Recommended Practices

This collection of Recommended Practices has been compiled by the California Project Management Office (CA-PMO). They were pulled from our experiences in order to assist project teams as they navigate the tasks associated with managing a project. This collection provides practical information to assist you in achieving project goals.

Leverage these Recommended Practices as a starting point. They will point out actions that you can take to reduce the risks associated with your project and better position your project team for success. This repository will grow as additional Recommended Practices are added from continued collaborative work and feedback gathered from the field. If you would like to submit a recommended practice, contact us.

The CA-PMF Key Elements Table (.pdf) compiles the Recommended Practices across the Project Management Lifecycle (PMLC). This 11 x 17 inch document can be downloaded and printed for easy reference.

A review of the following recommended practices will help focus your thinking around the project and avoid pitfalls that commonly occur during the Concept Process Phase.

Validate Your Concept for a Strong Foundation

Regardless of how a project concept emerges, thorough vetting and validation are necessary to improve the chances for future success. Ensure that Stakeholders are engaged early and buy-in to the project concept.

Have a Strong Business Case

Establishing a compelling business case will help solidify support and commitment from organizational leaders and external organizations. A business case captures the reasoning for initiating a project or task. It is often presented in a well-structured written document that justifies the organization expending resources and effort in support of a specific business need. A vague project objective risks the project’s ability to deliver measurable benefits. Ensure that your Stakeholders understand and support the business case and project objectives.

Is Your Organization Ready for Change?

A vast majority of IT projects bring some form of organizational change. These changes can affect various processes, workflows, and job functions, and they may require new skills from workers. Organizations that fail to plan for change add major risk to the potential success of the project if, for example, users fail to adopt and utilize a new system or process.

It’s never too early to consider the nature and impact of organizational change, and how the project team will effectively plan, manage, and navigate the project. Experienced State of California Project Sponsors and Project Managers have noted that Organizational Change Management (OCM) is often either missing or the level of effort is substantially less than ideal. Many projects consider addressing organizational changes and impacts too late in the PMLC and sometimes not at all. Ideally, organizational change considerations and activities should be addressed from the very beginning.

Don’t Underestimate or Oversimplify User Research and Engagement
User research is the process of gathering feedback from users. The decision of whether or not to do user research can have serious implications for your project. Conducting user research early in the project is critical in defining the project scope and requirements. Additionally, ongoing user engagement is the most effective way to check whether the project is on the right track as project activities proceed.

For low complexity projects, teams may be able to learn and develop proper user research and engagement techniques as the project progresses. This can be achieved as part of training the team in agile techniques. Medium and high complexity projects should consider seeking out the appropriate expertise at the concept stage to guide the project team to successfully complete the activities (i.e. acquire an agile coach). User research and engagement may be a straight-forward concept, but don’t underestimate or oversimplify the task.

Project success requires laying a good foundation during the Initiating Process Phase. The project staff, business organization, and external Stakeholders must understand what is being undertaken, what to expect as the project takes shape, and what each group’s roles and responsibilities are. The following are four key focus areas that can help the Project Manager get off to a good start.

It is Never Too Early to Engage Users

Especially during the Initiating Process Phase, user research and engagement is important to accurately understand and define the project scope. Users have first-hand knowledge of the business need. This means they are best positioned to know what the system needs to be able to do.

Devoting the time and effort to upfront user research will result in a clearer and stronger business case that will drive the downstream planning activities. By understanding who the users are, what they need, how their needs could be met, and when the users need a solution, a project is justified in simple terms that can be easily aligned to organizational mission and goals.

There are many ways to engage users early on in the project, including surveys, facilitated group discussions, and being embedded within an operational environment to observe a day in the life of a broad spectrum of users. Focus on the “what” of the business need and not necessarily how it is being done as that will be fleshed out during development.

Effective Sponsorship is the Key to Success
Effective leadership is essential to project success. The project team relies on clear strategic decision-making by the Project Manager. However, it is not enough to have a skilled and committed Project Manager. Project success also requires the active participation of a committed Project Sponsor(s) to provide the leadership necessary to deliver value to the business. A Project Manager, no matter how knowledgeable and skilled, cannot provide all of the direction, business strategy, and resources needed to deliver on project goals. Undertaking a project without the full engagement of the Project Sponsor is a risky endeavor.

