How to Survive Complex Projects, Part 3: Chunking to Completion

21 Mar

By Andrea Alliston, Partner, Knowledge Management, and Nicola Shaver, Director of Knowledge Management, Stikeman Elliott LLP

In part 2 of this series, the authors examined how to develop requirements and focus on them throughout complex projects. Ed.

Now that you have your business and functional requirements in hand, how do you to turn them into reality? It is time to start tackling the practical aspects of the project.   While it may be tempting to jump in and just get going, spending some time up front on planning is well worth it.

Get Past the Fear Factor

Where do you start?   With high-stakes, complex projects, the pressure to get it right is daunting and thinking about all of the tasks that need to be accomplished can be overwhelming. In considering the challenges that lie ahead, you may feel too many hurdles will impede implementation. You may also wonder if you have sufficient resources to tackle all parts of the project or worry about the change management required after the platform is implemented.  How to do you go about rationally planning under these circumstances?

One approach is to start your planning by looking first at your desired outcome and working backwards. Ask yourself what needs to be done to achieve your goal?   Another approach – our favourite – is to break the project into chunks – components, phases, and finally detailed tasks.

Identify the Moving Parts

Think about each major component of the project and set these down on paper. We like to use something visual like a process map or post-it notes.   For the search project we developed a visual setting out the various components of our project, the main phases for each component and the dependencies between them. Each project component was colour-coded and each phase was numbered.  This was less about the detail (that is what the plan is for), and more about keeping a big-picture perspective on the project.

The major components of our enterprise search implementation included the following.

  • Taxonomy Management Tool
  • Taxonomy Development
  • KM Content Management Tool
  • Technology Development
  • Content Migration
  • KM Content Clean-up
  • Launch and Roll-out
  • Within the broad components of any project lie many phases and discrete tasks. You need not identify all of these at the beginning, so create a project plan that allows you to add detail as the project develops. If you have no preferred vendor at the outset, your project plan will likely include demonstrations of various products and a proof-of-concept before a purchase decision is made and implementation can start.

Assign a Project Manager

Your plan is nothing without a strong project manager at the helm throughout a complex project.   If you do not have project managers at your firm, consider asking your vendor for assistance or hiring someone on contract.  You can also look within your own team for someone with good organizational skills who could perform basic project management, like plotting the tasks of each phase of the project against a timeline and keeping track of what has been completed.

The project manager should attend the project meetings with your team and take notes, adjusting the timeline as needed and acting like a human “tickler system”, sending reminders as particular tasks come due. Becoming embroiled in the project’s details and losing sight of the bigger picture is all too easy. An effective project manager can prevent you from getting lost in the weeds by reinforcing your original strategy and perspective; this will help keep your team focused.

Expect the Unexpected

In any large project, issues inevitably arise that push back the project timeline. Knowing at the start where delay will come from is nearly impossible; but, be ready for hurdles and, if possible, build some flexibility into your timeline.

We found that the key to dealing with delays is to communicate, among not just the project team, but also the stakeholders. If the original launch date no longer looks feasible, try to set a realistic new launch date and strive to meet that goal. Adapting as issues arise allows you to keep moving forward, rather than being knocked sideways by every complication.

Lesson Learned

Plan, plan, and plan: The importance of planning cannot be understated. Remember Henry Ford’s words: “Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” Have your project manager hold regular meetings with the core project team so everyone understands what they need to be doing. During major projects, we meet inter-departmentally at least biweekly and more frequently if we enter a particularly intense phase of the project. We also hold weekly meetings with the KM team to keep the project on course.

Take pleasure in small successes:  We used our diagram of the project to keep us engaged.  We felt a sense of great satisfaction each time we could cross off one of the task bubbles as completed. Celebrating the small successes along the course of a project helps keep your team motivated for the long haul.

Communicate: Any complex project involves stakeholders from multiple departments, raising all kinds of communication challenges. We have found it critical to ensure that the information coming from our own team is consistent. In our enterprise search project, we met as a team before but on the same day as our meetings with IT to ensure were all on the same page before reporting to the other department. By maintaining our lines of communication and ensuring that the messaging coming from KM was clear, we were able to improve the flow of information between departments. Having said that, we know we still have some way to go. We can only hope that our next major project will be the one where we get the balance right.

Coming in part 4: In our next post, we look at the development and implementation phase of a complex project. Rest up.  You are going to need it.

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One Response to “How to Survive Complex Projects, Part 3: Chunking to Completion”

  1. netzer9 March 28, 2017 at 2:55 pm #

    Reblogged this on Legal Career Center.

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