The Virtual Project Manager

The fact that the modern world is fast becoming a global village is by no means a new concept. The steady rise of countries like China, India and various former Warsaw Pact nations like Poland and Russia has greatly expanded the reach and investment of companies and venture capitalists. With this expansion and the corresponding influence of the internet, the concept of virtual teams has become very common-place. Disparately located individuals, whether they be engineers, QA, marketing or sales representatives has added an additional level of complexity for the project manager, who must now contend with timezone issues, cultural differences, and simple logistical concerns of managing individuals who are not co-located.

With that being said, how does the ‘Virtual Project Manager’ prepare themselves to adequately deal with these new challenges? What types of concepts, ideas, methodologies and tools can the Project Manager leverage in order to be able to run virtual projects smoothy?

Utilize and Implement a Successful Infrastructure

Whenever dealing with a virtual team, it is important that you leverage the tools available that will allow for succesful communication and information sharing between team members. A teleconference system that can support active dialing from various global countries is a must. Content sharing technologies like WebEx, LiveMeeting or Cisco Telepresence are invaluable for being able to convey live content. Additionally, leveraging webcams or having access to conference rooms that support live video chat will give the dialog a more personal feel.

Have an Effective Communication Plan in Place

The team members will need to have some agreed upon communication medium that will allow for back and forth dialog. Email is an obvious choice, especially when dealing with timezones. Additionally, a wiki or messageboard style system or tool will allow for a running history of the discussions between team members. Whatever, the medium, what is most imperative is that it is implemented and used consistently. If members of the same team begin using disparate methods of communication, it will be far more difficult for collaboration to occur as well as making things harder for the project manager to maintain.

Continuously Monitor Status from Remote Team Members

Holding regular status meetings or receiving status updates from team members will ensure that progress is being monitored effectively. Additionally, if tools such as version control, bug tracking or test case tracking are being used, the project manager should have accounts to all systems so that he/she is able to easily draft reports from the systems. (And of course, make sure that the same tools are being used by all members of the team)

Implement a Scalable Process

Not all process methodologies are created equal. And certain ones simply do not scale well in situations where the team is disparately located. The project manager should evaluate the process they are planning to implement and ensure that it is something that will function adequately in this environment. Remember that an effective process is one that functions well for the current situation; and that means that not all cookie cutter processes should be adopted simply because they worked in other scenarios. Process is one of the most important aspects of a successful project and great care must be taken to implement it successfully.

Conveying Program Strategy

Dealing with project deliverables and conveying status in the form of success metrics or timelines (with milestones) is a key attribute of the project/program manager’s general responsibilities. Stakeholders, sponsors and team members will want to continuously be kept up to date on the various particulars pertaining to the successful movement of a project (or program) towards its net tangible outcome.

It goes without saying that projects and their superset programs generally have a set of quantifiable deliverables that are meant to be the natural outcome of the effort. Whether that be improvements in infrastructure, a product release, or a general process change or consolidation effort, every project and program will have some net outcome associated with it.

When one is dealing with the program level, often times, it is important to convey to stakeholders and the various team members of the constituent projects exactly what the end game of the program is. While it may seem obvious to some, as programs get instantiated and grow organically, they can periodically become more ambiguous or vague with regards to their overall strategy. A good example may be a ‘cloud’ strategy that is being adopted by a software company. While many may understand the concept at a high level, the actual strategy of execution for the program becomes a little more difficult to discern. And this often stems from the fact that some new initiatives are often the result of a brainstorming session at the executive level, which then percolates down.

Most project managers will understand how important it is to define ‘scope’ for their projects and ensure that actions being taken align with that predefined scope statement. In the same vein, a program (which can also have an aggregate scope), needs to very often define its overall strategy. And that strategy needs to be something with a little more bite than just a buzzword that was floating around during an executive offsite or brainstorming session.

From the standpoint of the program manager, what is often of paramount importance is to take the ‘high level’ strategy provided by the executives and give it some more tangible weight, through strategy discussions with the main stakeholders, key team members and the program sponsor or sponsors. So while ‘cloud’ may be a completely viable buzzword at the executive level, it is insufficient at the program level to convey the exact nature and long-term goal of the program as a whole.