During the Initiating Process Phase, the Project Manager needs to ensure the Project Sponsor is engaged, has an active role in the early stages of the project, and understands the critical nature of his or her role in delivering a successful project.

The Project Sponsor’s role demands tough decision-making with the needs of the business taking top priority. The role may require redirecting resources from the business to support project needs, or ensuring that the external environment understands and responds to the needs of the project. During the Initiating Process Phase, the Project Manager can use the Project Charter and the associated drafting process as a model for the ongoing reliance on the Project Sponsor and the critical role he or she plays in the project’s success.

The Business Need Drives the Project

During the Initiating Process Phase, the project begins to develop an interaction style between the growing project team and the business organization. The Project Manager should develop a management style that involves the key business resources (including Project Sponsor, Business Owner, and Subject Matter Experts) from the beginning. The Project Manager establishes the expectation that these business representatives play an active role in planning and executing the project. The Project Manager keeps his or her eye on the business problem that is at the heart of the project need, but everyone on the project team should understand the identified project need and comprehend how it connects to the project work they do each day. After all, the ultimate goal of a project is to provide a solution to the business problem.

Check-In with Your Organization’s Enterprise Architect or Opportunities May Be Missed

During the early stages of the project development effort, vet the project’s vision with your organization’s Enterprise Architect. The Enterprise Architect role is to ensure that the organization’s strategic approach to business and information technology (IT) are in alignment with one another. This step will help validate that the project scope, goals, and objectives are coordinated with the enterprise vision and don’t conflict with other enterprise initiatives. This vetting and alignment will increase the likelihood that your project will deliver the expected business value. It will also provide the project team with additional insights into project costs, help reduce overall maintenance and operations (M&O) costs, as well as confirm the long-term viability of the proposed solution.

Engage Stakeholders Strategically

During the Initiating Process Phase, the Project Manager should identify the project’s key Stakeholders and how they relate to the project. Some key Stakeholders may need to be informed about the Initiating Process Phase or other aspects of the project. Depending on their anticipated role, Stakeholders may provide input to the Project Charter so that it incorporates their interests.

Some Stakeholders have limited experience working with projects. They may need to be oriented to the expected project schedule, activities included in the schedule, the important decision points, and what ongoing communications should be expected as the project takes shape.

As the plans for the project develop, Stakeholders need to be informed about the commitment they need to make to ensure the project’s success. This is an opportunity for the Project Sponsor and Project Manager to engage Stakeholders, promote the project business case, and discuss the expected organizational changes. Stakeholder feedback and support is critical to project success.

Tackle the Project in Bite-Size Pieces and Deliver Incrementally to Reduce Risk

Project risk increases with project size. The larger the project – whether measured in dollars, staff, end users, or function points – the greater the chances that the project will not launch on time, exceed budget, or fail to meet the intended need. It is easy to begin a project by assuming a “Big Bang” implementation has to happen, without thinking about whether functionality can be delivered in smaller pieces over time. Iteration reduces risk. It makes big failures unlikely and turns smaller failures into lessons that can be immediately integrated.

During the Initiating Process Phase, the Project Manager, Project Sponsor, and other business representatives should carefully consider where it is possible to divide the work encompassed by the project scope into smaller pieces that can be delivered over time. The trade-off is between:

  • Delivering everything that users want at once, with the risk that what is delivered isn’t what is needed or doesn’t work properly, against
  • Delivering improved functionality over time, with the chance to make changes if what is delivered isn’t needed or doesn’t work properly

This strategy reduces risk by not having everything ride on one large product delivery that must be performed correctly to produce any value. An incremental or modular development and deployment approach will allow the project to deliver value to users more quickly. Additionally, the project team will learn more information about the users, the environment, and the technology with each release and use those lessons for the next release.

Change is Hard, So Start Planning for Your Change Early

The earlier the better when planning for change. New systems cause widespread change in processes, capabilities, and roles of program staff. Make sure the organization’s program staff is actively engaged in learning what the change is, why the change is being made, and what resources will be available to help them manage the change and be successful.

Appropriate project planning is essential to the success of all projects. The following practices can help guide successful project planning.

