Should Project Managers Roll Their Sleeves Up?

Might It Be Necessary?

There’s the project management aspect of any project… and then there’s the required output from the project…

The project manager takes care of the first; and the project team and nominated experts and assistants are responsible for the second.

But what happens when your project simply doesn’t have enough resource to support the required project output? Should a project manager roll his or her sleeves up and help? Is this a good idea? Might it be both necessary and what is expected of you? Or can it lead to disaster?

A Case In Point

The Project

On one of my recent projects, in an organisation I admired and whose staff were already working extremely hard, I made the conscious decision to roll my sleeves up. The project involved the implementation of new a Payroll and HR system and at the outset I realised that the resourcing was rather too low – but that it would be extremely difficult for my client to bring their resource to the levels I recommended.

Keen to support the organisation’s objectives, I therefore chose to provide not only project management services to my client but a wide range of other activities, including training delivery, procedural documentation, business analysis, system administration, requirements analysis, solution design and data migration support. I also undertook any other administration and support activities that needed completing to keep the project on the road.

The project took approximately six months and included the standard features of implementations of this kind: initiation, planning, bespoke design and development, system setup and configuration, data migration, User Acceptance Testing, parallel running and go-live.

Throughout the project I worked at an intense rate, averaging a 47 hour week (excluding holidays), despatching over 3,000 project-specific emails, producing over 100 formal documents and helping my client successfully achieve their desired implementation timescales. But was making such a commitment sensible?

Here is a breakdown of the work I undertook, beginning with the non-project-management-type activities.

Procedural Documentation and Business Analysis

On behalf of the project:

  • I produced procedural guidance for the Finance Team’s maintenance of costing data on the new system
  • I analysed the Payroll/HR procedural interface and produced written guidance on activities permissible for HR during the payroll processing period (reconciling a fairly typical instinct within Payroll for exclusion vs. a robust HR need for access)
  • I analysed Payroll procedures and identified efficient replacement processes on the new system
  • I contributed to the analysis and documentation of an establishment control processes
  • I provided advice and guidance on HR and Payroll procedures in general, with the aim of combining simplicity and cost effectiveness with best practice

Training

On behalf of the project I:

  • Delivered system data structure familiarisation sessions to the project and user teams
  • Produced guidance documentation covering the new system’s data structures, hierarchy and posts
  • Booked training courses, booked rooms, administered attendees, distributed manuals, organised access to laptops etc, for eleven training events

Requirements Analysis and System Design

On behalf of the project I undertook the following activities:

  • Analysis of the costing outputs required from the new system for interfacing to the existing Finance system
  • Production of Business Requirements and Functional Specs for a bespoke interface from the new system to the existing Finance
  • Definition of the interface-relevant Business Objects reports for the Finance team
  • Analysis and documentation of system user types and the menus required for HR and Payroll Operatives Supervisors

System Build and Administration

On behalf of the project I have performed the following activities:

  • Menu setup on the new system
  • Security setup on the new system
  • Setup and administration of all users of the new system
  • Audit setup
  • Online payslip setup
  • Supervision of comms access
  • RTI data checks
  • Setup of User Defined Screens
  • Fault logging and escalation with the supplier
  • Arranging and checking Test environment refreshes
  • Arranging and checking software upgrades
  • Arranging and checking delivery of bespoke software

Testing

On behalf of the project I undertook:

  • Detailed functional testing of the bespoke costing interface
  • Coordination of Finance Team data checking
  • Testing of costing interface specific reports
  • Testing of menu, security and user setup
  • Provision of advice and guidance on HR and Payroll testing
  • Testing of online payslips

Data Migration Support

On behalf of the project:

  • I reviewed with the organisation and gained agreement on data ownership and sources for the data migration
  • I administered the collection, formatting and migration onto the new system of cost codes generated by the existing Finance system
  • I closely administered all data migration activities, including version control, format checking and secure transfer (overcoming certain supplier-side weaknesses in this area)
  • I coordinated project team correction of the migration data where required

Project Admin and Support

On behalf of the project I undertook:

  • Organisation of project room and facilities
  • Meeting room booking, meeting administration, minute taking, the production of Agendas and Minutes for all meetings

Project Management

On behalf of the project I undertook the following activities:

  • Fact finding and contract review
  • Production of the Project Terms of Reference
  • Production of the Project Board Terms of Reference
  • Stakeholder analysis
  • Production of the Project Charter (very similar to PRINCE 2’s ‘Project Initiation Document’)
  • Production of high level planning for the project
  • Production and maintenance of a detailed project plan
  • Production of Training and Communications Plans
  • Coordination, prioritisation and facilitation of project team activities
  • Production of Project Team action lists
  • Monitoring project budget vs costs
  • Supervision of supplier Application, Business Objects and Data Migration consultancy
  • Chairing of scheduled and ad hoc project team meetings
  • Monitoring progress against plan and escalating where necessary
  • Coordination of bespoke development, delivery and implementation
  • Preparation and presentation of Project Status reports to Board
  • Micro-management of late UAT and early parallel run activities
  • Preparation of Parallel Run and Go Live Sign Off documents
  • Supplier administration including two formal escalations
  • Administration of change control

Etcetera

This long list of activities of course excludes the range of minor or informal tasks, meetings, correspondences and discussions which all project managers must undertake to facilitate any project of this size reaching its desired conclusion.

