TechnologyAccounting SoftwareTaking the long term view

Taking the long term view

There is more to a long-haul project than meets the eye, in terms of selecting staff, managing, motivating and monitoring them - while maintaining good client relations. Mary Huntington focuses on the means to an end.

Running a long-haul project is not a simple task: not only must thef selecting staff, managing, motivating and monitoring them – while maintaining good client relations. Mary Huntington focuses on the means to an end. end product be delivered on time and to budget but staff must be managed and motivated over a long period and the client satisfied in terms of progress and information.

Martin Phillips is director of business innovation division at Scientific Generics, a business and technology consultancy based in Cambridge. Its long-term assignments can range from two years to as many as seven and use teams of from six to 40 people.

For Phillips, a lot depends on the culture of the organisation and the way it treats the people involved, both on the consultancy and the client side. “The relationship between the two is absolutely critical to a long project,” he says. “The key lesson we have learnt is that the greater the involvement and openness, the higher the levels of motivation we generate.

For us, success is a total affiliation between the team on our side and the underlying goals of the client’s organisation. The role of the client in sharing aspirations and being open to constructive challenges is increasingly important.”

Gareth Firth, a senior member of PA Consulting’s management group, says the resourcing of a long-haul job must be undertaken with care. “A job of that nature goes through stages of evolution and involves different styles of work. To do it you need a core team who can cope with the diversity of the work and will stay on it throughout and people whose skills are best suited to different parts of the job,” he says.

“For example, in the early stages you need strongly analytical people and in the later, facilitative project managers with a lot of drive and energy to make things happen.”

He would also expect to have client people on board, he says. “Their involvement strengthens the solution because it makes the context and challenge more relevant and it makes implementation easier because they can increasingly take responsibility for things.”

Motivational issues are inextricably linked with the selection criteria, he says. “For core roles you have to be sure from the beginning that the nature of the work and the objectives interest people. Then they have a lot of motivation already to carry the project through some of the hard times. It’s not just a skills thing.”

The fact that the project may last a couple of years or so is not necessarily a deterrent for staff. “It can be quite an attractive prospect because the nature of the work changes as the project moves into different phases,” says Firth. “That gives you the opportunity to move people around and give them fresh challenges as a way of motivating them – and gives people the chance to learn and grow.” Staff find it demoralising, he says, if you say this is your role, do it and nothing else for two years.

Phillips agrees. “It is much harder for people to cope with that because they can’t believe in what they’re doing,” he says. “When people can bring their full range of skills to bear and feel that they can influence the outcome for the better, at times going beyond the consultancy remit and helping the customer redefine and refocus what’s needed, that’s when you get real motivation and people will go well beyond the extra mile.”

Unlike some firms, Scientific Generics does not use reward systems to motivate people. “We would regard that as quite counter cultural. Additional reward systems can even be counter-productive – they can certainly set up a lot of tensions between the haves and the have-nots, and between projects,” says Phillips.

The firm aims to employ and develop multi-skilled people who can contribute in a number of areas and get a variety of experience within a single assignment, he says. “You have to be sensitive to the aspirations of individuals when establishing project teams. Some of our people need variety and contribute best if challenged on a number of fronts, while others need constancy of purpose and respond very well to opportunities for long-term development. For some a long project can be attractive because it can enhance their skills in particular areas.”

Such considerations are also important to how you manage the complement of the team once the project has begun, he says. “We do this quite proactively: if we know people need variety we ensure that they are stimulated in the best way, either by timesharing on several projects or by getting them to contribute to a particular task and then moving them on to something different.”

Ensuring that people have fresh challenges and learning experiences requires planning, says Firth. “We deliberately put effort in to communicate the bigger picture to people and involve them in things which are on the edge of the role they are currently doing. When the time comes for them to change tasks it is much easier for them because they have an understanding of the whole context.”

As part of staff assessments carried out periodically through a job, PA asks its consultants to rate the project on a scale in terms of their enjoyment of it and whether they are learning from it. “We use that as a barometer: if scores fall then either the consultant is bored or demotivated, or is missing the point of the role. If we can’t rekindle their enthusiasm then we ultimately look for a way to take them off the job and on to something else. There is no point in having conscripts there.”

Ensuring continuity on a long-term project also requires a sensible approach.

PA tries to have a steady flow of outputs and deliverables on any large or long-running project which are made available to those working on the project. “People are encouraged to take an interest in what is happening elsewhere on the job and doing so enhances their chances of moving on to bigger and better things.”

The practice also works as a defence mechanism against sudden dislocation, he adds. “We are rarely in a position where one person has a lot of knowledge locked into them and we can bring people up to speed very quickly from the deliverables and the routine communications we do around the team.”

For Phillips, the key factor in this regard is the composition of the team over time. “Ensuring a good mix of skills and multi-skilled people is essential. Some organisations think you can handle continuity by means of paperwork and audit trails but it doesn’t really work,” he says. “The areas we work in are fast-moving and people need to be immersed and participating in them – this is where having multi-skilled people comes in. It gives us much more flexibility in terms of planning the rotation of staff.

The process of handling knowledge transfer as the team inevitably changes is much more manageable if people have a good understanding of many aspects of the work. We can introduce new people into the team over time and change the composition of the team while retaining the overall combination of skills.”