It Takes a Make a Project Successful
Proactively reach out to other organizations or project management practitioners to identify lessons learned that could be significant for the current project. Consult with project professionals who have implemented similar technology, worked with the same vendor, or managed Stakeholders with similar characteristics who are willing to share valuable insights. Leveraging knowledge and experience of others can be extremely beneficial to the success of the project.

Connect the Dots… Clarify the Scope
Ensure that the project scope statement(s) clearly satisfies the needs expressed in the business case. Prioritize high-level scope items and use those priorities to drive project planning and project decisions. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) should develop requirements based upon the business case and scope statement(s). These activities will help avoid scope creep and create a baseline for scope traceability throughout the PMLC.

Make a Deliberate Choice When Determining the Delivery Method
When planning the implementation for projects that are more than a year in duration, consider an incremental or modular approach to be able to deliver new functionality to users continuously. Instead of delivering all functionality at once, include several releases of functionality over the course of the project, with the highest priority first, so that users can begin realizing business value in months instead of years.

No Matter the Size or Scope, the Schedule is a Key Component
It is critical to develop and rigorously manage the project’s schedule. The greater the size and complexity of the project, the more important it is to have a well-defined schedule to help manage tasks and scope.  Ensure that the project team has the requisite skill level to build, maintain, and report against the schedule.

Who wants to talk about Security?
It’s hard to overstate the importance of security for any project. This includes both IT-related security and the physical security of the project team and sponsoring organization. Engage security professionals early and often, including the Information Security Officer (ISO) of the sponsoring organization, security consultants as required, and any other resources that may be of assistance.

The ISO both protects the security of project operations and ensures any system or solution built by the project has adequate security safeguards in its architecture to protect confidential and sensitive data. For both duties, the ISO must be familiar with state and federal security standards and procedures. It’s typically much easier and less expensive to build security into a system under development than it is to try to “bolt on” security fixes later.

Effective Change Management Requires Close Attention to an Organization’s Culture
Organizational Change Management (OCM) is a structured approach for managing the effects of change on people as it relates to new business processes, changes in organizational structure, cultural changes, or implementation of a new system. OCM typically includes communicating to Stakeholders about the how, what, when, and where for changes that will affect them, especially if their current jobs will be affected or changed.

Be sure to focus on the culture of the organization. It is critical for successful change management and is an aspect of organizational change that leaders often fail to consider. Organizational culture can be very difficult to transform. It is important to shift the culture by leveraging the way people already think, behave, work, and feel. Identify and bring to the foreground those elements and behaviors that align with the desired changes. Attract people to the change and reinforce the behavior with positive incentives, recognition, and feedback.

Project Sponsors and other leaders must recognize that significant change requires reaching out to every person affected by it. Resistance to change is a natural response; however, it can be overcome through leadership commitment, reinforcing behaviors, and engaging in active communication throughout every level of the organization.

Plan to Continually Discover and Validate User Needs
Solicit user feedback frequently throughout the project lifecycle to ensure that user needs are met. This activity extends beyond just requirements gathering. Plan for user interactions during analysis, design, build, and especially test phases to continually discover, refine, and validate user needs through each phase.

An ongoing research and test feedback loop will relieve some of the pressure and risk associated with waiting to engage users only during system or user acceptance testing at the end of the project. By continually involving users, the project team can make corrections and adjustments as they surface, which will increase the likelihood of meeting business and user needs.

Early Governance Helps Set Stakeholder Expectations
Projects typically operate under multiple constraints, determined by the priorities for cost, schedule, and scope. Projects also involve uncertainty, and complex decisions are required to achieve successful outcomes. Therefore, it is recommended that comprehensive project governance be established early in the project. Project governance establishes criteria, time frames, processes, and roles and responsibilities to ensure timely and effective decision making.  Using the governance process, Stakeholders should identify their criteria for project success and provide that to the project team.

Clear Performance Metrics Benefit Both Contractors and Project Managers
Contract management entails understanding and evaluating all aspects of a contract for compliance. It is recommended that the Contract Manager work with the Quality Manager to ensure that the project’s Quality Management Plan clearly identifies performance metrics.

Metrics can help quantify the quality, scope, and timeline for each of the contract deliverables. For example, one metric might be the number of days late that a deliverable was submitted, or the number of review cycles required by the state before the deliverable can be approved.

