PM Foundations–The Core Team

At the heart of most successful projects you will find an effective core team that is fully responsible for the day-to-day leadership of the project. This is not to be confused with the strategic level guidance that represents the key function of the project steering committee. The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the core team is effectively selected, on-boarded, and fully engaged throughout the project life cycle.

What is the purpose of the core team?

The practical answer is that the core team is responsible for monitoring the progress of each of the key deliverables and making decisions about course corrections should the project begin tracking behind schedule, over budget or if major scope changes occur.

What are the important elements of a good core team?

A good core team is comprised of the key stakeholders who are empowered to represent a segment of the overall project domain (the segment is generally defined based upon an organization or competency/function they represent). Representing this segment means that the core team member is responsible for providing knowledge from their area of expertise, and making/influencing decisions that impact this area of expertise. Several key factors influence the process of identifying the core team:

  • Diversity: Diversity is a key element of the core team, because it is critical that different perspectives about the project and the project deliverables are fairly represented on the core project leadership team. These perspectives should be represented from day one of the core team — many project managers are tempted to exclude groups from the core team until they are needed to perform specific project activities.
  • Inclusiveness vs. effectiveness: The core team is not the entire project team working on different project activities. Sizing the core team appropriately is critical to the successful management of the project. As the project manager you need to strike a balance between including the right people in the day-to-day management of the project, and creating a team that is too big to effectively make decisions. Based upon my experience the appropriate core team size is somewhere between 6-10 people.
  • Assessing the Organization: The type of organization you are working in significantly influences the manner in which the core team is formed (depicted in the chart below). In a functional organizational, it is generally the functional leads that represent their area/department on the core team. In a matrix and project organization, the core team is generally formed based upon the role of the people assigned to the project. The type of organization also impacts the project manager’s role and authority on the project (from limited in a functional organization, to full control in a project organization).

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Procuring the Core Team Members

The factors described above represent key considerations when performing the following steps to select the core team:

  1. Determine which roles should be included on the core team. I find the most effective method is to look for the roles on the RACI chart with the most significant R’s (Responsible).
  2. Decide what project team members can fulfill these roles, If the team has not been formed, the question becomes what people in the organization can fulfill these roles.
  3. Determine if the composition of the core team needs to be adjusted based upon disconnects between the roles on the core team and the names assigned to the team.

The following chart provides an example of assembling a core team, based upon ownership of the key project deliverables. Ownership does not necessarily represent the person that will complete or manage the deliverable, but rather the person that will be responsible for the deliverable. Responsible means that this is the role that will ensure that the quality, scope, timing and cost of the deliverable are satisfied based upon the expectations established in the baseline project plan. Key deliverables which do not have an explicit owner established on the core team generally represents a RED flag (project risk), because the project manager will likely be required to manage these deliverables outside of the project leadership team as a “one off” process.

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You will find that multiple people may be required to fulfill specific roles, if one person cannot adequately represent the full scope of the deliverable on the core team. In addition, specific roles may be filled by consultants or third party partners.

Getting stakeholders, functional managers and other resource managers to agree to loan you the right resources for your core team can be a challenge. Having a solid project management plan with high level milestones and roles/responsibilities, Project Sponsor support for the initiative, and clear definition of the deliverables (in the form of a WBS) to reference during the discussion with the resource managers makes this process much easier. When assembling the core team it is important to interact with the potential core team members to understand how well they understand the project – and how they feel about the business case (benefits, scope, target dates). It is a bonus to obtain resources that are passionate about some aspect of the initiative (benefits to their organization, learning opportunities for them, team dynamics).

On-boarding the core team

Prior to the overall project kick-off, the core team is assembled for a planning meeting (or series of planning meetings, depending on the complexity of the project). The planning meeting helps level set the core team on project planning efforts that have been completed to date (prior to them joining the team), and launching the efforts to complete the remaining planning activities/deliverables. The Project Manager facilitates the discussion on project planning deliverables completed to-date (project charter, milestones/target dates, scope statement, RACI, and the Project Management Plan). Making sure everyone is clear about what their role on the project is one of the essential topics at this point in forming the core team.

