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Why Great Teams Sometimes Fail: Project Management vs. Delivery Management, Part II

By: Rudy Gottschalk

Attractive aged businesswoman speaking to young people, senior woman in glasses teaching audience at training seminar

In part one of our series, we discussed the challenge of shifting leadership focus from “project management” to “delivery management”. In particular, we highlighted the importance of Leadership, Ownership, and Understanding of Delivery to make the transition. In this post we’ll explore the Activities and Communication required around delivery management.

Activities for Delivery

Due to project complexity and the extensive interactions of large matrix teams, many projects don’t successfully identify all activities that need to be completed. A delivery management approach focuses on a careful examination of requirements and design to keep last minute discoveries from completely derailing a project timeline.

Let us examine an extremely critical delivery: the Boeing 777. The jetliner was the most complex airplane Boeing ever created. Subcomponents were built all over the world and shipped for assembly to Boeing. To manage this complexity, Boeing created a requirements matrix which tracked the intersection points of each component or subsystem. For example, the cockpit controls had multiple interface points with the tail assembly controlling critical flight functions. The aircraft could not fly without complete agreement on how those systems interact. Using this approach, Boeing discovered multiple intersection points where there was a lack of understanding or a lack of agreement on requirements. The delivery focused project managers constantly reviewed how each subsystem would behave and how they would integrate with other systems in the project. Once gaps were identified, action was swiftly taken to resolve them. I employed some of the same techniques on my project introduced in Part 1. As a result, leadership was able to provide clarity and create certainty of delivery, thereby enabling the delivery teams to know exactly what must be delivered.

Communication for Delivery

It is amazing to me how often I have seen critical, complex projects managed with a weekly team call. In defending the lack of multiple weekly or even daily team calls, project managers often rationalize that the delivery teams are communicating among themselves to solve problems and track progress between calls. Consider how often you have been copied on email threads that circle for days and eventually die without resolution. Eventually, these unresolved threads turn into “gotcha” issues that pop up when those involved finally do meet again. Project managers often argue that the time of the delivery teams should focus on delivery rather than attending multiple meetings. However, in my opinion, if meetings are wasting the time of team resources, the problem is with how the meetings are conducted and not how frequently the team meets.

It is my experience successful meetings always have:

  1. A prompt start – Latecomers will get the message when the call is in progress or if they are messaged to join the call that started two minutes ago.
  2. A clear agenda – Review only what is critical to that day and move quickly. Avoid discourses or extended problem solving. Issues that can’t be resolved with a short conversation should be moved to a separate discussion. When the agenda is complete, end the call.
  3. A health check from each team – Is there anything you need? Do you have any blockers? Are you on target for delivery at the defined time?
  4. Pertinent discussion – If the discussion becomes narrower than the entire team and needs to be solved for immediately, allow those who are not involved to drop. If you must include a resource that does not normally attend, put them at the beginning of the agenda and allow them to leave once the discussion is complete. People want to contribute to the team meeting and to know what is going on in the project, but they don’t want to waste time on issues to which their presence adds no value.
  5. Action items – Document and send action items with expected delivery dates with the name of each owner beside the action items. Review this as your first regular agenda item at each team call.

What difference did these changes make to the project in our story? One immediate change was an expression of appreciation by the team members to the rapid pace and clear organization of the team calls. Second, the teams were able to commit to their individual delivery dates when the project requirements and interdependencies were clearly defined and communicated. Third, it became possible to determine if the delivery date (at the time very close) could be achieved. That information, along with the level of risk, was then available to communicate to senior executive leadership. Finally, issues were managed, resolved, or escalated quickly enabling the teams to move forward with delivery. The end result was a project which delivered on schedule, a team proud of its accomplishments, and a win for the organization and sponsoring leadership.

In my time on this project, past projects, and advising my fellow SEI colleagues that find themselves in similar situations, it became apparent that many organizations, no matter how large or disciplined, fall into the trap of project versus delivery management.  However, focusing on the values of Leadership, Ownership, Understanding, Activities, and Communication from start to finish of the project will help ensure that value is being delivered, not just “status”.


Rudy Gottschalk


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