Announcement: Dear loyal readers, thank you so much for your continued interest in the IT Project Blog! While it has been a fun experience for all involved, our blog staff is currently needed for other projects, so there will be no new articles for some time. We encourage you to continue to come back and utilize existing articles and tools, as we do not intend to take down the page. We will also keep using the blog to announce upcoming webinars that may be of interest to you, and of course we will stay on top of your comments, so feel free to keep the discussion going! Best always, the IT Project Blog.
IT Project Blog Guest Article by Lynn Anderson
One of my colleagues asked me this question which I believe pertains to many of you out there. “With so many companies outsourcing services to places like India, China, and Poland, as well as having operations in countries around the world, how can a manager handle all the requirements to coordinate meetings, manage their people, and still find time for strategic planning?” I put together five basic tips to help her manage her global team and I hope you can benefit from this as well. Remember, no matter where your team is located there are still some basic concepts like trust, knowing what talents each member brings to the team, and positive motivation that will help you and your team achieve great results. Building synergies is as important as creating a plan.
Here are my five tips to help you manage your global team(s):
- Leadership by exception.
What I find with teams that are in many different locations and time zones is that the managers or leadership wants to have an unhealthy amount of meetings to help coordinate activities. Why is this necessary? Just stop all the meetings. If you have a great project management tracking tool that creates the right metrics, gathers the right information, and keeps everyone apprised of the status of the program or work efforts, there is no reason to have an exorbitant amount of status meetings. Stop doing it!
Ask yourself, what is the real purpose of the meeting? If the purpose is to update or is just one way conversations, then do not have one. Use another avenue to communicate the information or pull updates. If you are looking to brainstorm new ideas or work on critical issues that need immediate attention then by all means have the meeting. Also, when you do have the calls, be sure there is a published agenda and that you keep focused on the items at hand. Short, sweet and to the point meetings are what your employees are looking for. Chances are you are wasting everyone’s valuable time and energy on too many meetings, so evaluate the purpose and effectiveness of what you have in place. Look at other ways to track status and progress. Appoint key location leads to help gather critical information without having to get all your employees on a late night call.
Create team synergies. No matter where your team is located, creating a powerful and effective team that knows and trusts each other is critical. Look at ways to have fun and create momentum. Choose to have a few strategic gatherings but make it count. If that is not possible to do in person, create an online community using Facebook or another social on-line application that allows the team members to get to know each other remotely which they can check and manage on their own without additional calls. Do some fun team exercises per location and tie the locations together through video conferencing or Skype.
Building trust will allow you to gain momentum as well as realize the value each team member brings to the table. Be creative and challenge your teams to come up with some great team interactions. Investing upfront in your team will also go a long way toward success, especially when the tasks or timelines become critical.
Have clear goals and celebrate achievement. No matter where your team is, be sure that the vision for the team and the goals they are setting out to accomplish are clearly articulated. Create clear benchmarks and metrics that you track as a team, updating these goals virtually so that everyone can see the progress the team is making. Create success celebrations, locally and globally to share together the successes the team accomplishes, no matter how small.
When there are challenges, reach out to the team virtually to gather brainstorming ideas and suggestions on how to help solve the issue and recognize participation in that process. Create programs or awards for those that post or provide insights, ideas, or suggestions. Get everyone involved in the process and encourage them to participate, for every idea is a good idea whether you use it or not.
Respect. No matter what you do, respect the many cultures, holidays, and activities your team members participate in and do not let work boundaries filter into home/life boundaries. Showing that you have respect for your team and recognizing that they have a life outside work will serve you many times over. Employees who feel you care and respect them will go the extra mile when you need them to.
Create a team calendar on-line and at their location which is posted clearly for all to follow the many different holidays, vacations, etc that team members are part of. Celebrate these activities and holidays. Learning is a form of growing and having each member learn about the others cultures and activities will only serve to grow your team’s capabilities. Also find time to give back when asking to receive. For instance, you might have a key strategic meeting that requires team members to have evening calls. If so, seek out any challenges that requirement will bring to the team members.
