For the Project Manager: Leading a Successful CIS Implementation

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By Fred Angel

Being named project manager for your utility’s Customer Information System (CIS) project can be both an honor and a curse. As project manager, you are the leader, the sole person responsible for your utility’s successful implementation. Excitement grows, expectations are high, a new team assembles, and people are motivated to implement the new system. Yet, risk abounds and failure lurks with every new day as the challenges facing any project manager are daunting and — at times — terrifying.

Figure 1: Chesterfield’s CIS Team in training.

CIS project managers need to know what steps they can take to make a CIS implementation successful. Here are three basic strategies: Set project expectations and communicate effectively; manage and resolve risk issues; and provide leadership. Successful project managers set expectations for the project and communicate effectively with senior management, the project team, staff, and customers. They identify and manage risk by recognizing issues as they arise, determining which ones are important and resolving them through prioritization. They provide leadership to the project team, meet scope, quality, and budget baselines, manage change, and balance competing stakeholder objectives.

Set Expectations and Communicate Effectively

A project manager should set and begin managing expectations before the project starts. Project expectations should be realistic, well defined, and measurable. Identify the top two to four success factors for your CIS project and ensure that as the project progresses you continually work to meet these goals. For example, the three main goals for Chesterfield County’s CIS implementation are:

  1. For the Department of Utilities (department), Advanced Utility Systems (AUS vendor), and AAC Utility Partners (consultant) to successfully replace the county’s current mainframe-based customer information business system with AUS’s Version 3 CIS Infinity® utility billing software.
  2. For the department, vendor, and consultant to successfully implement the utility billing software, which will meet all of the business functions of the department.
  3. For the department, vendor, and consultant to evaluate all functional areas within the Utilities Department to identify the needs of the department.

Identify and accurately report metrics for project schedule adherence (time), financial data (costs), and customer satisfaction (quality). As the project moves forward through its various stages identify the most important information, data and results, and focus on meeting and reporting them to stakeholders.

Project management experts estimate that project managers spend 90% of their time communicating. Therefore, it is crucial for a project manager to build and keep relationships with stakeholders. Stakeholders include executives, team members, staff, customers, and others. Throughout the project, identify your audience, maintain relationships, and remain flexible about whom you communicate with and how and what you communicate. A project manager must seek to understand the audience’s communication needs and be aware of how the audience receives communicated messages. As you communicate the information you want your audience to know, seek feedback to understand their needs and expectations.

As the project progresses, establish and rigorously adhere to your communication schedule. Early in the project — preferably during the pre-planning stage — speak to all stakeholders, understand their needs, and tailor all communication efforts to satisfy those needs. Your message should be communicated in a brief, understandable, and constant manner, and should be simple, effective, and relevant. At the beginning of your communicated message, provide a brief summary of what it is you are discussing and then include supporting information, data, or facts.

Status reports should be short and specific, consist of updates on goals, objectives, and measures, and include conclusions and recommendations. Updates should include both good and bad news.

Manage and Resolve Risk

Risk is any issue that threatens the project scope, budget, schedule, or quality. Risk can arise at any time in a project. Risk is managed when you plan, evaluate, plan again, and then execute your plan. Planning means to evaluate the risk involved in a project and is done throughout each phase of the project. Risk evaluation is done during each planning phase. It is crucial to the success of the project that the project manager and project team identify potential risks, assess the impact of the risks, rank the risks, and manage the risks.

Figure 2: Chesterfield’s CIS Team in discussion.

Risk identification means to identify potential risks. Risks may be known (e.g., budget, staff resources, or training constraints) or unknown (e.g., bad weather, unplanned staff vacancies, or unexpected political changes within the organization). Assessing the impact of each identified risk requires sorting and ranking them so they can be prioritized for resolution.

Most project managers rank risk as having a high, medium, or low impact on the project’s success. Each risk is then given a numerical value, for example 1 to 5 with 1 indicating little risk and 5 signifying high risk. Numerical values enable the project manager and team to further rank each risk. Managing risk necessitates having a plan for each identified risk issue. The plan identifies for the project team how they are going to either keep the risk from happening or mitigate the impact of the risk on the project’s success.

The plan is implemented through a risk log, which keeps track of all of the ranked risks as the project progresses. The risk log allows the project manager to organize, prioritize, communicate, and close risk issues as they occur. A good project manager will know his project’s top four to five risks and will ensure that they are addressed by the team. Managing risk is a process that allows the project team to identify potential issues and create resolutions. But ultimately the project manager is responsible for managing risk issues and ensuring their successful completion.

Leadership

Project management experts have stated that almost three quarters of all project failures can be attributed to poor leadership by the project manager. Experts note that few projects fail because of software issues; rather, failure results from business issues not being handled properly by the project manager. They also recognize that projects that succeed do so for many reasons, foremost among them is strong leadership. Consequently, it is imperative that a good project manager possess good leadership skills.

Leadership skills cultivate organizational effectiveness, develop people, and deliver results. To cultivate organizational effectiveness, a project manager must have defined methodologies for the project plan, schedule, budget, and documentation. Good leaders focus on meeting scope, budget, and quality measures while at the same time balancing two competing agendas: establishing a process for adhering to and completing the various phases of the project; and recognizing when to remain flexible and adjust project strategies as needed. In other words, good project managers recognize what needs to be done, how to do it, who should do it, and when it should be done.

A good project manager understands that he or she cannot successfully implement a new CIS system alone. The PM must be involved in the team selection process and should choose team members who have diverse skills to get the job done correctly, enhancing the probability of the project’s success. The project manager must provide training so team members understand the implementation process, the functionality of the new CIS system, and the future benefits of the new system after the project reaches the go-live phase. A good project manager involves team members in decisions by seeking their support and cooperation.

Successful project managers identify, focus on, and deliver results. They identify both long- and short-term goals and objectives. They manage change so that they can create, revise, adjust, and execute the project plan as the project moves through its various phases. They communicate results often and openly to executives, the project team, staff, and others.

Conclusion

Being named project manager for your utility’s CIS implementation project is an opportunity and challenge. One’s project management skills will most likely determine the success or failure of the project. As PM, you lead the project effort by setting expectations and communicating effectively, managing and resolving risk, and providing leadership. A strong project manager leads his or her team with trust, fairness, and integrity — which in turn encourages respect, confidence, support, and involvement from everyone affiliated with the project.

In summary, the key to being an effective and successful project manager is doing the right thing, at the right time, utilizing the right people for the benefit of the project team, staff, customers, the utility, and the CIS implementation project.

About the Author

Fred O. Angel, Jr. is the Customer Operations Administrator and CIS Implementation Project Manager for Chesterfield County Department of Utilities. He can be reached at 804-748-1861 or by email at angelf@chesterfield.gov.

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