll have for them as you try to piece together the requirements you’re working with. These people need to be identified up front and need to be prepared to be ad hoc members of the customer’s project team.
High-level requirements. The customer who comes to the table with no requirements planned out is a huge red flag. Certainly you should expect to help them to some degree with requirements – and it’s absolutely necessary for you to help them flesh out more detailed requirements in the planning phase – but when they come to the project with nothing it’s time set everything else aside and have them go back to the drawing board.
A core project team. If you’re dealing solely with the project sponsor at the kickoff meeting, then you’re customer may be unprepared. They need a core team of their own to assist you and your team in putting more detail into the project, identifying issues and risks, and verifying the project schedule that you’re proposing.
A project manager or go-to person. Again, dealing with a sponsor is great and that person may, indeed, be the project manager. But if not, there needs to be a primary counterpart on the customer’s side to you as the project manager. Someone you can go to to get things done on their side. Someone to enforce accountability and direct activity because there will be customer assignments.
How do we figure out if the project customer is ready or not? It may become evident as you start to go through the statement of work (SOW) because most of the project goals and assumptions are listed there. If the SOW discussion surprises your customer and they seem uncertain of what’s expected of them, it may be time to slow things down. If you are implementing a software solution and the customer has no knowledge whatsoever of its capabilities, then there’s no way they’re really going to be ready to discuss detailed needs and requirements. You likely need to offer training. Ask about their project team because you’re going to need that information for assignments in the project schedule. If they don’t have a team, then you may want to give them a week to put the proper team together.
The key is to initiate some discussion before you ever formally kick off the project with the customer. If you can see an issue very early on, you may be able to counsel the customer on an area of perceived weakness or lack of information or planning on their part that they can shore up prior to starting the engagement. Explain that it will likely save them time and money by addressing these issues BEFORE the project starts rather than after.