Selecting the Right Project

This article is the first part of a series on project management for records managers, published in ProfessioNotes, the newsletter of the Institute of Certified Records Managers (ICRM). The series focuses on six key areas of project management: selection and prioritization, leading and managing teams, planning and scheduling, budgeting and performance, communication and documentation, and completion and review.

Records managers deal with projects all the time, such as developing a records retention schedule, converting files, or designing an automatic records retrieval system. Although each project is different, they all benefit from the discipline of project management.

The beginning of a project is critical to its success, and teams tend to jump into a project too soon. They are excited to start or feel pressure from executive stakeholders to begin the project. In my experience, records managers always benefit from more effort in selecting and prioritizing the projects that will be the most advantageous to their organizations. Careful selecting and pre-planning saves a tremendous amount of time and effort throughout the project’s lifecycle.

"The most vital part of managing a successful project is identifying the right problem to be solved.”[i] Projects need business cases, which justify them based on their expected benefits. The project’s sponsor is the best person to develop the business case because he or she is invested in the project. A sponsor has the clout and emotional intelligence to certify that the project receives the needed resources to complete it. Larger projects require feasibility studies and cost-benefit analysis. These activities are crucial when the project seems unattainable, yet you need proof to petition executives to reconsider their plans.

Success criteria specify how the project is executed. Universal success criteria include finishing the project on schedule, keeping costs within budget, and meeting goals. In records management projects, success criteria is measured differently than most commercial, profit-making projects. Cost reduction, reduced legal liabilities, faster retrievals, and improved services are factors to track.

A proposal is the first step in launching a project. It includes the vision of the work and a plan for its completion. It’s a necessary fiction because it’s an idealized version of what the project could be. Review the proposal if you are mandated to do the work. Proposals written by others to secure funding often exaggerate results. The outcomes you wish to achieve should be attainable.

When you select your project, think about how you could transform it from delivering a suitable solution to something that catches the imagination of those in your field. Suspend judgment on ideas and be inventive. Consider at least three possible approaches, even when there is a clear solution. Your method should always be grounded in the triple constraint of project management—time, cost, and scope—but a creative solution may improve your project and make it more enjoyable for you and your team.

Your approach should also fit the culture of the organization. Forcing a tactic that is alien to organizational culture is a losing battle. Focus on what the company needs which will also match its modus operandi.

With an approach in mind, your team should discuss its implementation. Projects that use new methods or technologies may be questionable. Consider your assumptions and risks. “A reactive project manager attempts to resolve issues when they occur, but a proactive project manager tries to determine problems beforehand.”[ii] You may assume many things throughout the course of a project, but communication with your team will ensure that you don’t keep your presuppositions for long.

Requirements for the project should be thought out, as they lay the foundation for defining the project scope, testing deliverables, and measuring success. The primary reason for project failure is poorly defined requirements.

As a project manager, you must distinguish between essential, desirable, and unnecessary requirements. Be alert for stakeholders who append wish list items into your necessary requirements. Requirements always need to be documented clearly and thoroughly to permit better estimates of your timeline, budget, and resources, and to provide a means to control changes.

The requirements must also address the right problem. If the project was constructed through its requirements to deliver the wrong solution, it might be considered a failure even if everything was delivered on time and within budget and scope. Gathering the appropriate requirements ensures that the project delivers business value and is perceived as a triumph.

A rough draft of the requirements or a prototype of the project can act as a straw man for stakeholders to critique. Use the opportunity to let them articulate their needs. By stating what they don’t want, stakeholders express what they are seeking in the project.

Consider the deliverables of the project. Deliverables are the defined results and services produced or handed over during the project. RIM project deliverables could be a function-based filing scheme for analog and digital records, a user-friendly filing database, or a retention schedule.

A clear understanding of the scope is the foundation on which successful projects are built. Without it, a project manager will struggle to deliver a project. The project scope is the required work, which the project must complete for it to end. The scope statement gives an overview of what to expect throughout the life of the project and what the desired outcomes of the project will be. It specifies tasks and deliverables so that project success can be measured along the way and at project completion. All stakeholders must accept the scope statement before the project progresses.

Avoid the dreaded scope creep—those small, undocumented changes in the project scope. As the project evolves, you may discover implied, infeasible, or extraneous requirements. You may also realize that you overlooked fundamental requisites that you will need to add to the project. (I’ll discuss making changes in a subsequent article). All changes should be put against the requirements to ensure that the project stays on track.

The best way to prove your records management programs’ worth is to complete value-added projects. Records management offers an unlimited number of projects in which project management methodologies should be employed. When working on projects such as developing a vital records program, implementing a legal hold process, or introducing technology, remember that selecting and prioritizing the right project for your organization is your inaugural step to project victory.

[i] Margot Note, Project Management for Information Professionals (New York: Elsevier, 2015), 19.  

[ii] Note, Project Management for Information Professionals, 36.

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