Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The middleman

This is a true story. The company names have been changed.

The project manager gets in the middle

Acme Corporation, a large financial institution, decided to eliminate its personal credit card business to focus on commercial customers. As a result, Acme agreed to sell its database of customer information to a competitor.

Standard Consulting was engaged to extract the customer data and transform it into a format that the competitor could load into its own system. The competitor was creating a new marketing database system, and had hired a team of developers to build it for them.

Acme’s project manager estimated that it would take Standard about four months to complete the work.

Acme’s management was concerned about the possibility of disclosure to the competitor of any data in the database beyond the specific customer data that had been sold.  To alleviate management’s concern, the Acme project manager decided to act as the communication channel between Standard and the competitor. The consultants from Standard could not speak directly with the competitor or with the competitor’s development firm. Instead, they directed their questions by email to the project manager at Acme. Then the Acme project manager would obtain an answer from the competitor and direct it back to Standard.

The communication process was cumbersome and time-consuming. Because the questions and answers were all exchanged by email, there was no opportunity to ensure that the receiving party completely understood the question being asked and as a result, it would sometimes not be answered satisfactorily. Follow-up questions were needed, and the process was repeated.

Because the competitor’s marketing database was still being developed, some data requirements were still changing, resulting in changes to the extraction programs being built. Sometimes these changes were not communicated to Standard via Acme quickly enough and as a result, test migrations of data would fail.

The project manager had other responsibilities, so answers to questions, and follow-ups for changes or issues were slow. The project ran late, but still the process continued. Some issues required significant analysis and discussion between Standard and Acme’s competitor, but all of these took place via email through the Acme project manager. 

Well into overtime

The project had now run for twelve months instead of four, and still it was not finished. Acme’s management was concerned that it might be sued by the competitor for non-delivery of the customer data. The Acme project manager was replaced.

The new project manager met with the Acme and Standard teams to develop a comprehensive list of outstanding tasks and new dates by which the tasks needed to be done.

In addition, she had brief team meetings every day. At the daily meeting, the tasks due that day were determined to have been completed or to have slipped. If a task had slipped, remedial action was taken immediately. Representatives of the competitor attended part of the meeting by phone, so that questions, answers, and outstanding issues could be resolved immediately.

The project finished after sixteen months, a full twelve months later than the original estimate of four months. Acme’s competitor did successfully load the customer data into the new marketing database system, and Acme did not get sued.


The original time estimate for the work was much too low. The Acme project manager did not realize the impact on the timeline of having so many parties involved in the process. Project managers who have successfully delivered multi-party, multi-location projects are painfully aware of how time-consuming the coordination effort is. Anything that can be resolved in an hour with one company involved can easily take ten hours with three parties involved. There is significant effort in the scheduling, discussion, resolution, and follow up for every issue. This data migration project had four parties: Acme; Standard; the competitor; and the competitor’s development team. Dealing with multiple locations is also time-consuming, as the immediacy of face-to-face contact is lost. Sometimes, when the related team is not physically present, the local team forgets to keep the off-site team up to date. This project had two locations, one with Acme and Standard, and another with the competitor and its development team.

Although the estimate of four months was too low, the project should not have taken sixteen months. The communication process designed by the original project manager was rigid. However, it might have been made workable by assigning that liaison role to someone else. Because the project manager had other responsibilities, the management of the communication process often fell to a lower priority and caused project delays. 

The project manager should have placed a resource in that analyst/communication role full time.  That analyst should have been given the authority to speak with both parties by phone and in person, in addition to using email correspondence. This would have improved the response time to questions and issues considerably. It also would have reduced the number of times that emails went back and forth between parties who were trying to understand the issue well enough to get it resolved. Key hiring criteria for that analyst role would be verbal and written communication skills, organization, documentation (to capture decisions and agreements), and ability to prioritize issues. The cost of that one additional person on the job would have been significantly less expensive than running the project so late.

When it was clear that the project tasks and issues were not being completed on time, the new project manager did the right thing by ensuring very frequent meetings to review completion status and follow up.

The new project manager also brought the competitor to the status meetings, a step that helped immeasurably in getting issues resolved quickly.

Copyright 2015 Debbie Gallagher