Now that you’ve turned over the project to the Project Manager and team, your role shifts from creator to wagon master. You now have three major responsibilities: lead, constrain, and protect.
Carry the flag – Remember this scene in The Patriot? The line is faltering, the British are advancing. Mel Gibson evaluates the situation, grabs the flag from the failing bearer and charges forward, turning the tide of the battle. That’s your job now. No one should be more passionate about the reason for this project than you. Make sure you have a passionate and clear elevator speech, a mantra, something you repeat so often that you are tired of hearing yourself. Until you are thoroughly bored with yourself, no one else has even heard you.
Keep all the wagons on the same path – The longer the project, the more likely someone will decide that “we might as well do this too while we’re in this code”. You don’t need to speak the same language as programmers or project managers to hear some specific warning signs. If you don’t understand all the acronyms, ask for an English translation. If you don’t want to distract a meeting, ask the project manager offline for a deeper explanation. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it’s very likely it doesn’t make sense to do. Other phrases to watch out for:
- “This would be easier if we fixed the way xyz worked” – usually said by a programmer who hates how something semi-related works and is looking for an opportunity to fix a pet peeve. They may be right, but ask a lot of questions and listen for reasonableness.
- “Didn’t we do something like this already” – it’s great to look for similar projects and learn from them. But many times, this simply leads to your team having to clean up an unfinished or poorly executed project from the past. Let them go there but set dates for research and reporting back.
- Words like “just”, “too”, “also”, “why not” – while usually a positive sign of creativity, in a project these words can move your dates significantly. Anything that sounds like an addition is possible scope creep, especially when said late in the project’s lifecycle.
Look out for problems and head them off –
The wagon master will ride in advance…to set the gait and to look out for bad or dangerous places effecting the necessary repairs to roads or bridges should it be dangerous. (Manual for the Quartermaster Corps, United States Army, 1916)
For you, these problems usually are a lack of resources or a change in something coming down from upper management. You have to protect the team and make sure they have the time and freedom to do their jobs. You should constantly scan the environment for potential distractions and remove them before they impact the team. The killer phrases here are typically more blatant than the ones coming from the team:
- “Doesn’t Project XYZ already do that?” – most often said by a business person who wants you to add their newest idea to your project without adding time or resource.
- “What if we slid this in front of Project XYZ” – usually includes phrases like “shift resources” or “change timelines”.
If your mantra is strong enough, the team will manage the scope for you.
In my job, our customers must make regular payments, sort of a subscription-based service. We wanted to leverage mobile to increase payments made. We couldn’t afford a full app and resources were non-existent. Someone suggested just making the existing payment page mobile-friendly. Then we could test whether it was valuable to our customers before using too much resource. I agreed and found a way to pay for the smaller initiative. The mantra, repeated in every status meeting, was simple – I want our existing page to be mobile-friendly in the shortest time possible with minimal resources, no longer than two months.
I missed the demo meeting so the team recorded it for me. The demo was amazing. The programmer designed almost a full app, with amazing functionality that I now desperately wanted. The project manager asked, “how long would it take to make all of this functional”. The answer was several months plus testing, where resources were even tighter. The PM ended a long pause with “she won’t agree to that. We need this quickly and with minimal resources and the biggest impact is the payments. How much faster can we do this if we pull it back to just the payments”. I was actually disappointed and overjoyed at the same time. I wanted the extra functionality, but the manager’s words were just the same words I’d been preaching at the beginning and end of every status meeting. Perfect scope control.
Mantras work. Get one.