Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Project Manager’s Cycle – Review Issues & Action Items

“We will finish development in two weeks.  We had some setbacks last week that through us behind and the problems in my last report took longer to resolve than we expected, but we’re moving again and our momentum is back where it should be.”  The voice over the conference line exuded confidence and enthusiasm.  After a short discussion about scheduling a demo for executives, the call ended.   Of the two people in the room, Mike, the PMO director had the most to lose.  It was his responsibility to assess the reliability of the reports and set realistic expectations for the C-suite.  The voice on the other end of the teleconference was the delivery manager for a newly acquired subsidiary.  They were growing fast and the parent depended on them to quickly contribute to the bottom line.  But they had a well-earned reputation for dramatically missing deadlines.  They were already four weeks late on a three-month development schedule.  Mike had to evaluate the reports from the subsidiary and decide when the parent would ramp up the announcement and roll-out.  A misstep too late meant lost revenue;   moving too early and the impaired reputation of this conservative company would probably cost Mike his job.
Turning to the other listener, he opened the conversation:  “What do you think?”  Mike had asked this consultant to join him on the call and offer his advice interpreting the report.  “Mike, the application model is client-server.  They report they are using a development model based on Microsoft’s Solution Development Framework.  If this is true, then based on their report they should have all the navigation and major pieces of the application should be functional.  Anything missing should be stubbed in.  Just get them to present a demo for you.  When they can do that, then you know they’re getting close.  Until then, it’s just noise.”
It hardly seems necessary to say that managing issues is part of The Project Manager’s Cycle.  After all, sometimes it seems that all we do is fight fires.  The Review Issues & Action Items activity will probably seem very similar to the previous posting, Review Risks & Mitigation Actions.  After all, you maintain an Issue Log with owners just like you maintain a risk register with owners.  And review the Issue Log each cycle for items that you own, develop or validate the action plan, and then follow it.  If the issue or action item is product related, delegate it.
Also review the Issue Log for actions owned by others, follow up with them on status and to confirm they have an appropriate action plan and are making progress on it.  You may need to nudge some owners.
We are often overwhelmed by issues:  poor planning, difficulty taking a roaring forest fire and decomposing it into actionable responses, failure to use our team (manage laterally), failure to delegate (manage down), failure to escalate (manage up), and failure to follow up and communicate.  Dealing with issues is a lot like eating a sizzling four-pound steak:  cut off a small piece, take a bite, chew, swallow, repeat.
I will offer my “best practice” for tracking issues and action items.  During our weekly project meetings (you will find later in this cycle that there are two) we discuss issues, resulting in clearly identified owners and action items they are responsible for.  All action items are reviewed before the meeting concludes.  The action items and owners are listed in the meeting minutes.  Then, and this is the key part, the issues and action items from that meeting roll forward into the agenda for the next meeting (sort of like sourdough starter).  Issues and action items stay on the successive agendas until consensus that they are closed.
This practice obviously doesn’t work for very large or badly run projects where there may be dozens of issues and actions, but it is simple, effective, and keeps team members accountable for the typical project I lead.
There’s a reason that review risks precedes review issues in my version of The Project Manager’s Cycle.  We can get so overwhelmed by current brush fires that we fail the due diligence that limits future bonfires.  It’s worth noting that a project with lots of issues is symptomatic of either poor planning or poor risk management.
Good planning and following the PM cycle will help you manage issues rather than letting them manage you.
Do you have an issues and action items best practice to share?

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