Also, look at other options such as having those individuals come into work later in the day, or be flexible and allow them to attend some other family friendly or personal events during work time since you are asking them to give some of their personal/evening time to the team. Understand and respect each team member’s commitments both professional and personal. Flexibility and respect go a long way.
Planning and coordination are a must. When teams are working in multiple locations there is no substitute for a solid plan and coordinating that plan through sound project management techniques and governance. For any project or team, this is a critical step but for teams that are working in multiple locations and over multiple time-zones and countries this rule is a requirement. Without the proper governance and management practices, time and energy can be wasted and projects or work can really get off track quickly. There is no substitute for the basics and with global teams this is essential.
Ask yourself, how are our processes and procedures? Are they clearly articulated? Do we have the proper tools in place to manage the work, plan the work, and track the work? If your answer to any of these questions is “No” than you need to tackle this quickly and decisively. Chances are you are having to do all the meetings as we discussed in tip #1 because you did not have the proper tools and processes in place in the first place. So while this is the last tip I have provided, it should be the first one you tackle.
If you are creative and look for ways to build trust, respect, and teamwork, then no matter what the location, you will serve your team well. Studies show that workers who are provided freedoms to leverage their talents and are respected for what they bring to the table will be highly productive and enthusiastic employees. This universal principal will provide you support no matter where the employees or support organizations are located. If you trust and let your team get the job done, you will certainly have more time and freedom for your strategic thinking. Be bold and promote freedoms no matter what country you or your team is located in.
Lynn Anderson is Chief Executive Officer of Coaching4Abundance LLC (http://www.coaching4abundance.com ). Lynn has over 25 years working in the government, corporate, consulting and now entrepreneurial world. She focuses on the positive and continues to look at all dimensions of her life including those of a successful business women, wife, mother, tennis enthusiast and friend to those she comes in contact with. Her philosophy is to live each moment in a positive way, remember your true core values, and live life to the fullest in every possible way.
The results are in! After hundreds of public votes as well as a decision from our judging panel, the winners have been chosen. Here are the top ideas for bringing fun to your projects:
1st Place: Have my team and stakeholders nominate one process that they feel is counterproductive and does not add value.
Prize: A PMP distance learning course from Parallel Project Training
2nd Place: A project team should be laughing a lot! A team which gets on and has fun working will be much more productive and a joy to work with! If they are having fun, they are communicating, and that has to be good!
Prize: Copy of The Lazy Project Manager from Peter Taylor, aka the Lazy Project Manager
3rd Place: Have a "Name The Project" contest where the project team (or you can open it up to an entire user class) nominates and votes on a code name for the project. This also works for naming the final product if you want. Then award small prizes (gift cards).
Prize: $15 eBay gift card from the IT Project Blog & NuWave
4th Place:Wine tasting has been a proven success on every occasion I have done it. People learn a lot and have fun at the same time - and it can be really effective for team building.
Prize: €10 Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com gift card from Jacques Dunselman, author of the Project Management With Flying Colors blog
Thanks to everyone who participated in the contest! There were a lot of great ideas and much discussion over the winners. And to everyone reading, I hope that you'll be able to put these ideas to good use, or if you have some more of your own post in the comments below! You won't get a prize, but your thoughts will certainly be acknowledged.
IT Project Blog Guest Article by Michelle LaBrosse
Are you tired of hearing people say the only constant is change? I think we all need to keep saying it to remind ourselves we have to always be ready to keep changing. Here’s the rub: how do we make change stick? How can you, as a project manager, use your skills to create business processes that have staying power?
Let’s face it: sustainability today is really about adapting to change and being able to be effective in the face of change. I’ve now weathered several business cycles as an entrepreneur, and I have found my project management skills to be invaluable as I’ve tackled change and made positive changes in my own business.
