Finding “Project People”

With so much to consider when kicking off a new project: methodologies, new processes, funding and the like, it is easy to overlook the key to ensuring project success: people.

Various methodology peddlers, software vendors and certification agencies have done companies a disservice by suggesting that there’s a shortcut to staffing critical projects. Their sales pitch suggests that using the right methodology or looking for a string of letters after a candidate’s name is a shortcut to guaranteed success, and while their pitch is obviously a bit more subtle than what I’m suggesting here, too often companies buy into this line of reasoning and give staffing the short shrift.

Whether you are implementing a new software package, instituting major process overall, or integrating a new business unit or acquisition, projects are complex exercises that will tax and test your people, behooving a great deal of attention be paid to which staff are selected to mange and execute them. The following five tips should help guide you in your selection of “project people:”

Stop “Certification Surfing”
We would all like a shortcut in staffing decisions, and certification agencies have tried to convince us that a fancy certificate is the right metric for deciding who should be staffed on your projects. While the presence of a particular certificate indicates someone possesses some standardized body of knowledge and was successfully able to pass a test, it does little more. That person may be able to build Gantt charts that would make a rocket scientist blush, but may end up stammering and sweating when they are faced with an angry stakeholder. Project people must possess a wide variety of talents, and there is no certification or test I know of that can indicate competence in all of them, save for the old fashioned face-to-face interview and appropriate due diligence.

Look Beyond Commodity Skills

If your project involves some standardized tool, be it a methodology like Six Sigma or a software package like SAP, the tendency is to load up on people with experience or certifications in that area. While this is appropriate for highly technical, engineering or mathematical roles, an ability to learn, communicate and manage conflicting tasks should trump deep experience with the tools of the trade. The right people can learn the tools, but it is difficult to teach adaptability, leadership and effective communication skills.

Experts Won’t Necessarily Succeed

Another trap for internal resources is the tendency to fill a project with “experts:” people who have spent years dealing with the area to be changed, and perhaps even created the processes or systems that are being replaced. While access to their expertise will be critical to the success of a project, just as a certification does not make a great project leader or worker, expertise in “the way things used to be” has little bearing on how well the person will lead or work on a project team. In some cases, experts may even perceive the project as dismantling something they spent months developing and years maintaining, leading to them actively working against the success of the project.

Dedicate Staff
A sure recipe for disaster is to select a group of people, perhaps even some of your most qualified staff, and tell them they are “on the project” without planning for or providing a reprieve from their normal responsibilities. Most project efforts require dedicated staff and simply saying “You are 40% dedicated to project X” while not adjusting that person’s workload is both unfair and unlikely to succeed. Planning for someone’s shift onto the project team is an obvious critical step, but even before transitioning someone to a project team it is also critical to plan their exit and return to an operational role, or transition to a new project.

Don’t be Afraid to Change Staff
On most projects I have seen, the tendency is to keep unsuccessful staff on a project for too long. From consultants that perform poorly but are perceived as having a critical commodity skill, to the internal expert that just cannot adapt to project life, we tend to watch them flounder for far too long. On the consulting side, the primary reason that consultants are utilized is as highly-knowledgeable temporary staff. If a consultant is not working as you expected, after speaking with the low performer, immediately seek a replacement. In boom and bust times, there are other fish in the sea. For internal employees, projects are often wildly different than the type of work they may be accustomed to, and you should expect some will not adapt well to their new role. After discussion with the employee, seek to return them to their former role and plan for a replacement as rapidly as possible. Do not take the fact that some people are not successful in a project role as an insult or a strike against your staffing skills, rather, seek to mitigate the damage sooner rather than later.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.

By Patrick Gray

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