The Core Team planning meeting is best structured in the following manner:

Goals and objectives

  • Communicate information about the project using project artifacts created to-date
  • Establish a common understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • Begin the process of completing the remaining planning deliverables

Activities / Discussion Topics

  • Icebreakers and introductions (particularly important for new projects, with a diverse cross-functional team)
  • Review of project deliverables (best to provide access to these deliverables in advance of the meeting, so this time is spent productively covering questions and open issues)
  • Establish core team priorities and begin working on the remaining planning deliverables

Core Team Best Practices

The following summarizes the best practices associated with selecting, procuring, and on-boarding your core project team:

Purposefully select the core team

  • The team’s diversity in terms of backgrounds, perspectives and talents significantly improves project outcomes.
  • Right-size the team to accomplish the task at hand – manage the day-to-day project operations. Make sure the team can adequately “own” the project deliverables, but is not too large to effectively manage team dynamics.
  • The core team should be formed in a manner that is consistent with the organization that is driving the project.

Work with the right people to procure the right team members

  • Clearly communicate with resource managers (about the project and resource needs).
  • Use the project sponsor appropriately to gain support of the initiative.
  • Obtain buy-in of the potential core team members (to understand their commitment to the initiative, and comfort with their role).

Make the effort to adequately on-board and ramp-up the core team

  • Spend time “forming” the team.
  • Clearly communicate the plans completed to-date. You want the core team to “own” the plans, even if they were not involved in making all of the decisions or creating all of the planning deliverables.
  • Focus on getting immediate traction on the work ahead. Quickly align the core team with the project priorities, and ownership of next steps.
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PM Foundations–Establishing Project Rhythm

As a project manager, you often rely as heavily on your “soft skills” as a project leader, as you do on your core knowledge as a project manager. This is particularly true during the transition from project planning to execution. It is the time period when you are on-boarding the entire project team, and moving from “planning the work” to “doing the work”. As you make this transition, you must establish a good rhythm on the project team. This rhythm involves three important elements of effective project execution:

  • Teamwork – People on the project are working together to accomplish a common goal.
  • Cadence – Work is getting done on-time, and in the sequence that it should.
  • Communication – People are informed and engaged at the right time about relevant topics.

If the foundation for these three elements of project execution is created during this transition period, when the unexpected occurs on a project, the project team will be equipped to respond appropriately and continue moving the project in the right direction.

Why is project rhythm so important?

The project team works more efficiently and effectively with a common understanding of the goals and the plan to “get there”.

  • Team members are more likely to be well-informed, and actively participate in decision making when strong communication and collaboration processes and tools are established.
  • Team dynamics & satisfaction are improved on a team that understands what progress looks like.
  • Bottom line: Good project rhythm improves project delivery outcomes.

How is project rhythm established?

1. Ensure the team understands the baseline plan

  • Communicate the plan in a manner that everyone hears the key messages (scope, schedule, constraints, assumptions, risks /issues).
  • Find ways to reinforce the messages (team meetings, one on one interactions, collaboration tools).
  • Ensure that the plan “lives”, and is an on-going point of reference for the team.

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2. Establish the appropriate communication vehicles

  • Establish regular project team meetings (communication & engagement “across” the project team).
  • Conduct timely project sponsor updates (communication & engagement “up” to the project sponsors).
  • Distribute meaningful project status reports (see my last blog for a more detailed discussion of this best practice area).
  • Implement tools and processes for project team collaboration (a central location for the team to reference and collaborate for project work).

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    3. Capture & report project progress in a timely manner

          • Establish progress update processes that meet the needs of the team (dependent on the size and complexity of the project team).
        • Ensure that the progress update process is linked to (or integrated with) other project related processes (time reporting, team meetings, status reporting).
        • Upon completion of each project progress update, review/analyze the project data with the team to determine:

                  – Why are tasks behind plan?

                  – Are corrective actions required?

                  – Are adjustments to the plan appropriate?

    Summary

    Performed well, the project manager facilitates creating the project rhythm during the project planning to execution transition without the team even noticing. As the transition is complete, and project work is underway, the project rhythm enables the team to quickly gain momentum, reduce overall project risk, and move down the path to successfully deliver on the goals of the project.

    PM Foundations–Project Status Reporting

    For those familiar with the movie classic that pokes fun at the workplace, Office Space, you probably remember the scene where that boss repeatedly nags his subordinate about the importance of a cover page on the TPS reports. This exchange between the boss and subordinate highlights that status reporting is a management mandated activity that does very little in terms of getting actual work done.