Here are my top 7 tips for making change stick:
Make Change Relevant to the People Who Need to Participate in It. Part of your job as a project manager is to make sure people not only know where you’re going, but that they also understand why they are going there. What’s in it for them? Why does this change matter? Why does it lead to something positive? Think of yourself as the Chief Change Officer on your team. Don’t just say: “We have to change this process.” Explain why, and make it compelling.
Paint a Picture of Success. Make sure people can see what success looks like. If your change initiative is successful, what will the outcome be? Show your team what the result will look like. Think before and after pictures. We are all suckers for those!
Plan for Fatigue. “Change fatigue” is a normal part of any process change, so be ready for it. When you start to see people slacking on their goals and rolling their eyes in meetings, you are there. Shake up assignments. Assign new team leaders to different tasks. Do a team-building exercise that gets the creative juice flowing again. Celebrate the successes you’ve already accomplished. Use the old red thermometer technique to show the progress you’ve made and how far you need to go.
Keep Senior Leadership Engaged. If your team sees that leadership no longer cares about this initiative or it is off their radar screen, they will lose interest. It’s your job as a project manager to keep your leadership team up to speed and excited about what you are doing.
Keep Budget Levels Consistent. Nothing stalls change more than large fluctuations in budget. Keep your budget levels consistent so your team can manage its resources accordingly.
Clarify Accountability. When business process change lasts for over a year, you need to continue to clarify accountability. If resources change or people’s responsibilities change, then revisit the project plan and focus on the accountability for activities and goals.
Spend Time Focusing on How to Institutionalize the Change. Once you’ve reached your milestones, look at how you are going to make this change permanent. What are the ongoing resources required? What can be automated? How will you measure the ongoing ROI and impact? What are the pulse points you will regularly look at to make sure your business process is thriving?
Change is only as intimidating as we make it. Use your project management skills to not only manage it but to make it stick, and give your organization the impact you desire.
Michelle LaBrosse is the founder and Chief Cheetah of Cheetah Learning. An international expert on accelerated learning and Project Management, she has grown Cheetah Learning into the market leader for Project Management training and professional development. In 2006, The Project Management Institute selected Michelle as one of the 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World, and only one of two women selected from the training and education industry.
When project teams are built in preparation for an upcoming assignment, the structure of the surrounding enterprise organization can greatly affect how easy it is to gather resources and how a project is managed from start to finish. While tradition has it that businesses are usually organized around functional groups – i.e., the sales team is managed by a sales manager, the finance team is managed by a finance manager, etc. – most organizations have transitioned into matrix organizational structures. What exactly does that mean and what sort of problems did it solve?
A matrix company is more like a mix between a strictly functional organization and one that’s been “projectized” (interesting word but don’t blame me for it… that’s all PMI). For example, on a team that is strictly functional, the lead or functional manager has all the say over the team budget and a project manager would likely have no authority. Because of that lack of or limited say in decision-making, the project manager may have a hard time rounding up resources to work on an engagement. No authority = no resources…very bad. An organization that has been “projectized” is just the opposite. The PM has all the say over budget and resources – not necessarily a good thing though when you think about the affect such omnipotence may have on everyday functioning in a business.
While most organizations have some mix of both functional and projectized groups at times – as in a functional organization that may pull together a special task force to get an important project done – matrix organizational structures (shown above) are actually growing more common today. In a matrix company, work is divided into projects and the team has members from each necessary functional group who report to their functional managers but who also, for the purposes of the project at hand, report to their project manager.
What’s the first disadvantage of a matrix company that jumps out at you? Project staff members have two bosses: the PM and the Functional Manager. Conflicts of interest and a battle of authority are sure to arise at some point in this kind of organization. So the best way to combat potential battles for money and resources is proper planning. When the departmental budget is being planned for the upcoming year, perhaps at fiscal year end, it’s wise to allocate a certain number of dollars to project endeavors. What are the activities that need to be completed during the upcoming year to help improve the business? Knowing months in advance the dollars to be allocated to project work will help minimize conflicts later. And the same with resources. Planning on what resources will be required months in advance, like during project initiation and chartering, will help functional managers divvy up the work appropriately so that the functional needs of the organization are met by a base staff while others on their team can contribute their efforts (whether full- or part-time) to project work.