With that being said, how should a program manager work towards defining the ‘core’ strategy of the program and how should that information be presented so that it is readily absorbed not only by the team members, but by the executives?

What is the Strategy?

While it may seem as almost a rhetorical question, in fact, it is often surprising how frequently you will get a diverse set of answers when one posits this question to a group of senior leaders. Their answers can often be attributed more to their position in the company versus the actual strategy itself. So in many cases, the answer provided by a marketing manager may differ from that given by a director of engineering, and so forth.

When it comes to strategy, a simple rule of thumb to follow when attempting to define it is to use the following three question approach:

1. Where are we today?

By this, the question is essentially alluding to what resources are available, what ideas do we currently have in the pipeline and what is currently in progress?

2. Where do we need to be?

In this case, the simple question can be summarized as asking what are the goals of the company or team? By positing this question after the initial one, it can almost immediately be determined if the current focus is matching the future expectations of everyone involved.

3. What are our options for getting there?

Once the corporation or team has a firm understanding of any and all discrepancies between their current focus and their desired focus, it becomes easier to discern what steps are needed in order to re-align current activities in order to achieve the desired goals. Also, specific constraints will surface during the discussions that will itemize what, if any, obstacles or bottlenecks might hinder the movement toward the desired goal.

Going from Point A to Point B

Based on the above, strategy can often be simplified in terms of simply going from one point to another. While it may seem like an oversimplification, that is essentially the crux of what a strategy defining exercise is attempting to convey. So something as simple as saying ‘We are currently a company that focuses on application level products but we are moving towards a client-less strategy’. The good thing about a simplified strategy statement is that, when it is well written, encompasses the business case in a simple, one line answer.

One very effective way to actually display the strategy in a graphical format, showing progress and dependencies is to use a PERT chart. For those unfamiliar with PERT, it stands for “Project/Program Evaluation and Review Technique’. A PERT chart is actually a pictorial way of showing movement of a project or program through its various paces until completion. The diagram below shows a simplistic representation of this concept:

As one can see based on a cursory view of the chart, it clearly shows movement from start to finish. PERT charts can actually become quite complex and often have intrinsic project timelines and completion dates as part of their function. But at a high level, they can also be quite effective to simply display where one is, where one would like to go, and the steps one must take to get there. The additional benefit of a PERT is that it can easily display activities that are dependent on one another versus those that can be accomplished in parallel with others.

Note: For further details on PERT charts and using them in your analysis, please consult the following posts:

PERT Analysis – Part 1

PERT Analysis – Part 2

Maintaining Focus on the Strategy

One of the most important aspects of a strategy session and its likelihood of success depends heavily on how much backing it has within the confines of the team or corporation. One must remember that a fundamental definition of strategy is not simply a brainstorming session. (Although it may start that way) It could often times be a fundamental shift in thinking, process and focus. With that being said, it is absolutely imperative that the mantra of the strategy be continuously re-inforced. People, when left to their own devices, can often become complacent as it pertains to any new ways of thinking or re-focussing of their efforts. Louis Vincent Gerstner, famous for changing the corporate culture at IBM, fought an uphill battle in moving the strategy of the company. Now while the strategy focus in your case may simply be a re-emphasis of existing efforts, a moderate shift in strategy, of a complete overhaul, what is important is that one maintains a high level of visibility of the strategy and ensures that everyone involved understands the focus and the movement forward.

Conclusions

If one wants to think of strategy, it is a simply a plan of action to achieve a specific goal. In military jargon, it might be a way to gain advantage over the enemy (destroying a supply line, taking over a key bridge, etc). In project terms, it is a goal to produce an end outcome or deliverable to achieve a specific result. (Usually increased revenue) Strategy can exist at the highest levels of a corporation or at the lowest levels of a small project. Regardless, the primary imperative is that the strategy is defined effectively and consistently applied. So long as everyone involved is aware of the strategy, can itemize it relatively easily and is aware of their specific tasks as to how it relates to that strategy, half the battle has already been won.