The most notable aspect of initial project meetings I have experienced is the following inquiry, “When can this be done by?” For the vast majority of projects I have been involved with, there were no stakeholder introductions, no kick-off meetings, no fanfare. The scant exceptions occurred for assignments I had with a few larger firms such as Synopsys, Fluke, and IGT. Before continuing, let me qualify why I can use the term vast majority. My encounters with many different organizations is due to the fact that I worked as an independent contractor for more than two and a half decades. The range of work included programming, technical writing, computer consulting, system and network installation, and maintenance. And during that time, I worked on dozens of projects with nearly as many companies.
The importance of kick-off meetings are many, but from my perspective as an independent contractor, one acute aspect in knowing the hierarchy of responsibility is that it improves your chances of getting paid in a timely manner. In general, however, introductions countered another problem I frequently faced as a company outsider when being brought into a project. That problem stems from our primal composition that deals with fear, which guest speaker Kevin Ciccotii pointed out occurs in the amygdala area of our brains. I will elaborate more on this later in this blog. For a stakeholder external to a company, hierarchy of responsibility identifies who manages and controls delays. So if a trigger occurs that might impact delivery of your contribution, you can quickly address your concerns because a project delayed usually equated to a payment delayed. This appreciation for project stakeholder awareness grew from too many times of having my cash flow pinched by events out of my control and by people over whom I had no influence. This is a lesson from the School of Hard-Knocks that you want to avoid.
Before continuing, you need to be aware of another aspect of my background that influences my perspective of project management because my prior knowledge of project management was not obtained simply by osmosis over the years. My early project management exposure came about by way of my training in computer and information sciences. The project management portion of developing computer applications is not as extensive as the project management profession requires. But still, the successful completion of a major computer programming project requires a significant subset of project management principles and skills.
A key success factor I learned that guides me is being able to thoroughly gather requirements for the assignment to which I am tasked. When I am not the source of requirements, I have to extract that information from others. This is difficult when the point of contact is not known. The effective solution to this dilemma is the stakeholder register. Keep in mind that an independent contractor is often times brought into a project by way of a recruiter who could be internal or external to the company and most likely is not a project stakeholder. In my experience, the method of assigning a team member to a project by simply matching skill sets to a requirement hardly ever works out. Unfortunately, matching a person’s skill sets to a requirement is how most recruiters work when trying to find the right person for a project. In Mythical Man Month, Frederick Brooks was spot on in claiming that “People are not interchangeable parts.”
With respect to the troubles I’ve encountered acquiring requirements, Kevin Ciccotti’s presentation comes to mind. In particular, how our primal safety mechanisms guide our interaction with strangers. For example, without a stakeholder register or team member roster, you are left with asking around, which often times is perceived as invasive. Knowing how to successfully approach and request information from a stranger is a skill that very few people innately possess, including myself. Interaction amongst strangers activates the amygdala the center of strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, and stress, so not surprisingly, the direct approach for gathering information fails a lot.
Knowing who does what seems fundamental, but reality is that projects do get launched lacking a clearly defined organizational structure or a project organizational chart. Furthermore, lacking an organizational structure causes time wasted with individuals possessing an illusion of control. This systematic bias can be avoided when an effective project manager is used to lead a project. My experience with project leaders as been with individuals that were chosen because they are the most familiar with the deliverable details, and somehow authority and leadership failed to get established. The lack of control manifests in different ways. One trigger that indicated illusion of control that I learned to recognized related to cooperation. The project manager would provide me with names and contact information of individuals that were assigned to support my efforts, but connecting with those individuals proved futile. Examples include arranged appointments with a disinterested team member or the wrong team member, team members that did not respond to my requests for interviews, or individuals that continually postponed confirmed meetings.
When working at Synopsys, I was fortunate to work with project managers that maintained team rosters and an establish initiation process. Consequently, the transition from outsider to bona fide team member was smooth and expeditious. My direct experience with the initiation process is meager, and reflecting on difficulties encountered because this protocol was not established, I clearly see the benefit of the initiating process. Based on my experience, the stakeholder register, kick-off meeting with introductions, and the project charter are valuable components of the project infrastructure and for project success.