Another disadvantage is this: having a project manager and a functional manager can be much more expensive than simply having a functional manager who may play the role of a project manager from time to time. Complexity is added to the organizational structure in this way and with complexity usually comes a slower response time to client or departmental needs. To combat this increased cost in both funding and scheduling, many organizations choose to outsource certain projects. Others will maintain strict budgeting guidelines to make sure that in a solid project work force, ROI is seen in increased organizational efficiencies.
What structure does your organization have in place and what do you think are its pros and cons? Is there a substantial benefit to having a matrix company? Are there weak and strong matrix organizational structures? Share your thoughts here!
Creating a business case for a brand marketing or management project is completely different from doing the same thing for a new construction project or for a new software implementation. Bean counters like myself who may be a little obsessed with quantifying a dollar-for-dollar return on company investment find the task of putting a number on how much money a new branding strategy could make for the company too abstract. I find it easier to figure out how an IT improvement may increase business efficiency. In fact, many people shun the idea altogether. But is this a reasonable approach? How well would your business do without a defined brand?
Here’s an example:
I recently had the privilege of listening to a very distinguished speaker who had decades of experience in management consulting on projects that helped companies to define branding and marketing strategies for a an IT consulting company. He gave a very poignant example of a branding disaster, underscoring the value of understanding how much your brand is worth relative to others. Consider this: in September 2006, after Macy's removed the Marshall Fields sign on the top of the landmark shopping center in Chicago, not only did they have to deal with consumer outrage, but their Chicago sales dropped significantly and a string of news articles on the ill-advised decision was endless. Measuring the difference in value between the Marshall Fields and Macy’s brands, at least in the eyes of the consumer was as easy as reading the before and after same store sales reports.
But there must be a way to begin quantifying the return on an investment of this sort without having to go through what Macy's experienced and from which they are still feeling repercussions at that location. Here are some ideas for putting together an analysis of the value of a brand initiative.
1. Quantify the present value of your existing brand
To do so, realize how much of a premium consumers in your target market would be willing to pay over the same exact product with a different name.
Many shoppers in Chicago would have paid a hefty price to keep the nostalgic Marshall Fields in their hometown instead of relinquishing that premium brand for what they felt was an inferior. Keep in mind though that this worth varies across user and consumer groups. Shoppers in New York would feel very differently about the same divide in brand value so be sure to segment value by target market group so that your numbers are realistic.
2. Understand how your brand drives revenue
How have changes in packaging or advertisements drawn consumers to your product in the past? New colors, advertising campaigns, and the like may have increased or decreased consumer reception. Quantifying specific modifications will help to project just how the changes you intend for your new endeavor will drive sales in the future.
3. Estimate how strong your brand is
Despite fluctuations in consumer purchasing due to seasonal changes or otherwise, how long does your brand maintain its quantified value from step #1? This point is key to understanding how proposed changes will affect its future value and, in turn, customer loyalty and a sustained willingness to pay for your product above others.
For a fact, measuring solid returns on changes to your brand made by an end-to-end project is not easy. But use of historical sales and marketing history will help you define future results. Doing so accurately and convincingly can help you to consolidate meaningful figures for your project's business case.
What other tips do you have on identifying dollar-for-dollar returns on marketing investments?
We often talk about how best to develop the foresight a project manager needs to identify factors that are important to meeting organizational objectives, both internal and external to the project. Instead of relying on chance or worse yet, the appearance of project-threatening risks to alert you to impending issues, there are some methods that can be used to analyze project circumstances to predict and plan for bumps in the road ahead. SWOT is a project analysis tool used to gauge project strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. How can you use this method to safeguard your project venture? Let’s step through the fundamentals:
The SWOT analysis starts with identifying your project’s strengths and weaknesses with a focus on either the project team or the broader organization as a whole. But what can be categorized as project strengths or weaknesses?
