Lecture 3: Web Project Management Essentials I

Lecture 3: Web Project Management Essentials 1
Reading: Chapter 6,7,8 (Project Prep, Definition and Production)

•    Setting expectations, maintaining awareness of status, achieving consensus
•    Eliminate assumptions, get approvals
•    Risk Management
•    How to get content on time
•    The impact of Change Requests on budgets

What you will learn in lesson 3:
1. Five Essential Communication Skills
2. How to manage risk and avoid disaster
3. How to deal with fixed deadlines
4. How to deal with tight budgets

In the second lesson we examined the two most popular approaches to Web Project Management: the traditional sequential approach sometimes called “Waterfall” and the approach developed in the 1990s to manage complex software programs with thousands of line of code which has since been modified for use with Web projects. In this third lesson we are going to take a look at some essential skills Web Project Managers need to possess in order for them and their teams to be successful.

Five Essential Communication Skills
The key to being a successful Web Project Manager is to maintain good communication skills with your team, your client and any internal stakeholders with an interest in the project. Problems arise on projects when there is a breakdown in communications. Here are five key areas where communications are essential:

1. Setting Expectations
No one likes surprises, especially clients, but your team doesn’t like them anymore than clients or stakeholders and a VP or Web Director, responsible for the success of the Web division doesn’t like them either. To be successful, a Web Project Manager must set accurate expectations. Of course, one of those expectations is that there are risks and the project may run into unavoidable complications. (We will talk about risk management and how to prepare for and recover from events that threaten the success of the project later in this lecture.)

You can set expectations by:

  • Have a frank discussion with the client about the project before the project begins in which you outline the process that will be used during the project management process.
  • Don’t promise a launch date or a fee until you know exactly what is involved in the project and how long it will take your team to research, design, build and test the project. (You may work with an account manager who may have made unrealistic promises to close a sale. This is not professional, but does happen. Request a meeting between you and your department leaders and the sales department leaders and the account managers to review past experiences with the goal of being included in any pre-sale meetings. Aim to reach agreement that it is in the best interest of your organization if the deadlines agreed to are accurate and the budget realistic. If you can get this agreement your job will be much easier and you and your team will be more successful. Your organization’s balance sheet will be in better shape too.)
  • Include an explanation of the project process in your Project Brief and get written approval of the Project Brief.
  • Include the Risk Assessment Plan in the Project Brief and get written approval of the Project Brief.
  • At the kick-off meeting review the Project Process and the Risk Assessment Plan.

Review all Assumptions made for the timeline, the budget and the Risk Management Plan.

If setbacks occur, alert the team and all stakeholders immediately to discuss backup plans or new course of action.

2. Status Updates
Distribute a weekly status report to all stakeholders and the team so everyone has an accurate understanding of how the project is going. Include what has been accomplished, what the team is working on and what will be worked on next.

3. Achieving Consensus
As the textbook indicated, Web Project Managers are responsible for achieving consensus between team members and between the team and stakeholders. People are more likely to reach consensus in an environment of collaboration and where everyone has an opportunity to express their opinion. When teams are truly out to do what is best for the project, consensus is recognized as a valuable commodity. Here is a good article on “How To Reach Consensus” in groups. [http://www.wikihow.com/Reach-a-Consensus]

4. Eliminate assumptions
Every proposal is based on assumptions. Documenting these assumptions is the best way to alert the team and stakeholders to potential risks. Obviously if an assumption is incorrect, then the project task list will change and the deadline and possibly budget will be affected. While there are risks that might arise that are not the result of incorrect assumptions, it is important for everyone to agree from the start that the assumptions are correct. Then, when an assumption turns out to be wrong there will be much less finger pointing and erosion of trust by stakeholders regarding the Web Project Manager’s abilities.

5. Get Approvals
Many Web project managers don’t ask for stakeholders to give written approval to their plans. Written approvals don’t indicate you don’t trust your stakeholders, they serve to emphasize the information that is important for everyone to read and understand.

How to manage risk and avoid disaster
Managing risk is the way to avoid disasters on Web projects, but all too often Web Project Managers anxious to get started on a new project skip doing a thorough risk assessment. Taking the time to think through what could go wrong a project is important though.

As mentioned above, every assumption carries a risk. Here are some typical Web project risks:

  • A key Web service provider you use goes out of business or is acquired and their services are no longer available
  • The e-commerce provider you use is hacked and you need a more secure provider
  • The hard drive on the server machine where you host your testing site dies half way through your testing procedures.
  • You client gets a great deal on a beta version of a new “hot” Web service and it turns out to be worth what they paid for it and now you have to find them a new Content Management System and integrate it into your project.
  • Your video producer has the chicken pox go through their team and the videos that are crucial to the project will not be completed by their due date.