When performance metrics are included in the Quality Management Plan, the project can communicate expectations to contractors. The metrics also allow the Project Manager to identify trends and variances so that he or she can identify and address potential problems. This allows the Project Manager to better manage state and contractor resources.

The Executing Process Phase’s critical activities include coordinating people and resources, managing Stakeholder expectations, and performing activities in accordance with the Project Management Plan (PMP). Recommended practices for these activities include the following.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Projects can involve a large and diverse group of people all working together towards a defined goal. There is a consistent need to ensure that the project team recognizes what needs to be done and how each piece of the overall work affects other pieces. It is equally important to keep Stakeholders abreast of the project’s status and any critical issues. This requires active and frequent communication across the project.

Don’t Ignore the Users
Don’t forget about your users when your project starts the execution phase. Include users in project activities throughout development so that their business needs and requirements can be better understood and met.

For example your users should be involved in the feedback cycles necessary for continuous improvement. As part of an incremental delivery strategy as product is delivered to the user, the users are engaged to provide feedback which informs the goals associated with delivering the next product increment. This gives users a way to inject into the development process new or refined user needs and preferences and enables the team to better meet user needs.

Proper user research and engagement increases the likelihood that the project business and user needs will be met. In the end, IT systems exist to fulfil a business need, which is achieved through meeting user needs.

Capturing Action Items From Team Meetings
Project teams typically conduct many meetings, which in turn produce action items assigned to meeting participants. Tracking these action items can be critical to measuring project progress and maintaining team accountability. Concise and accurate written minutes should be prepared for each project meeting. The minutes should include a record of each action item considered or assigned at the meeting, the owner responsible for the action item, and the date the action item was completed or is scheduled to be completed. Approved minutes should be distributed to all meeting participants, project managers and other interested Stakeholders. Good minutes help coordinate and document project work and drive meeting action towards product completion.

Early and Effective Testing Can Prevent Major Project Cost Issues Down the Road
Testing is the process of planning, preparing, and evaluating software and related work products. Testing is performed to determine that the specified requirements are met, defects are detected, and ultimately to demonstrate that the system does the job it was designed to do.

The earlier defects are found in the development lifecycle, the more efficient and cost effective testing becomes. Testing can prevent problems when applied early in the process. It can continue to be used two detect problems once the software has been developed.

The difference between testing earlier is in the cost of defect correction. The cost of finding and removing defects increases each time the defect escapes to a later lifecycle phase. Industry practices show a multiplicative increase from the cost for defects found in the requirements stage compared to production.

For example, there is a cost increase from requirements to post-release of 1:5 for simple systems to as high as 1:100 for complex systems. Early detection and correction of defects in the development lifecycle is critical to the success of an IT project. This can be accomplished through well-planned testing strategies.

Problems Don’t Go Away – They Only Get Bigger Over Time
Managing conflicting goals and objectives is critical. Unresolved or unmanaged conflicts can quickly escalate and disrupt the project’s progress, as people spend more effort focusing on the conflict than working towards project and organizational goals. Any issues or conflicts between the project, program, contractor, and other Stakeholders only get larger, more complex, and costly if not resolved in a timely manner. It is therefore vital to address and resolve issues immediately as they are identified.

Engage the Maintenance and Operations (M&O) Team Sooner
Maintenance and Operations transition planning will help the project team verify and document the primary activities needed to transition the project to Maintenance and Operations (M&O). The M&O team needs to be involved early. Transition planning is perhaps the most complex part of implementing and maintaining the future state of the project. Rolling out new solutions and maintaining processes, procedures, workflows, roles, and responsibilities across an enterprise requires careful planning. It is highly recommended to involve the M&O team early and often to ensure a smooth transition to the organization that will be responsible for maintaining the new system.

Leadership Is the Project Manager’s Job
Put simply, the Project Manager’s job is to lead. This means the ability to guide the project at times of project success and when the project is facing difficulties. The Project Manager must be able to openly and honestly communicate that a project is off track and requires corrective action to improve project performance. Effective Project Managers are able to focus on the immediate task at hand and lead the project team to achieve course correction.

Have Clearly Defined Go/No Go Checkpoints
Project checkpoints provide a basis for analysis and evaluation to determine whether the project is proceeding as planned or whether corrective action is needed. Every project development and process group phase should pass through a go/no go checkpoint to ensure that essential goals and deliverables are being met, and to identify potential risks before they become major issues to the project. Checkpoints must be structured to answer one primary question:  Are you ready for the next phase of the project and/or the next phase of development? If the answer is yes, the project proceeds. If the answer is no, corrective action is required.

