Rock solid Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

Project management is easy, right? Not without proper planning, compartmentalization and communications.

“With complex projects, communications is critically important and the part that is usually left out,” says Kathie Brady, Project Manager at Houston-based IT consultancy DYONYX, who has managed hundreds of multithreaded projects for the firm’s largest federal customers. “Planning and compartmentalization take place first, with an emphasis on how the project will be effectively communicated and to whom.”

Smart Business asked Brady for her insight managing complex projects.

Where do you start?

Without a solid plan, the project is doomed. With multiple objectives and stakeholders, proper resources and increased coordination is paramount. The plan must include: purpose, scope, resources, schedule and budget. This may sound basic, however, you have to understand that no part of the plan stands alone; each affects the other. For instance, if the scope changes, schedule and budget change. If resources become limited, the scope or schedule has to be adjusted. And, communication and sign-off of these changes become critical to project success.

What do you mean by compartmentalization?

Compartmentalization breaks the entire project into subprojects; stage gates and milestones, each with its own plan and leader. High level tasks are broken down into layers of responsibility with critical success factors for each segment. Compartmentalization reduces project complexity. Invariably, as other team members are brought in to help with certain tasks, compartmental communications becomes even more important.

How do you set up the communications part of the plan?

Too much information is overwhelming and counterproductive. Too little information results in undefined expectations and lack of accountability. With complex projects, information exchange and coordination are critical at all levels. Portal-based technology can be used very effectively in managing communications — more so than a constant interchange of e-mails. Portals also provide an effective means of automatically notifying stakeholders, tracking multi-threaded discussion lists and providing a document repository (with roles-based access) to everyone involved, from anywhere and in real time.

How important are the leaders in each segment of the project?

Choose your leaders carefully, selecting for experience and knowledge of their portion of the project. Project leaders should be good mentors and team players. Since there will be multiple subprojects taking place simultaneously, the team concept of interaction is essential for success. Subproject leaders not performing to expectations require the project manager’s quick analysis and decision. Can you mentor them and get back on track or do they need to be replaced? When any team member genuinely jeopardizes the project, replacement is the only answer. If a replacement is required and an individual from outside of the team is selected rather than redistributing the work to an existing team member, the documentation portal and communications network established early on will aid in the knowledge transfer and ramp-up time.

Can you walk us through an example of a complex project?

These days it is common for businesses and government agencies to go through continuous transition, either due to a change in service provider, new technology or change in operational requirements. Let’s consider a complete, technology-based transition project, for example. You would establish plans for each of the subprojects for, say, Microsoft Active Directory, Exchange e-mail, BlackBerry, file systems, applications and help desk transition. Each subproject will have its own plan, schedule, tasks and resources.

Placing the existing technical documentation and any additional information discovered during the process on the portal makes it available to all subproject team members. The project manager works with the subproject team leaders in developing an overall schedule: the application migration can’t start until the active directory (AD) structure is completed, so coordination and communication are key. The AD team is going to discover information that will be needed by the applications and file systems teams, such as service accounts that run those applications and user file permissions, though these teams don’t need to know the details of how AD will be migrated. By sharing the knowledge the AD team gained via the portal, the application and file systems teams can ensure that their portions of the transition go smoothly without getting bogged down in the details of the AD project. A completed transition plan, which incorporates plans for each subproject, can be made available to all team members for review and identification of risks prior to starting the transition.

KATHIE BRADY is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with DYONYX, currently serving as the project manager in charge of IT services for the Division of Immigration Health Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Reach her at (202) 732-0090 or