Since projects involve uncertainty and risk it is likely that you will need to develop contingency plans for key areas of risk. Basically this involves identifying risk scenarios which, should they actually occur, would have a significant impact on the ability of the institution to carry out its business and considering what options are available to you.
An example could be a new administrative system failing to go live on time. The contingency plan may be to carry on with the old system in which case you would have to think about issues such as:
- Is this feasible?
- What essential maintenance would be required?
- Do we have the necessary skills?
- When would be the next opportunity to switch systems?
- How will we transfer the data?
- What additional costs will we incur?
- How will this impact our clients?
Other alternatives may be to carry out the process manually or to contract it out to someone else in which case many of the same questions would arise.
The number of scenarios likely to require a full contingency plan depends on the project. You are likely to need to invoke a contingency plan should you fail to achieve major milestones but it is unlikely there will be more than a few such milestones in any project. Contingency planning should not be confused with the normal re-planning necessary to react to minor variances in the developing project plan.
Contingency plans are your “plan b”. They are there so that when a crisis occurs you can transfer almost instantaneously to an alternative plan, instead of having to start working it out when, let’s be honest, you will be feeling under pressure and less able to think coolly and calmly.
There will of course inevitably be variance from the original plan and it is the role of the project manager to decide how best to progress the project in the light of the realities of the current situation. As stressed above, this is where ingenuity and creativity is required. Don’t ever get so attached to ‘your’ plan that you aren’t open to better or more effective ways of doing things.
A major system implementation in a university encountered problems with data migration. The institution had developed sophisticated automated data transfer mechanisms and was proud of its technical capabilities. It became a point of honour for the technical staff to solve the remaining problems but this was costing time and money.
The project manager had to take a step back and break the problems into two categories:
- It was worth finding a technical solution to some of the issues because they would recur with much larger data sets later in the project.
- Some of the most complex problems however occurred with quite small data sets. It was more effective to manually input the data.
Reducing the scope of the technical problem allowed the developers to solve the real issues much more quickly but this could only happen once the team looked at alternatives to the original plan.
A student record system project was planned along the lines of a phased implementation (a fairly standard and generally assumed to be low risk approach) with student admissions functionality going live a year before the remainder of the system.
During the course of the project the team became increasingly uneasy about this approach as it was evident that the system needed end-to-end testing before they could be fully confident about any aspect of the system going live.
After a rethink of the plan it was decided to adopt a ‘big bang’ approach whereby admissions data was migrated during the year and the whole system went live for the following academic year. This approach met the original objective of having the whole system live for a particular academic year but actually reduced risk by allowing more time for testing and user training.
Going back to the composition of the project team. The right mix of people will help encourage the sort of creativity needed in a project. As a project manager it is worth trying out some lateral thinking exercises and brainstorming as two techniques for encouraging creative thinking when you meet problems and there are no obvious solutions.