The human aspects of a long-haul project also have to be considered, he says. Working away from home for a significant period can take its toll on any consultant and their family.

“We try to ensure people have a reasonable degree of contact with base – most long term projects have a significant element conducted from our own premises.”

Scientific Generics is a firm believer in the concept of inter-disciplinary working, he adds. “The client is buying the services of the whole firm not the individual consultant. It is difficult to give a client that type of value if the consultant is with them all the time. It may be nice for them to see the hours that are being put in but it restricts the range of interactions possible.”

An important factor in the success of any project is the openness of the client, says Phillips. “It is important that people can feel valued both internally and externally, in terms of the work they are doing.” Part of that process at an individual level, he says, is that people on large assignments should have significant contact with the client, understand its business objectives and how their individual contribution will make a difference to that client.

“We tend to employ highly skilled and disciplined people who don’t need a high degree of supervision. So we are very comfortable with people operating at an individual level with clients – they don’t need to be chaperoned or monitored closely.” This, he adds, is important because it allows a much greater contribution to be made than corralling communications through a few small channels would.

For Firth, any lack of engagement from the client would be the most worrying factor in a long-term project. “We actively plan for that, knowing it’s a big risk,” he says. “Communication is vital and it’s a two sided thing: transmitting messages and, in a sense more importantly, gauging how those messages have been received. Whether they have answered the client’s questions, how they have been understood and what the client feels about them.”

The most difficult aspects of a long project, for Phillips, can be changes that occur on the client site in terms of personnel, who may well have a different vision of the end point of the project. “Corporate plans can change during the lifetime of the project or significant decisions can be made over commercial strategy, particularly in some of the fast-moving markets.” He cites the example of a recent technology transfer project which was successfully nearing completion when the client decided to change its commercial strategy and close the facility.

Like PA, Scientific Generics aims to have real deliverables of value at reasonably frequent intervals to try to cope with that. “For us one of the aspects of partnering with an organisation is to ensure outputs, such as a piece of developed software, at regular intervals.” This strategy ensures that clients have a sense of involvement and value being created on a continuous basis; and that both parties have a very accurate picture of where the project is. “If commercial demands are changing it is much easier to have that debate on the basis of delivered value as you go rather than a long-term project in which everything is delivered at the end.”

BT Mobile’s Project Clearwater used a number of firms, including Cap Gemini, to migrate a much stressed corporate billing system. As a rescue project, deadlines were short and tight – just 10 months.

The project was organised around a single team concept in an independent office in Leeds. BT Mobile’s project leader Ash Marston took a forceful line with the eight suppliers: “I asked all third parties to leave their ownership and badges at the door and become part of Project Clearwater.

We needed to get away from third-party tensions.”

Ashton established himself on the shopfloor, leading by example. Project staff worked very long hours, with some away from home for three or four nights a week. Ashton was very aware of the need to maintain morale and motivation.

“I was careful to establish a sizeable reward and recognition pot in the initial budget and tried to ensure that most people got some acknowledgement of their efforts.”

Some went to the British Grand Prix, while others had a day out at Wimbledon or the races.

Marston had established seven major milestones for the project and when each was achieved the whole project team celebrated together. “We had seven humdingers of parties,” he recalls.

At peak times Cap Gemini had 60 staff on the project. It promised its staff a bonus on “go live” as a way of keeping them motivated. It also supported Marston’s efforts to ensure that people had some fun, says Cap Gemini’s telecoms account director, David Cooper.

Several were cited as BT Mobile’s employees of the month and an anecdote from Cooper further illustrates the dedication of the team.

“One member, Steve Schofield, become involved in amateur dramatics.

The solution to a knotty project problem came to him during a performance and he rushed to the office in full costume to sort it out. He left a happy man for the cast party.” Project Clearwater went live in September – a month early and #5m under its #40m budget.

“The single team culture allowed us to deliver the impossible,” says Marston.

For David Thompson, business development manager of Methods Application, long term projects present slightly different considerations because of the nature of the workforce he puts into place. The firm itself has few full-time employees but judicious use of a database of freelancers has enabled it to carve itself a niche on both government and large corporate preferred supplier lists.

The firm provides contract IT consultants for senior roles such as project managers and business analysts, with an emphasis on the use of standards and methods, such as Prince.

Says Thompson: “We concentrate on keeping good relations with our freelancers – consultants one day are likely to be clients the next.”

Methods Application prides itself on taking a much more professional approach than agencies which simply supply IT staff. “We try to get to know the people on our database. And before we put them in for client interview, we make sure they are properly briefed at our office and badged as a Methods person.” If things go wrong on a project, he adds, the firm would always offer to replace the person involved with someone else, subject to client interview.

Proper management of the consultancy staff is vital because, says Thompson, it is more difficult to lock contractors in and people can be tempted away.

Good client relations are imperative on a long project, he says. There is no substitute for getting to know the client’s senior staff. He tries to establish a good set of links with senior members of the programme early on. “The contract departments often try to interpose between the contractors and the job they have to understand. We are well placed to penetrate that as we work at the senior end.”

Long-haul projects often involve many firms. Says Thompson: “We have to tread a fine line in working alongside other suppliers and people seconded from the business to provide expert industry input. That fine line is in keeping a close presence on site and enhancing our badging – which other suppliers would also want to do – and doing it to the detriment of the programme.

You have to be very sensitive to that.”

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