These are typical Web project risks. Risk management is taking the time to list any and all risks that might occur and have a backup plan for each one. Will you foresee all the risks that might arise? No. As the book indicates there are anticipated risks and unforeseen risks. If you have backup plans for the anticipated risks at least you are ahead of the game when the unforeseen risks occur.

How to deal with fixed deadlines

Delayed content is the most common reason for missing deadlines. Whenever possible, it is a good idea to have a Content Manager on the project. The content manager may be someone on the Web team.

As content marketing becomes more prevalent and recognition grows that conversions come from compelling content, more and more Web teams are adding Content Managers to the team. When content is supplied by a stakeholder’s group or a client, the responsibility for delivering content on time rests with the client or stakeholder. Yet, unless someone is assigned responsibility for delivering the content to the Web team, no one feels responsible for delivering the content on time.

When people are given tasks to do that make them uncomfortable or when they feel they lack the knowledge to do a good job, they tend to procrastinate. That is why content is often late. Stakeholders have a lot of other jobs to do besides writing content. They lack experience writing content, they often don’t know the difference between writing reports and writing for the Web and they don’t know the importance or how to optimize content for Search Engine Optimization.

Successful Web Project Managers have a much easier job when there is a professional Content Manager on the Web team. This person is responsible for working with anyone supplying content outside of the Web team and can act as editor as well as optimize content according to the requirements of the SEO and online marketing plan.

In the absence of a Web Content Manager on the Web team, Web Project Managers often arrange to have someone from the stakeholder’s group act as Content Manager, especially if content creation responsibilities are spread across several different people. The stakeholder’s assigned Content Manager is then responsible for making sure the content delivery milestones are met.

Remember, if you want to launch your Web Project on time, you must have someone assigned the responsibility to deliver content on time. I just started talking to an organization that has had a new Website built and sitting on a server but not launched for over a year because they haven’t been able to figure out how to get their content approved.

The impact of Change Requests on budgets

Budgets go over when actual costs are higher than expected costs, and the biggest contributor to cost overruns on a Web project are costs related to changes made at a late stage in the process. If you are dealing with an Agile approach, the project is built in small increments, so how do you know what the final cost will be? You choose a contract the client is comfortable with. There are a variety of contracts to choose from ranging from Fixed Scope/Fixed Cost (typical of a traditional or sequential approach) to a Fixed Scope/Variable Cost to Variable Scope/Variable Cost. The later is often a hard sell to clients unless they understand and share the agile team’s vision. They may still find getting their management to buy the idea to be a hard sell.

Contracts in the sequential project management world are simpler as they are traditionally the Fixed Scope/Fixed Cost contract. The Web Project Manager identifies a set number of tasks required to complete the project and estimates the cost to complete each task. The more accurate the estimates, the more accurate the proposed budget.

Modified approaches to Web Project Management which are based on Waterfall or the traditional project management approach and then utilize Agile ideas and Scrum techniques, usually follow the Fixed Scope/Fixed Cost approach and build in the price quote a buffer to allow for a couple of iterations in the Web project development and construction.

When using a sequential or waterfall approach under a Fixed Scope/Fixed Cost contract, the Web Project Manager will run into requests for changes to the initial plan as the project evolves. This occurs in part because the stakeholders will have a better idea themselves of the possibilities of the project as it evolves. Often great ideas surface after the project development begins. Here are some ways to deal with change requests so that they do not cost your company money:

1.    Identify your assumptions and verify with the Web team and the stakeholders that everyone believes the assumptions are realistic. The last week of the project is ot when you want the stakeholder to disagree with your assumption and demand your strategy and plan be altered.
2.    Have a Change Request Policy in writing and have the stakeholder initial the policy to show they are aware of the policy. Include a Change Request Form in the Project Specification as an Appendix so the stakeholder is familiar with the form.
3.    When a change is suggested, sit down with the stakeholder and Web team to discuss how the change will affect the project plan, the launch date and the cost of the project. Many times the proposed change will save time and cut costs so don’t rule out all changes without examining the request in detail.
4.    If the change will affect the launch date and budget discuss options with the stakeholder. The change might well be incorporated in a Phase 2 project or a previously planned sequential project.
5.    Web team members can get very enthusiastic about a new idea. Make sure they understand they shouldn’t “throw in” a new feature without you as Web Project Manager discussing the proposed change with the stakeholder. Sometimes team members jump in and make a change, add a feature, etc without checking. There may be a good reason the feature wasn’t included – maybe the stakeholder didn’t want the feature. Having a team member add a feature only to remove it when the stakeholder insists they don’t want the feature can cause delays and cost money too.

What you learned in lesson 3:

  1. Five Essential Communication Skills: Setting Expectations; Provide Status Updates; Create consensus among team members and Stakeholders
  2. How to manage risk and avoid disaster
  3. How to deal with fixed deadlines
  4. How to deal with tight budgets

ASSIGNMENT: Describe the strategy you will use to ensure content is delivered on time. Describe your strategy for ensuring you do not exceed your project budget.

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