As they relate to your organization or project’s value chain, strengths are what give your project team or product a distinct advantage over others in your same industry. For example, your project team members and the experience they hold may give you an edge over other organizations or consulting teams. Do you have expert developers holding unique programming? If so, jot them down as a strength when analyzing your project using this method.
Intuitively, to single out your project’s weaknesses, step through the inverse of the analysis that brought you to your project’s strengths. Are there any downfalls of your process, project, or product that put you at a disadvantage in your field? True enough, you may rightly find it difficult to pinpoint these but do so with the understanding that all projects have areas for improvement. For example, the expert resources that you identified in the strengths section of the project analysis tool may be very costly, making your project’s dependency on them a disadvantage.
Slightly different from strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats are factors external to your project or organization that offer chance for increased success (e.g., early deployments, money saved, and so on).
Opportunities external to your organization that would give you an edge may be a specialized market that has opened up that may serve as a new client base. Another opportunity might be a shift toward a new technological product that your organization can exploit for further advancement. In other words, think big picture to identify external opportunities available to you.
Finally, threats are looming hazards that may affect your project’s progress. Is there legislation that has recently passed that would influence your project’s timeline or resources? Again, think big picture to determine what these threats may be and document them so that you can work to plan for pending changes.
As with most analyses, the full potential of this project analysis tool is seen when negative future consequences that may have been looming are avoided through action inspired by the analysis that is done. If at all possible, turn weaknesses and threats into strengths and opportunities that can positively influence your schedule or your bottom line with proper planning and preventative action.
What other project analysis tool do you use to increase your skills as a project manager?
Welcome back, all! I hope everyone had a restful and rejuvenating holiday. Now that your projects are back in full swing here is something to consider: How do you best communicate progress, successes, or problem points to primary stakeholders? Here are a few tips on managing communication in this regard.
The project monitoring process involves reporting accurate status of your project, measuring progress toward your target end goal and forecasting budget and schedule. Creating performance reports are a key part of your duties as project manager and will help you to keep a close eye on scope, schedule, cost, resources, quality, risk, etc. Information in each one of these categories help you do your job better in other areas of management.
First, it’s important to understand that your project's primary stakeholders require varying degrees of information. The business owner in charge of supervising end users may require much more frequent and detailed updates than a project sponsor. So how do you put together the best document for an executive?
As a general rule-of-thumb, executive summaries should be written for your audience with the assumption that they are not interested in overly-technical details. I always include the following to make sure sponsors have all they need to track portfolio progress and departmental budgets.
- Percentage of Budget Spent
Having an accurate estimate of how far along a project is in spending the total allocated budget is important. It will help you as manager to target spending so that you can come in at or under budget at go-live.
- Percentage of Work Completed
This figure compared to the dollars spent over total budget percentage in #1 helps executives accurately gauge the total health of your project. For example, a project that has completed 25% of work but that has spent 75% of their budget is spending too much and action should be taken to correct it.
- Next Major Milestones
Sponsors will likely be keen to know upcoming outputs of your project. Has design or build been completed? Is testing soon to be finished? These updates give a high-level view of project progress and are required for all to keep an eye on your progress.
- Outstanding Issues
Finally, major issues that could potentially affect project budget, contracts, or schedules should be communicated upward along with a clear plan for resolution. And don’t worry -- issues are not all bad and every project has them. An understanding of what it will take to manage them is much more important.
Issues Requiring Management Attention: Adding a subsection that specifically highlights issues that require management attention is especially helpful to senior leadership. In this section, add content that will bring attention to issues that cannot be resolved without management involvement.
These are just a few items that you may want to consider including in an executive summary for your primary stakeholders. What other items does your firm’s senior management like to see in their status reports? Feel free to share!
What points are often considered when identifying changes that should be made to a business process or to an application that a business uses?
How will deployment of a new process or project make the business more efficient?
How much money can we save?
How will sales to customers increase?
All of these questions are asked at the start of a project to decide whether or not it will be done. But you know what sometimes ISN’T asked? How will changes to the business process or application affect our end users and the way they do their jobs?
Such an important thing to consider, and yet this topic of consideration is often overlooked when making key project decisions. Formulating a smart strategy to train end users based upon clear business objectives will help mitigate any loss incurred from users adapting to this new way of performing. So what things should be considered when putting together a training plan for end users? Here are a few items:
1) Maintain Productivity
Lest the entire reason for your project, to improve company performance, vanish entirely, your #1 objective when training end users is to make sure they can do their jobs with the same level of skill and efficiency they did before project deployment. Doing so may mean identifying the skill levels of your users, from junior to senior employees, and their individual learning curves. Bear in mind that, depending on your user group, a training plan may take several weeks to implement to make sure everyone is properly prepared.
2) Use the Optimal Training Method
There are several channels and methods that can be used to provide instruction to end users. If your final project will be widely used across a large geographical base, consider using a webinar or online training, as this will be the most efficient method for your users. If a project budget allows it, a more hands-on, in-person training session may be more effective depending on the class-size and on the type of instruction that is to be given. Finally, if changes are not so severe so as to disrupt work, perhaps all that is needed is a formal, clean instruction manual with visual aids to step users through new processes.
3) Plan a Schedule
As mentioned earlier, training end users may require weeks of classes, webinars, or computer-based training to make sure end users are up-to-speed on changes to their roles. I’ve found that rolling out an application in phases is also a viable option in some cases. This method leverages the “each one teach one” methodology where co-workers help to instruct one another on new processes and tools.
It is definitely important to consider all three of the points above when considering how to deploy your project. What plans for training have you previously implemented and how did they work for you? Please share your thoughts with us by adding your comments!
*Please note: our next blog post will be on January 6th. Have a great holiday and we will talk to you in the new year!
Thanks to our readers for all of your feedback and comments on the “Project Changes” article series. It is clearly a topic that is deliberated on by many project managers to help keep their projects running smoothly from start to finish. One topic of consideration that we covered is how to manage changes to project schedules. This sort of adjustment is often needed when project setbacks are faced or when your team experiences negative project progress. Is this issue simply a result of poor planning? What are the causes and what can be done about it?
True enough, project setbacks can be encountered as a result of inadequate preparation for upcoming project work. But even when you think everything is properly planned out, problems still arise. Here are a few tips to head off bumps in the road on your project.
Reduce Project Overload
Most intuitively, too much project work is sure to cause the very best project team to fumble their assignment. An overly aggressive project timeline leaves little room for realistic scheduling throughout planning, design, build, and testing and will increase problems encountered on a project exponentially as time passes. While it may seem the norm in certain industries, overworked resources are counter-productive at the end of the day and will only result in stress to your project’s critical path and increased recidivism. Remember to examine best- and worst-case scenarios when designing your project plan. Alleviating all slack on a timeline is not wise… think of it as your project’s built-in breathing room. It’s better to be under-budget than pressed for time come go-live.
Encourage Proactive Issue Resolution
This suggestion can truly be helpful to the health of your project. Incentivize your teammates to take ownership in the project’s overall success. What does that mean for them? Being on the lookout for issues in design or anticipating issues in build or test will enable them to help you as the project manager to effectively manage the overall project all the more. While some may frown upon project naysayers, no one should be afraid to voice reasonable concerns. After all, that’s what risk management is all about, and it will help to avoid underlying problems that may result in project setbacks.
Shore Up Communication Channels
How clear is your project’s communication plan? Are you often experiencing delays to your project timeline because resources were not properly informed about assignments they should have been addressing? If so, revisit your communication plan. This clear outline of how and when information should be shared is especially key on projects that have cross-departmental impacts. When a clear plan is laid out, you’ll find that less delay from lack of information will be encountered and your timeline will run more smoothly.
These are just a few suggestions on how to avoid common project setbacks. What setbacks do you most often encounter and how does your team face the challenge? Leave your comments below!
IT Project Blog Guest Article by Dave Nielsen
Is the System Ready?
