Demand a strong project plan

What to look for to advance your consulting projects from contract to execution

You've engaged a reputable consulting firm to perform a large systems project. You've prepared an RFP, carefully reviewed the responses, scrutinized the consultancy's oral presentation, and ultimately negotiated and signed a well-written statement of work (SOW).

Don't stop there.

A clearly defined SOW may place you on the right path, but it doesn't ensure success. In reality, the project manager engaged to run your project may not even be the person who wrote the SOW.

As an IT leader, you can and should do more to help advance your consulting projects from contract to execution. A careful review of the project plan is one way to facilitate this transition, and it's an underused and surprisingly effective method of finding early warning signs. So spend time reviewing the project plan and asking questions. Here's what to look for:

1. Analysis, preparation and documentation tasks should be well defined.

Unless the requirements are 100 percent complete, most software projects require extensive analysis and planning in advance of design. For example, make sure there are tasks defined for process analysis, requirements definition and all related areas. Make sure there are tasks to discuss security, response times, user roles, data conversion, retention, reporting, preparation for testing (not just testing execution) and so on.

When evaluating the level of detail, many managers use the "40 hour" rule, which states that all tasks must take less than 40 hours. But it's more useful to include preparatory and documentation tasks. For example, look at how this project plan describes the steps for documenting requirements:

-- Gather requirements, accounts payable (40 hours).

-- Gather requirements, cash application (40 hours).

-- Gather requirements, accounts receivable (40 hours).

-- Finalize and get sign-off on requirements (40 hours).

The project team has two full-time people dedicated to documenting requirements, so they should be able to complete this segment in two weeks.

But consider rewriting the plan as follows:

-- Eight meetings, accounts payable, two hours each (16 hours).

-- Preparation, one hour per meeting (eight hours).

-- Document results, four hours per meeting (32 hours).

-- Repeat the pattern for the other functional areas.

The new plan shows 56 hours of effort, rather than the 40 in the original. If this pattern holds throughout, you may be starting your project 40 percent over budget and not know it. With the rewritten plan, team members will see that the two weeks that had been allocated is not enough, especially given the difficulty of scheduling meetings. And if they can't tell you this kind of detail, they haven't thought the project through.

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