    Unfortunately, many project teams maintain this same attitude when it comes to project status reporting. This project management purist views project status reporting as an integral component of effective project communications and reporting (no surprise there). In fact, I would go so far as to say it represents one of a handful of best practice areas that ensures success throughout the execution phase of the project life cycle.

    Nobody reads it, why do it?

    1. Facilitates communications – This is the obvious reason – The project status report establishes a consistent and timely vehicle for fact based reporting about the project that can be consumed in a meaningful manner by all stakeholders (core team members, project sponsors, and other interested parties).

    2. Establishes a rhythm for project performance analysis – It ensures that on a regular basis the project manager performs analysis on what has been accomplished, how is the team performing, and what corrective actions need to be implemented (to resolve problems, or mitigate risk).

    3. Maintains focus on the project team – It highlights where the team needs to focus to correct problems or maintain the progress required to meet or exceed customer expectations.

    Best Practices

    From my experience, the best practices associated with effective project status reporting are in the following areas:

    • Format: How is the information presented to communicate the desired message(s) to the different groups of stakeholders
    • Project Metrics: What are the metrics regularly generated and reported to accurately communicate the current and forecasted status of the project
    • Timing: What is the appropriate frequency of reporting status information (timely enough to be proactive, without becoming burdensome to the project manager and/or team)
    • Re-enforce the message: What additional vehicles must be in place to make certain that the important message(s) are understood, and the required corrective actions are initiated

    Format: As a consultant, I usually walk into a situation where a project status report format already exists. Rather than irritating the customer by suggesting that the current status report is not adequate, I normally look for subtle ways to enhance the information presented. The goal is to ensure that the status report draws attention to the key information that is required to inform or initiate action. Some of the important elements of the status report include:

    • Project header information – Re-enforcement of the overall project scope/goals, and key stakeholders
    • Overall status – Often expressed as a color (Green/Yellow/Red) with some comments about why the overall status is what it is
    • Accomplishments – Highlights progress in the current reporting period (make sure that the key messages are not lost in too much detail)
    • Risks & Issues – Escalates the “top 3” risks & issues, including the corrective or mitigation actions
    • Upcoming milestones – Focuses on the important milestones, including planned vs. forecasted completion

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      My general guideline is that a status report should not exceed two pages – if it does, stakeholders are likely to miss some, if not all, of the key messages.

    Metrics: Project metrics are the primary ingredient of the status report that creates fact based information on a regular basis. These metrics must be generated directly from the project management artifacts that are utilized to manage the project on a day-to-day basis (project schedule, project budget, risk register, change control logs). Because these metrics are created from existing project management tools, there should not be significant effort associated with updating them.

    Based upon my experience, the key project metrics presented on the status report fall into one of the following categories:

    • Time – Comparison of the planned vs. actual or forecasted completion dates
    • Effort & Cost – Comparison of the planned vs. actual or forecasted effort / cost to progress to this point in the project (this is where earned value is a useful tool)
    • Scope – Comparison of planned vs. actual scope of deliverables completed to-date (summary of scope changes)
    • Risk – Assessment of the level of risks identified or realized (compared to the initial risk assessment)

    Timing: The most important element related to the timing of the project status report is establishing and maintaining strict adherence to a consistent reporting interval (e.g., every other week) and delivery schedule (e.g., by end of day on Monday). This ensures that the stakeholders know when to expect (or look for) the status report. From my experience, implementation of either weekly or bi-weekly status reporting most effectively meets the needs of both the project manager, and key stakeholders, without creating too much project overhead. Specific sections of the status report may be provided on a less frequent basis (e.g., budget information may be updated on a monthly vs. bi-weekly basis).

    Re-enforcement of the message: Project managers often fall into the trap of assuming that distribution of the status report is enough to ensure that the key messages are well understood, and the appropriate next steps are completed. The distribution of the project status report needs to be directly connected to other regular team communication events (core team meetings, project sponsor / steering committee meetings) to confirm understanding of the current and forecasted status, escalate issues / risks, and initiate corrective actions.