Individual project elements should have metrics identified and tracked. As the project go-live date approaches, regular checkpoints need to be established to assess readiness and to consider contingencies if any metrics indicate a problem.

Be Honest About Project Progress to Continually Improve
If the project realizes that a significant milestone will be missed, immediately take the time to understand the reasons behind the delay. Was it:

  • An incorrect assumption?
  • An incorrect level of effort estimate?
  • A resourcing issue?
  • An additional constraint that wasn’t considered?

Take the delay as an opportunity to reassess downstream activities and re-plan if necessary. Continuous improvements to project planning and processes will help the team adapt and, hopefully, smooth the path ahead.

For projects undertaking an incremental or modular approach, lessons learned should be gathered at the completion of each module, if not more frequently, even when the project completed the planned scope on time and on budget. Taking lessons learned and carrying them forward to each module will make the project planning and processes even better and more efficient.

Think Globally and Act Strategically
The job of the Project Manager and project team is also to think. Project management processes, tools, and reports alone won’t achieve the desired result, nor will oversight get the project team to the goal. The project team has to reason, solve problems, and make decisions. Sometimes, Project Managers are too focused on green, yellow, and red indicators versus judgment and critical thinking. Red does not always mean disaster, and green does not always mean everything is on course.

Testing and Training Activities are NOT Schedule and Cost Buffers
It’s not recommended to reduce planned durations for activities such as testing and training to make up for schedule delays. This often results in reduced quality and additional schedule delays due to undiscovered defects and problems.

Warning Signs: Be on the Lookout
Watch for early warning signs that trouble is ahead. The following are some of the common indicators:

  • Inadequate resources and/or skills
  • Over-allocated resources
  • Disengaged Sponsor(s)
  • Frequently missed task or milestone completion dates
  • Frequent changes to the project scope
  • Confusion regarding requirements
  • Not adhering to best practices
  • Not adhering to established processes and procedures
  • Lack of leadership, decision making, support, or direction from executive management
  • Lack of involvement from the business area in the specification, design, testing, business process re-engineering, or implementation
  • Inappropriate development methodology

Don’t Skimp on Quality
Include processes and activities that determine quality policies, objectives, and responsibilities. This helps a given project meet the objectives for which it was undertaken. Quality management addresses the management of the project itself as well as the deliverables. Good quality management helps ensure that the project delivers and meets or exceeds expectations.

Don’t be Afraid to Pull the Plug
If the project is in trouble (such as if the vendor is not performing) you may need to do more than just send up a flare. If the environment has changed, the business value isn’t there, or a significant issue has arisen don’t just keep going.

Speak Up to Achieve a Project Win
Effective project leaders create an environment that is conducive to open and honest communication, giving project team members and other Stakeholders the opportunity to participate. In this preferred project environment, information is shared, issues are discussed, and people are more willing to voice concerns and offer innovative ideas.

The following recommended practices are intended to assist the project team as the project is wrapped up and formally ended in the Closing Process Phase.

Recognition is a Must
It is advisable to acknowledge the project team and others who contributed time and talent to the project. Even if the project was suspended or canceled, take time to thank people for their effort and acknowledge those that went “above and beyond.” Recognize project team members for high-quality work and celebrate the project team’s accomplishments.

Lessons Learned is Not Optional
There can be a tendency for project team members to feel that they are just going through the motions during lessons learned sessions in order to “check the boxes,” and participation can be a challenge.

Instead, promote lessons learned sessions as an important opportunity to capture what went well and what could be done better next time. Position sessions as learning and growth opportunities for the organization, the project team, and other staff.

To continuously improve throughout the project lifecycle, lessons learned can be completed at any time during a project and not just at the end. They can be collected at each phase, deployment of a module, any time the project has achieved a significant milestone, or has overcome a significant challenge. And while capturing lessons learned is a beneficial retrospective activity, remember that resulting improvements must be effectively implemented to bring the most value to the project and organization.

Don’t Forget the PIER
The PIER is the last post-project review and provides a record of the project history. This activity is important as taking the time to complete helps to improve future projects.