9

In the past, I have failed by not seeing problems as they occur - only seeing them after the fact. For example, I would take a status update at its face value, not realizing that the project was falling behind.

Now, I can see a problem developing. I am seeing tasks that are not delivered, deliverables that arrive but are not complete or the quality one would expect to see, and excuses I can see right through. I am experiencing a problem where whenever I want to bring this up with the consultants we're working with, they say a lot of words but basically nothing that really explains the problem. It's like they say "Oh, there is no problem" or "some things are ahead, others behind, don't worry." Or, they just will not acknowledge the lateness or that it might be a problem.

I don't know what to do. I can see I am going to be hit by a train but can't get out of the way. Risk lists, project plans - all the stuff I learned in PM School is a little irrelevant if I can't get these people to be straight with me and work with me to resolve the issue. To make it more difficult, the consultant is across the ocean from me, and I can't dial internationally on my phone so I have to send an email and request a phone call.

Admittedly, I am not a natural at manipulating people. I'm very straight-forward and honest and hope/expect others to be the same. I don't know what to do here to "convince" them to talk to me about whatever problem they are facing that is preventing them from meeting their deadlines (which were, by the way, set by themselves, not by me.) Of course, I understand that they do not want to look bad. But I don't want them to look bad either - I just want to know the real reason we're late - and all I get are protestations that there is nothing wrong.

5

I know you've accepted an answer, but here are my two cents anyhow.

I'll respond to the last paragraph of your question. In particular two points.

1/ You say that you can't dial internationally. It may not be easy in your corporate set-up, but get a Skype account if you can (or any other of the VOIP solutions available nowadays). If it really means that much to you (remember the train coming to hit you), then shelling a few dollars of your own money should be no big deal.

2/ You put forward being honest as a negative. Being honest does not mean you can't be firm. But before you can be firm, the other party must have agreed to clearly identified deliverables and time-frames. This somewhat overlaps with Tangurena's answer, but I believe it is more simply expressed here. If you can't identify clear deliverables from your consultants, then that train truly is coming to you (or whomever set this up in the first place - just because you're the PM does not mean that you are responsible for setting up a course for failure. But if you are on that course, then make sure you do your darned best to correct this now).

At the end of the day the one(s) you should present the risks to is not the consultants if they won't listen or care, but the stakeholder, the boss, the person who pays for it all or controls the agenda.

  • +1 for Skype solution. I do not imagine a situation where PM can not contact the team when needed. Asking for a phone call is rather strange rule :) Sometimes one needs to react quickly or needs to contact the team at the time one believes is right not at the time choosen by the others. – Bartosz Rakowski Apr 26 '11 at 7:46
  • re calling internationally, first try to get your phone set up for calls. Skype has been known to cross callers and it's not all that secure. If you have to use skype, then do it. It's better than asking them to call you. – Perry Wilson Apr 27 '11 at 5:32
6

Metrics. PMs, most humans actually, suffer from optimistic biases. This is a known cognitive bias that allows us to believe that everything is going to be okay, despite strong contrary evidence that suggest imminent demise. It is not surprising that, if you are relying on your consultants' sole assessment on how things are, they are reporting all is well. You also mention that these folks are across the ocean. There are likely cultural issues at play here, too.

This is where metrics and a performance metrics baseline come in to play. We have tools like EV and the ability to track data across time and compare actuals to some either planned or industry benchmark. These things are not new and should already be in your arsenal of tools.

I am not saying that an assessment by one of your resources is not valid or important. But the results of your metrics analysis can be used to validate or call into question what you are being told. After all, tracking metrics is not perfect, either. So you need to analyze the contradicting data. However, the metrics will give you the substantiating evidence that you have risks and issues threatening success and should help convince your resources that they need to address what you are seeing and not just give you lip service.

I am also picking up that your consultants are perceiving a lack of accountability or responsibility in the success of delivery, i.e., if they fail, it does not affect them. Is that true and, if so, how did that structure come to be? If that can change, where they, too, have their share of penalty for failure, change it. Else, the perception that they get paid no matter what will prevail.

  • Good point about lack of accountability - maybe I need to make it clear how if we do not make the next release, it will be A Big Deal, and also make sure they are aware of our key dates for making it into the release. – Shannon Davis Apr 25 '11 at 20:02
3

Both the answers above deal with the PM and basic management aspects of the problem, but to me it seems as though your problem is more with communication than accountability.

You diagnosed your problem pretty well on your own by writing down what you're currently experiencing. You were able to identify elements like distance, culture and gender (I can't tell if Shannon is male or female) that all need to be given special consideration. To better understand the cultural norms and customs, I encourage you to learn by reaching out to locals and making use of your network.

You described yourself as honest and forthright and that you're dealing with an individual who seems more sly and slippery; I don't believe there is ever a need to be manipulative in business dealings or any relationship. Exercise your soft skills. As a consultant, their business solely depends on the client satisfaction and the success of the engagement, which in turn helps grow his business and clientele. This needs to be explicitly and wisely communicated and understood.

I would suggest the book "The Trusted Advisor". Maybe getting it as a gift for the consultant would help close the gap and be a kind gesture (make sure to be aware of customs first).

Unfortunately, there is no textbook answer for your situation, but as you were able to identify by tagging your question with "team-management" you will need to find a way to convey this to the other party in terms of tangible goals and understanding (see the suggestions above). Be confident you can overcome this challenge as you continue to constructively work towards achieving a closer relationship and meeting your goals. Best of luck!

3

I liked so many of the answers here that it was difficult to choose just one. There were elements of several answers that were right. I will post what I did do here, for the benefit of future readers.