Before planning the cutover there are some questions that need to be answered, such as "What will the system perform like in the production environment?", "Do we have all the data we need for production?", "Can the new system support all the users who need to use it?" These are questions that should all be answered before you are ready for a production cutover. Let's tackle the questions in order.
The answer to the first question, obviously, should be "it will perform just as well as it did in the test environment" You can answer the question this way because a complete round of testing was performed in a test environment which duplicates the production environment in every way except the presence of the users. This environment is sometimes called the staging environment. The server which runs the system should be a clone of the production server. If the system runs in a distributed environment, both host and client should be cloned on a network that duplicates the production network. Frequently our new or updated systems must run in an environment with a standard operating system and additional "off the shelf" software. Operating systems and OTS software in the staging environment should be the exact duplicate of what they will be in the production environment and all software versions should be the same. Ensure that any patches that will be applied to the production system are also applied to the staging environment.
Should your new system require an updated operating system and/or updated ancillary software ensure that you will be installing the same operating system, ancillary software and patches on the production environment as on the staging environment. Testing your new or updated system on the same hardware and software it will run on in the production environment is a critical part of testing. Frequently software will behave differently depending on the hardware/OS combination it runs on. The system may work on the new combination but may behave differently depending on the environment so the full suite of tests should be used for testing in the staging environment.
Most systems nowadays require some information to be stored and retrieved. This may be minimal, such as a set of userids and passwords for user login, or it may be extensive requiring a large relational database. Data that must be propagated from the previous production environment must be identified and a plan crafted for capturing it and installing it in the new system during cutover. In the meantime, testing in the staging environment should be done with a data set that simulates the production environment as closely as possible. The data should mimic production as closely as possible in the areas of volume and distribution. This is usually accomplished in systems with a large relational database by taking a snapshot of the production data, translating it to the new data format, and loading it into the staging environment. This translation process is a key to the cutover. During the cutover, the process used to translate for loading into the staging environment must be repeated to port the data to the new production environment. Not only does the process need to be duplicable, it needs to be streamlined so download, translation, and load occur quickly.
Your project may or may not have delivered performance improvements. If it did, these improvements need to be verified in the staging environment. If no performance improvements were required, it should perform at least as well as the old. Testing should include measuring the performance of frequently used functions under load. For example, if the maximum number of users the system must support is 1,000, how quickly is the 1,000th user logged in? Benchmarks should be specified in the areas of performance, load, and stress testing and testing against these benchmarks should be performed in the staging environment. Only when all the benchmarks have been met or exceeded are you ready for cutover.
Are the Users Ready?
The system may be ready for the users but are the users ready for the system? New systems generally deliver new functionality which the business community needs to meet new market demands, a need to reduce effort, performance improvements, etc. Users must be readied so that they can take advantage of the new system as soon as it is activated. New functionality generally means training the user community but beyond this, they must be communicated with so that they know when the new system is implemented. Cutting over without notifying the user community, even a trained user community, will result in a deluge of calls to support.
Cutovers require a window during which neither new nor old systems are available. This is especially true of systems which use large volumes of data. Data must be frozen so that it can be downloaded from the old system, translated, and uploaded to the new system. Users will not have access to the data during this time so should be notified so that they can plan ahead for the period of inactivity. Cutting the new system into service during normal working hours without notifying the user community will certainly trigger a deluge of calls to support and may cause more damage because a deadline isn't met. Your cutover will include a bulletin before the shutdown of the old system but your user community should be educated in the cutover process well in advance of the bulletin.
The Cutover Plan
Work that can be done without disrupting the production environment should be done in advance of the cutover. Tasks such as hardware installations, database installations, OS installations, software installations should all be done in advance of the actual cutover. The cutover plan needs to identify and schedule all the activities that must occur at the time of cutover. Cutover of new systems which replace existing ones will typically require the cutover to happen during off-peak hours. The time should be identified by your plan. Zero hour marks the start of your cutover activities. The plan should include the activity to be performed, the responsible prime, and the amount of time allotted to the task. Identifying a backup to the prime will give you an extra layer of security.
