Friday, May 22, 2015

It's bigger than you think

This is a true story. The company name has been changed.


A government agency decided to implement a new set of systems that would provide services to all communities in the state. The project required significant participation from staff of the state government, a telephone company, several systems vendors, and a systems integration vendor.

The government engaged Acme Consulting to manage this large complex project.

Acme’s project manager met with the project sponsor from the government agency several times and established the project scope, responsibilities, schedule, and resources needed.

Acme’s project manager brought on a junior project manager and a coordinator to work with him.  These three were to spend eighteen months implementing the new systems and processes, then at go-live, two Acme consultants were to take over and support the new systems for ten years.

The situation

Within two weeks, the junior project manager began to realize that the scope of the project was too vague. There were several sizeable elements of the project where the government agency and Acme Consulting each thought the other was responsible for the task.

The junior project manager discussed this issue with the project manager, who replied that it was too late to be wondering who should be doing what, and told the junior project manager to focus on getting the work done, instead of questioning the work.

With every week that went by, the junior project manager became more worried about the vagueness and confusion related to who was responsible for what. It was clear that Acme Consulting did not have enough staff assigned to the job to do everything the government was expecting. Further comments to the project manager were futile.

About eight weeks into the project, the junior project manager attended a conference to learn how others had implemented similar services. He realized that the gaps in project scope and responsibility were much worse than he had feared. Many of the vaguely described project elements were significant jobs, requiring weeks or months of effort.


The junior project manager documented his concerns in writing to the project manager. When the project manager continued to ignore this information and push the junior project manager to ‘just do it’, the junior project manager talked to an Acme VP about his concerns.

By now, the project was nearly three months along. The VP was very worried when she heard about the junior project manager’s concerns, and began to investigate. At the same time, the project manager finally began to realize that the project had been poorly defined and understaffed.

Recommendation to client

The project manager began to speak more openly to the government sponsor about the problems of project scope and responsibility. The sponsor was quick to grasp the problems and to realize that he too had misunderstood the effort involved in developing and implementing the new services.

With the consent of the sponsor, Acme Consulting began to re-define the project scope and work plan in more detail. This process took the entire fourth month of the project.

At the end of the month of scoping and planning, it was clear that more detailed planning would be required to ensure completeness and clarity. However, there was enough information to determine that the project would take at least three years to complete, and would require eight more staff.


The government wanted Acme Consulting to provide the eight additional staff, but did not have a way to adjust the total project budget. It was decided to reduce the amount of support time for the ten post-implementation years, and apply that money to the implementation phase instead.

The government sponsor and the Acme Consulting VP were unhappy with the project manager who had originally made the deal, and who was slow to recognize the shortcomings in the scoping and responsibility assignments for the project. The project manager was replaced.


There are two things the project manager should have done differently on this project.

First, on a project this large and complex, the amount of effort put into planning and scoping was completely inadequate. Instead of several meetings to determine the project scope and resources, the project manager should have recommended to the government that the planning and scoping be a separate, predecessor project. Resource planning and therefore pricing could not reasonably be done without two or three months of effort.

Second, when the project started, and the extent of the gaps between the government’s and Acme’s understanding started to show, the project manager should have discussed the problem with the VP and the client immediately. Since the project manager had made the agreement that was so inadequate, he was probably reluctant to own up to the error.

The junior project manager, although less experienced, was quick to realize that the project was bigger than they thought. The advice given to him, to ‘just do it’, was not the right advice. The junior project manager was correct to escalate his concerns to the VP.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher