As an in-house lawyer you may, from time to time, find yourself engaged in, or even managing, projects from small to large-scale.
It’s a complex and challenging role but by using proven techniques and methods, you can develop the knowledge and skills necessary to build the foundation for launching and initialising your project.
Preparing to launch your project
At the very outset of a project, whether small, large or complex, it’s vital to establish what its aims are and who in the organisation will be affected. This will influence who you involve in your project team and how you manage them.
It will also help you secure the backing of senior management. This is important because, if the project is long term and it – or the organisation as a whole – goes through a period of difficulty, you’ll need a champion at board level. Indeed, your organisation may have an established structure for approving projects, allocating budget and appointing project champions, sponsors and boards.
The eight steps to project initialisation
Following the eight steps below will put you in a position to get your project up and running. Depending on the nature, scale and complexity of a given project, some of these steps will be more relevant than others.
1. Get familiar with your organisation’s project policies
If your organisation has a project management office (PMO), start here. The PMO will advise you on best practice, case studies and any house rules to follow. It can also provide or recommend specific tools to help you manage your project on a day-to-day basis.
If the organisation doesn’t have a PMO, it’s still a good idea to find out what policies, if any, you need to adhere to. This will help:
- Increase awareness of your project at senior management level and help you win high-level support for it; and
- Secure any funding you need for project management training or mentoring for you or your team.
2. Define the nature of the project
The nature of projects vary. Different types have different implications for how you scope or manage them. The four broad project types are:
- Internal, where the people in your project team are involved in activity consistent with their usual duties, yet some support of other functions within the organisation is needed;
- Cross-functional, where success depends on cooperation between multiple functions within the organisation. You’ll need to establish good communications between these functions and understand where your stakeholders see the project in their list of priorities;
- Strategic, where the project has a global reach and affects the fundamental business model and the organisation’s core products and services. Internal politics are likely to come into play here, so you may wish to work closely with the PMO or senior management to establish project governance guidelines; and
- Customer facing, which can involve issues such as legislation, tax, exports and compliance. You’ll also need to consider contracts management if you manage large-scale customer facing projects.
3. Set the project boundaries
This step is essential as it enables you to decide who the main stakeholders in your project will be and avoid delays later on. A value chain can help you complete this step.
What is a value chain?
A value chain is a conceptual model. It sets out the activity needed to deliver a product or a service and the functions that the activity will depend upon.
There are three types of activity/function dependency:
- Internal: the core activity in your department, in your case legal services;
- External: activities beyond your department. Get advice from a subject matter expert to assess the impact of your project on these areas. This will also help raise awareness of your project and enable the affected teams to accommodate you; and
- Hidden: these are activities that require support functions to play an active role. A marketing department planning an overseas product launch, for example, will depend on the legal department for advice about compliance in foreign jurisdictions.
4. Prepare your project documents
As well as communicating the objectives of your project, good documentation will help you market it internally, especially to senior management.
Put a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis (CBA) at the core of your documentation and include a cost-benefit comparison between different options, including the wider costs of not implementing the project at all.
If possible, get a financial analyst to help you prepare the CBA. In most cases, the finance function signs off on these documents, so it’ll pay to have expert input.
It won’t be possible to express every risk associated with your project as a number. However, be sure to articulate all risks in the documentation you present to senior management.
5. Assess senior management’s support
How quickly your project progresses will depend largely on the support it gets from your senior management across all of the functions that are involved in the delivery. You will normally move at the speed and with the priority level that is set by the least supportive stakeholder regardless of general levels of enthusiasm for what you are doing. Committed project sponsors can help:
- Review the project scope and promote smooth execution; and
- Resolve any problems you need to escalate beyond your project team.
As the project manager, you’ll need to assure yourself that any steering committee or other formal group of senior managers supporting your project represents the business in terms of:
- The functional roles of its members;
- The collective organisational knowledge among its members; and
- The organisation’s hierarchy.
6. Gate each project stage
In project management, gating means dividing the project into stages. At the end of each stage, your sponsors or steering committee agrees to the continuation of the project based on the information presented at a project review meeting.
The idea of placing this decision with the steering committee is to ensure you get a fair assessment of the project during its initiation phase.
7. Motivate and manage your project team
Bear in mind that your project team will also have demanding primary roles. They may only be able to devote a fraction of their time to your project. For this reason, plan their workload with them so that the project is achievable without them failing to deliver on other things, agree prioritisation with them and their managers.
Try to get people involved who are genuinely enthusiastic about the project, have a personal development goal or other need that the project will satisfy, who believe that the project can succeed and who expect to be doing their current role until after the expiry of their phase of the project.
Keep them committed by regular feedback and in year recognition and by making successful completion of their parts of the project, explicit parts of their personal development and performance plans and salary and bonus reward assessment criteria during the time periods when the project is ongoing.
Another potential problem is when people in your team leave the organisation during the project life-cycle. Build clear accountability along with clear planning, milestone marking, project change control and "in flight" (rather than retrospective) work done and outcomes achieved documentation into your plan so that:
- Exiting team members consider succession planning before departing; and
- New team members get up to speed as quickly as possible. On longer projects having identified succession, sickness and holiday cover plans is vital.
8. Subject your scope to rigorous review
Where a project involves multiple functions across the organisation, there’s potential for important details to fall between the cracks.
Minimise the risk of any gaps in your project scope at the initialisation stage by subjecting it to a three-stage review process, where:
- The PMO or other body responsible to you for internal processes provides the first review;
- Senior management, including board members of all departments involved in the project, provide the second review; and
- A financial analyst signs off on your CBA - cost, benefit analysis.
A lot of project and underlying business change can occur during a long running project so it is important to have regular milestone "project progress and purpose review" meetings to check not just what progress has been made but also to check whether the ongoing direction of the project remains appropriate. Good record management, project governance and change control processes will greatly enhance these reviews.
Getting ready to launch a large-scale organisation-wide project is a major challenge. However, it can be broken down into manageable portions and doesn’t have to involve complex technologies or methodologies. By developing common sense ideas, gathering internal support, understanding the scope of your project and getting it reviewed by key stakeholders, you’ll lay the foundations for its success at the earliest possible stage.