Through these very diverse activities, and with the help, dedication and commitment of an excellent but small project team, I ensured an on time and under budget go-live for the project. The project was considered a success throughout the organisation. But at what cost?

Benefits and Risks

The benefits of my approach are fairly clear:

  • Costs were kept low by not engaging a range of very differently skilled staff for short-term activities
  • Efficiency was gained by having a small, closely knit team who knew the entire project inside out – reducing handovers, meetings and duplication of communications
  • I maintained close control over the activities I detail above – through doing them myself…
  • A strong sense of team endeavour and achievement was engendered within a small, tightly focussed and dedicated team

But there were very definite risks entailed in this approach:

  • Willingly and voluntarily the team at times worked to the point of exhaustion to meet the project objectives, which is something that cannot be considered best practice project management. This alone introduces the risks of:
    • burnout, potentially reducing the team members’ effectiveness further down the line
    • focussing too narrowly on what needs to be achieved now, with the team and project manager so immersed in the output-based activities of the project that it becomes difficult to see the wood from the trees or to think strategically
    • errors; tired people, or people who are juggling many activities in parallel, are more likely to make mistakes… and there was a definite danger of this in the project I describe here
  • Had I, or any of the team, become unavailable at any point in the project, there was no contingency: the project would of necessity have slipped
  • I became the sole source of expertise in a number of areas rather than this expertise being built up within a project team made up of permanent employees. This was effectively a postponement of cost, entailing identifying individuals to learn what I knew and to assume the responsibilities I had taken on myself

The Outcome

Fortunately, in the project detailed here, we managed to gain the benefits but avoid the risks highlighted above, partly through hard work, stamina and dedication, but also, decidedly, through a degree of good luck. We worked together well. We had the skills we needed. Issues arose, as with any project, but we were able to promptly resolve them. The project was brought in on time and costs were kept down. What more could my client have asked for?

Answering The Question

But this leaves my initial question unanswered. Should project managers, when it may benefit their employing organisation or the objectives of their project, roll up their sleeves and undertake urgent non-project-management tasks?

From the detail I have provided so far, and given the successful outcome of the project, you might expect that my answer would be, ‘Yes. Of course. You do what you need to do to get the job done…’

However, the conclusion I draw from my experiences is rather different from this. I suggest that best practice project management in fact entails the project manager keeping their sleeves firmly rolled down. In the project I describe my decision to become a hybrid project manager / team member / jack of all trades was fortunately successful – but it did expose the project to significant risks, risks that, as a professional project manager, I would have preferred to more decisively avoid.

Project managers should always hold something back in terms of energy and engagement, allowing for lateral thinking, forward planning, the anticipation of risk and the preparation of risk mitigations.

The project team and I did well. In fact I am incredibly proud of our achievement. But I think we could have done even better, and we could have done it with greater security of outcome, with a little more resource, a little more focus on project management in addition to project outputs, and a little more time.

Luke Andreski    May 2013

https://andreskiprojectmanagement.wordpress.com/

www.andreskisolutions.com

Feedback on any of my posts and the issues they discuss is very welcome.

© 2013 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.

 

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  1. #1 by Matt Townley on May 29, 2013 - 11:48 pm

    Hi Luke. A conundrum I have faced myself (Rarely with a real choice!) and I have to agree with your view that ‘sleeves down’ is the best approach. You could even argue that the project was not entirely successful becase is failed to meet Quality: The team did not gain the fullest knowledge or the system; and Budget: The team will require further training to mitigate this.

    • #2 by Luke Andreski on May 31, 2013 - 12:00 pm

      Fair comment – and both points conceded. Fortunately the budget savings were more than sufficient to address the quality issue and cover the training needed!

  2. #3 by Luke Andreski on May 31, 2013 - 12:05 pm

    Another issue raised by a colleague is that by becoming one of the project workers in parallel with being the project manager, you are also introducing an element of ‘conflict of interest’, since the project manager should be able to critique any work undertaken on the project and escalate any weaknesses – which is definitely more difficult to do if the project manager is also the person who has done that item of work!

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