Here is what I ended up doing. I wrote a simple e-mail stating that I would like to talk AND I put in email (writing) the things I needed to know about. Essentially, I listed the action items that had been committed to, that I was looking for.

By the next day, I had one of the things I had been waiting for in my inbox. I had an answer on some of the questions. In one case, it turned out that they had a question preventing them from creating the deliverable - we resolved it.

Also I was able to talk about both deadlines and concerns without feeling like I was getting a big run-around. I decided I hadn't done enough of that - showing the big picture and explaining why it would matter if we were late, and what other things were being affected.

It is probably a combination of effects. I did attempt to be more direct ... maybe that it is required for the culture I am dealing with. I am working with a European consulting house, whereas I am used to working with India outsourcers and had adapted my style for that. I believe I will have to continue being very direct. I know this contrasts with me saying that I'm a straightforward, honest person, but I also had adopted a style that allowed everyone to save face, said things indirectly so as to suggest things to people rather than command them, and apparently it does not work with all people. Some people really need you to come head to head with them.

  • 1
    It looks like you took the right path here. I noticed that you have realized that because you normally work with a completely different culture, you had probably adapted to it. This is a huge learning. Many people realize they need to deal differently in different cultures, what they sometimes miss the fact that they become culturally acclimatized. – Perry Wilson Apr 27 '11 at 18:53
2

Have measurable milestones. Perhaps this tale will help...

A friend of mine [1] got into a project over his head. Originally, he got me to help him over the weekends, and when that wasn't enough, got me brought onboard officially (part-time at first). He had been claiming in status meetings that he was working on parts of the application that folks were unable to get to [2]. When I got on the project, I started working from the front end of the website, wiring up the stuff that he told even me were partly done. It became blindingly obvious that he wasn't doing the work and was billing 40 hours/week and doing nothing [3]. Within 4 weeks he was terminated from the project. Because they were threatening to sue him to recover the funds wasted [4], I promised to finish it even when the money ran out.

It's like they say "Oh, there is no problem" or "some things are ahead, others behind, don't worry." Or just will not acknowledge the lateness or that it might be a problem.

This friend is really good at blowing smoke up people's rear ends. And what you're saying sounds identical to stuff he said in meetings.

What would have prevented this from getting into such a bad state that lawyers were involved:
1. Being on-site more than 1 day per week would have prevented him from multi-jobbing. Remote working is acceptable if there is progress. When the progress stops, there is a reason behind it and not a good one.
2. Measurable milestones. Feature X needs to be done by date Y. And hold folks to it.
3. Bugs fixed in a reasonable amount of time. When a bug gets reported, it should be fixed in a week or less.
4. An issue tracking system so that you can keep track of whether stuff is fixed or not. No more he-said/she-said meetings going "no, I fixed that bug last month. No, the bug is still there."
5. Have the QA people working in parallel [5].

To make it more difficult, the consultant is across the ocean from me

Keep re-opening bugs and tasks that are not fixed. If necessary, include screenshots and test data to show what things needed to be vs what they are. Maybe your workers don't care, maybe they're billing several people for the same time

Notes:
1 - I've known him for 7 years and have worked with him off and on over those years. Until 2009, I thought he was a very professional person who was very good at finding jobs and being able to work remotely. I'm 5 years younger than him (and we're both in our 50s), and have never been good at finding jobs, and I'm terrible at working remotely (to the point I'll only do it when weather makes it impossible to get to the office). He's since moved across the country, so that I'm not coming over to have dinner with him several times per month.
2 - One had to log in, then there was a main status screen (partially done), then a details screen (undone) and a bunch of tax screens after the details. He'd claim to be working on the tax screens which no one could get to.
3 - He was billing them 40 hrs/week, and 2 other jobs 30hrs/week each. His mortgage reset and his monthly payments had shot up about $2k/month and he was unable to refinance that boat anchor. His high maintenance wife was still refusing to get a job. He was working about 10-12 hours per day.
4 - The project was more than a year late, they had already doubled the budget. What this website connected to was also more than a year late. The company that had been doing the CRM system this was connected to had to pay for the multimillion dollar cost overruns they already had incurred. The client is a federal agency and if they decided to blacklist the contracting company, then that guy is out of business. I'm going to be able to use this project as the Pole Star of "What Not To Do™" for the rest of my life.
5 - There were bugs that were discovered a year later because no one had actually used a couple of forms, even though the subject matter expert signed off on everything. Is it my fault the page never worked from day one? Yes. Is it the SME fault for not even visiting this page at all? Yes. There was more than enough blame for everyone involved.

  • Wow, what a nightmare! If nothing else, this post made me feel like my problem isn't so bad. – Shannon Davis Apr 25 '11 at 20:04
1

Risk lists, project plans - all the stuff I learned in PM School is a little irrelevant if I can't get these people to be straight with me and work with me to resolve the issue.

Everything you learned is very relevant. Get back to PM fundamentals and stop believing in promises (read "people"). Start being as formal as possible, very soon the project will be back on track.

0

A complication when dealing with consultants can be that you have different motivations on timescales, especially when the consultant is paid for their time, rather than deliverables. Next time round, early-completion bonuses might be useful - making acceptance tests even more important.

Working with overseas consultants can be tricky, but I'd urge you not to make too many adjustments for cultural differences; I don't know if this is an issue here. An often overlooked factor is that you are overseas to the consultant, and it is only fair that they respect your culture as much as you respect theirs, otherwise the balance of power slips in the consultants favour. If it's relevant, I'm speaking as someone not living in my native culture.

  • I believe you are somewhat right here. We're on a fixed-price engagement, but they may not be aware of the timelines as we are. I clarified the release date and what it meant for deliverables due dates at yesterday's meeting. I think that may have helped. – Shannon Davis Apr 27 '11 at 14:39

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