The first task will be the bulletin notifying the user community that the shutdown will occur at zero hour. You may want to issue several bulletins to ensure that all users receive the notification (i.e. users that log on 30 minutes before shutdown won't receive the bulletin you send 1 hour before shutdown). The next task is the download of any data from the production environment. The download, translation, and loading of data should follow the procedure defined during testing.
There are several ways of approaching the cutover: provide a new production environment and retire the old one, use the existing production environment, and swapping the staging and production environments. Which approach you take will determine your next steps and will be influenced by how much money the organization has to spend on the system and how mission critical the system is. Providing a new production environment and retiring the old or swapping the staging and production environments will allow you to perform activities like hardware installation, database installations, software upgrades, etc. before the cutover. Reusing the existing production environment will likely require you to perform these activities during cutover. Each activity should be proven on the staging environment and timed so that a reasonable duration can be estimated for your cutover plan. Since the goal here is to limit the amount of down time, try to schedule as many activities in parallel as possible without risking failure. Once the production environment has been upgraded you can load the translated data.
The next step should be a "smoke test" of the new production system. The smoke test should be thorough enough to ensure that no cutover steps have been missed but streamlined enough so that it can be performed in a relatively brief duration. User logins are always a good candidate for smoke tests. Any work that is performed frequently by users is another.
The last step will be to perform any OS updates necessary to point users to the new system and notification that the system is ready. This bulletin is also an opportunity to inform users of any changes in the system, such as version numbers, new features, etc. Make the new version number obvious and point users to any documentation describing the upgrade in your bulletin. Arrange to have the new system monitored for a time after cutover. Since most cutovers occur during non-peak usage, the monitoring should last at least until the system experiencing a peak usage situation, for example a Monday morning.
Your plan should always be tested on the staging environment to ensure that it is complete (i.e. all necessary activities are identified) and that durations are reasonable. If the team has trouble completing a task at 10:00 am on a Tuesday when no-one is breathing down their necks, they will fail when they attempt it at midnight on Saturday with the VP Operations looking on.
Remember I mentioned that a smoke test and monitoring are essential parts of the plan? What happens if the smoke test fails or monitoring reveals an unacceptable degree of system degradation during peak usage? The answer is a rollback. The rollback restores the previous system and data to the production environment and is like another cutover. The rollback strategy will depend on the cutover approach used. Does the production environment need to be altered to roll back or is it simply a matter of installing the old database and data in the staging environment and pointing users to it? The rollback strategy should be tested with the cutover plan to ensure that it works. This may seem like a lot of work, especially since you will likely have to roll the staging environment forward again before cutover, but it is well worth the effort especially on mission critical systems.
The cutover plan, including the rollback strategy, should be reviewed with SMEs from previous cutovers and the support group. SMEs from previous cutovers are a valuable source of information about what works well in your organization and what doesn't work well. Lessons Learned are another valuable source of information but the authors of the lessons are even more valuable. The support group will bear the brunt of any slip-ups in planning or executing the cutover so should feel comfortable that the plan hasn't missed any steps and that execution will deliver them a supportable system when the handoff happens post cutover.
The cutover plan will be a key deliverable at the Gate Review meeting, or pre-Gate meeting, held to determine cutover readiness. The cutover plan won't seem like an important deliverable during the rush to complete the project by the deadline but paying attention to the details of that plan well in advance of the cutover will be well worth your effort. Failure to pay attention to this critical deliverable will spoil all the hard work the team has expended to get you to this point. No matter how well the team performed during the rest of the project, a disaster at cutover time will be remembered long after the good work is forgotten. A bad cutover is like a fumble on the goal line at the Super Bowl. The running back may have gained 150 yards during the game but will be remembered for costing his team the game with his fumble.
Dave Nielsen is a project manager with over 20 years experience leading successful projects. He's also the founder and principal partner in three O Project Solutions, a project management training company and the vendors of AceIt. Dave Nielsen may be contacted at email@example.com.