Project management in internal Projects – a Survival Guide

I was pleased a while ago when I read Oliver F. Lehmann’s proposed project typology. He included a number of characteristics of internal projects that I recognised. As an external consultant I regularly experience that companies behave quite differently when their own employees are allocated to internal projects, particularly in business departments.  “Just do it,“ seems to describe it nicely.

In customer projects there is at least an attempt to adhere to a particular methodology, as in the end there is a price tag on the endeavour. Internally, however, it is often hard to identify a clear owner or sponsor. You do have lots of stakeholders that do not agree about the project’s objectives or its requirements. Scope is described vaguely at the start so the project lead, who can feel lucky if he or she was privileged enough to enjoy a two-day crash course in project management, discovers there is no clear framework for his/her work and has to improvise. Worse still if he/she and their “team” will only be working part-time on this project. There are after all more projects, tasks and other (often unspoken) priorities.
To land a job, a candidate needs to overcome a number of hurdles: the application has to stand out and please at first glance; interviews have to run promisingly without any gaffes; perhaps there is an Assessment-Center to be passed; future colleagues have to have a good feeling during work trials; and then they still have to survive the probationary period of several months before at best a permanent contract is offered. What selection procedure for project team members do you know? In many cases the main criteria for selection is (apparent) availability.

How is an internal project manager supposed to be successful under these circumstances?

There are a number of areas you need to be active:

  1. Your environment: agree or even demand as early as possible that someone is named who makes decisions about scope, timelines and budget. A project manager should always make clear suggestions and recommendations: “Never come empty-handed”, but still someone has to approve it.
  2. Planning: estimate as realistically as you can under the circumstances but include a safety margin, especially as far as durations are concerned. Regular employees do not think in terms of hours or days of effort to get a job done, but when they might be able to get it finished along with all the other work. And your plan is there so you can recognise the variances that are bound to crop up in real life, so you can take actions to compensate or reduce delay.
  3. Budget: many projects work on the basis of “EDA”-budgets – a nice German phrase that defies translation. When no contractors, agencies or additional equipment or materials are needed, the staff are “there anyway”, i.e. they are indirect costs since they are on the payroll. Are you sure you won’t need any funding at all? Who will finance travel expenses for off-site sessions or when you would like your virtual team to meet at least for the Kick-Off? And what about critical phases particularly towards the end of the project when the deadline is looming?
    And by the way: there is always one particular budget – staff availability. How can YOU ensure that they will manage to complete their allocated tasks despite all the distractions?
  4. Commitment: excellent outcomes start with identification with the project. How can you infuse into the people on your project a feeling of belonging and your personal enthusiasm?

There is so much more to say, but I’d love to hear your comments and recommendations!

 

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