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Simply put, I have a client who does not respect PM practices.

We have a large, high value, multi-stakeholder, multi-variable project. I estimate that if we are not 50% complete by end of February, we need to make some serious decisions (dedicate more resources, cut requirements, etc.). Otherwise what we have is very unlikely to get done. My current forecast is that this is basically impossible if we don't run 20 hour days and not slip up.

I have alerted her to this several times (at 10%, 20%, 30% marks), and she retorts "that's not how it works, this is too complex for estimates." (I'm simplifying here). I can see her point (because there are tasks within tasks within tasks, all changing regularly).

This is an ongoing issue that has taken shape in various forms (2 years, 6 months). I've tried agile (doesn't believe in velocity the way some don't believe in science), scrum, kanban (tore that one off the wall, threw it in the garbage during all-staff meeting, but it was working well until then). She simply refuses to put any time into planning, scheduling, strategy, or similar.

Ironically, she often refers to me as her most trusted asset (also uncomfortable for me, I don't think it's appropriate to do this in front of staff). Meanwhile, I've felt totally hamstrung for this entire contract. I want to walk away from this knowing I've tried my best.

How would the experienced PM handle this? I'm up for hail-marys at this point..

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Due to the history, it does not sound like you will ever convince her of the need for a more sophisticated PM approach. At this stage, if I were in your shoes, document and publish to as many stakeholders as you're able, politics in check, the threat you see, the likelihood of impact, where you'll be impacted, and your recommendations. Do so in writing so there is a history.

2nd, depending on how my team is contracted, I'd do whatever is necessary to protect my position on the project financially and reputationally. Not knowing how you're contracted, it's hard to provide some advice here. But you need to circle the wagons here.

  • This is both entertaining and informative, solid advice. Thanks! I will most certainly do this. Do you have any followup hail mary type advice? How to convince the unconvinceable? I'll probably walk away ok, but there will be a warpath and I'd like to save as many souls as possible (or avoid the war to begin with). – Gryph Feb 19 '18 at 20:04
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My experience has been that when the client refuses to accept your advice, the best approach is to focus on highlighting the pain.

By that, I mean you use information radiators and reporting to make it clear the impact of decisions that are being made.

This helps in two ways:

  • The client no longer feels you are telling them what to do and may become less defensive.
  • They start to make (hopefully sensible) decisions themselves based on the information available.

Try and make the language of your reporting very neutral and factual. For example:

"The work we did this week discovered some problems with the requirements and we will spend more time on design to alleviate the problem. The absence of detailed planning makes it challenging to work out the impact this has on the project, but we will endeavour to do our best."

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There must be an official agreement, that establishes your position and responsibilities during the project.

1. The best scenario is for you to find the way to protect your position, the project and your team:

a) Find some analytics that will help you in the future why metrics and planification matter (In long term they will show that you have your reasons).

b) Find some clauses on the contract for support your arguments. There are many polite ways to make your client to understand the importance of management.

c) Do an analysis of risks and show it to her and stakeholders in the project. Even your boss.

2. Try to adapt things, but make things change: If she really is a complicated person, try to talk to her and make an arrangement with her. I remember once I had to make a presentation to my client, where I explained to him "what is a project management?", "Why is PM important in a SW project?", "What we can take from a standard process to your project?" (In this one you should have a proposal for her and convince her). You've got to touch base and ask your boss for help with this.

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I take a slightly different stance with my answer:

"that's not how it works, this is too complex for estimates."

and

she often refers to me as her most trusted asset (also uncomfortable for me, I don't think it's appropriate to do this in front of staff)

I think your sponsor likes you and that is good news. She actually enjoys that you are so seriously concerned about dead lines, estimates, etc.

I want to walk away from this knowing I've tried my best.

That's not what she wants. She wants you to accept it as it is, not necessarily without trying your best, but with being who you are. The experienced PM, compared with a novice, has an effective choice of leadership, people and creative skills and tools to change, influence and direct situations, especially for the most difficult situation of all, which is yourself.

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