    Delivering the Right Information to the Right People

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    In summary, the project status report should not be created with the view that it satisfies a requirement mandated by management, but rather a best practice that creates significant value for you, as the project manager, the core project team, and other stakeholders. Effective use of the project status report is one of the clear indicators that the project is “under control” during the execution phase of the project. On top of that, there will be no need for this conversation: “Hi, Peter. What’s happening? We need to talk about your TPS reports.”

    PM Foundations – Creating a Meaningful Project Budget

    As a person who had both project and cost center budgeting responsibilities for many years, I must admit this was an effort that I did not necessarily enjoy and usually procrastinated (much like those of us that procrastinate filing our taxes). Ironically, now that I am on the other side of the fence as a consultant, I work very hard to establish the credibility and trust of my client that is required to be assigned responsibility for the project budget.

    Best practices associated with the project budget are focused on efficiently leveraging the planning assets created to that point in the process, and performing the appropriate level of analysis to develop a project budget that will be understood and approved by the client, and just as importantly can be managed throughout the project life cycle. Therefore, the best practices shared in this column represent areas that should be considered during the project budgeting process, not a step by step instruction on creating and maintaining a project budget.

    The following represent the best practice topics discussed in this column:

    • Efficiently creating the labor budget for your project
    • Other cost considerations
    • Project budget vs. funding

    The Labor Budget:

    Within the world of IT projects, labor generally represents the largest and most complex component of the overall project budget. The important concept associated with the labor budget is to ensure that other planning artifacts are utilized to efficiently create the labor budget. This approach significantly streamlines the development of the labor budget, and most importantly it ensures that the project budget is defensible when compared to the project schedule and resource / staffing plan.

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    The resource usage view of the project schedule is utilized to create the staffing plan. The staffing plan depicts the full-time equivalent resources (or resource hours) per planning period. The resource quantities are imported into the labor budget and translated into dollars per planning period. The following represent the key elements of the labor budget:

    • Grouping of resources – Understanding of costs by type of resource helps articulate the key cost drivers within the labor budget.
    • Breakdown between internal and external costs – Clients generally place more emphasis on external costs, because these costs are incremental to their business (these costs would not be incurred if the project was not completed).
    • Timing of costs – It is important to summarize the costs by time period, because timing of project costs will be required for financial budgeting and reporting purposes.

    Other Project Budgeting Considerations:

    The following represent the other areas to consider when completing the development of the project budget. These areas are discussed with your client to understand the appropriate approach, based upon the client’s environment and organizational assets (e.g. financial reporting policies, procedures and tools).

    • Non-labor costs – Non-labor costs generally relate to planned purchases required to support the project. There are capabilities to capture these costs within the project schedule, but it usually adds limited value to reflect them in the project schedule. It is a best to plan and track these costs directly within the Project Budget Tracking tool.
    • Capitalized costs – Companies capitalize certain costs associated with developing or purchasing software designated for internal use. It is important to understand your clients business rules associated with capitalization, and ensure that the project budget supports both planning and tracking capital versus expense project costs.
    • Operational Costs – Although it is not part of the project budget, it is important to provide visibility of the impact of the project on the cost of the on-going operations. The costs included in the project budget can be utilized to derive many of the cost impacts on the on-going operations, such as: depreciation, customer support, infrastructure maintenance and software maintenance.

    Project Budget versus Project Funding:

    The project manager normally has limited responsibility for project funding decisions, however he/she must reconcile the funding model to the project budget. It is important to understand that when the project budget is approved by the project sponsor, the project cannot be launched until it is fully funded. Fully funded refers to the fact that the project is accounted for in both department cost center budgets (expense) and the capital plans (capital). Another critical aspect of the funding model is not only comparing the total project budget to the total amount funded, but also understanding the timing of the project funding vs. the budget. Under funded situations at any point in time require action prior to executing on the project as planned (e.g., may require delays in launching specific project activities / phases).

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    The following provides an illustration of the components of the project budget, from the lowest level activity estimates in the project schedule up to the project funding model for the project.

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    In conclusion, the project budget can be considered a strong component of the overall project plan when following have been fulfilled during the planning process:

    • The project budget is fully supported by other project artifacts
    • The project budget process connects to the client’s financial policies, procedures and tools
    • The project budget can be reconciled to the approved cost center budgets and capital plans