Modern solutions to manage large-scale projects in 2020

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In the previous post, we reviewed most common problems with using Excel or out-of-the-box project management tools in large-scale projects. In this article, we will lay out legitimate expectations of a modern solution and current technological options to address them.

Expectations of a modern process/project management solution* (PPMS)

Based on the problems and complications with Excel and out-of-the-box project management tools, we can list a set of expectations that should be fulfilled in order to have an ideal process and project management system or PPMS for short.

The following figure shows an overview of legitimate expectations with regard to any PPMS.

project management expectations

Pipeline & self-service

“Everyone should own their sh**”

One of the worst nightmares of a process owner or a project manager (PM) is when she has to update the status or insert the collected information of each backlog item from the corresponding assignees or stakeholders (e.g. approvers); or needs a designated person or team to do that.

An apt PPMS should basically provide a collaborative environment, where whoever is in charge of whatever activity in whichever status updates the status and provides the necessary expected data accordingly, directly in the system. This not only removes the unnecessary burden on the PM’s shoulders, but also keeps the item information up-to-date, since there is no time lag between providing an update and updating the item in the system.

Status transparency

“Know who is busy with what task at any time”

The current status of each item, with regard to the process step and the responsible person (assignee) should be transparent to all eligible stakeholders.

For example, if a program leader wants to know the status of a task in a sub-project, she should be able to access the item and see the info herself with a few clicks. This has at least two positive effects: it increases transparency of activities and reduces the need for communication.

Systematic data collection

“Real-time, Central & Secure Information Repository”

In order to carry out and conclude a task, certain data attributes (fields) should be provided and verified. The list of relevant fields and whether they are compulsory or not depends on the status and maybe other process-related factors. A modern solution should support implementing this in a fast and reliable manner and with minimal effort.

Automatic notifications

“Automatic notifications (informational or reminders) on certain steps/progress”

Easy implementation of personalized notifications based on users’ role and responsibility and the status of an item is a warranted expectation in the 21st century and a quintessential feature of any PPMS. Whether the notification is informational or serves as a reminder, its setup and configuration should be extremely easy and possible without the need to code or to ask the system administrator.

Central communication venue

“Central, systematic and item- or topic-based communication”

A central and item-based channel for communication within a process or project helps organize communication histories and reduce time to search conversations and train new-comers. Many people who are used to ad-hoc email communication are often unaware of the enormous added value of a central communication venue because it is a relatively new approach. However, as soon as they use this channeled way communication, they will have difficulties going back to the old email-based communication.

The expectation of a PPMS is to either support item-based communication, or at least to provide seamless integration via connectors to modern communication tools such as Slack. There are also some nice-to-have features in comments including limiting the scope of viewers (e.g. to a certain role or group), ability to use rich text and emojis, reply-to functionality, multi-level comments and the possibility to create and use text templates, so-called canned responses (message templates).

Personalized risk management

“Automatic and systematic risk assessment”

Risk management is an inseparable part of every process and project. Risks can be generally defined as probable events or issues that can jeopardize the success of a project (or process).

Risks can often be divided into two broad categories:

  • item-specific (Operation Risk) and
  • project-wide (Project Risk).

Typically, in large-scale or critical projects, a set of counter-measures (“Plan Bs”) should be devised and implemented for important risks of any category. This way, upon the unfortunate moment of occurrence, the reaction can be fast and wise and the possible damages would be minimized.

In many cases, due to lack of proper tools, risk management is performed sloppily in a PowerPoint or Excel file. The expectation of a modern PPMS is that risk models and workflows to manage and address possible risks and proper diagrams to demonstrate them (e.g. via a matrix) are easy to implement and well-integrated with the general steering mechanisms.

More importantly, operation risks (those related to specific items) should be identified and evaluated automatically. For example, if a required piece of information or approval is missing prior to a deadline, this should be identified by the system and assigned to the right role accordingly. Moreover, project risks usually have a time frame and expire after a certain point in time. Automatic expiry or activation of such risks is a warranted expectation as well.

Dynamic reports

“Real-time and Rich reports”

As noted in the previous section, manual generation and compilation of reports is an extremely time-consuming task, with its costs hidden in plain sight. Therefore, it is expected that a PPMS tools provides easy-to-use functionalities to create various types of reports. The reports should also be dynamic and integrated. Dynamic means that the content of the report can be altered by using different filters and criteria (on the spot). Integrated means that the content of the report should be connected to the actual underlying data in order to explore the report and zero in on the statistics and outcomes. For example, if a pie chart is showing the distribution of tasks with regard to certain categories, by clicking on a piece of that “pie” representing a category, the pertinent tasks should be listed and linked. This way reports are not merely a representation of data, but a gateway to them.

Rapid development & customization

“Quick adjustment in face of new requirements/steps”

Even if a tool somehow fulfills all the expectations above with out-of-the-box functionalities, it is of utmost importance that it can be adjusted in an agile and low-cost manner. Many requirements are not chiseled in stone and change over time, requiring the supporting system to adapt them accordingly. Moreover, in the beginning phase of a project, it is near impossible to list all possible requirements. People come up with new wishes and demand new functionalities on a regular basis, even long after a project has been started. A modern tool should be capable to provide these new features rapidly and cheaply. Otherwise it will become something like SAP. You will have to adjust your processes and governance to the system’s default functionalities; or try to customize the platform by spending a lot of money and time and finish it by the time the requirements have become obsolete.

Here is when using platforms with a Low-Code approach come in handy (see Low-Code: When Development Ditches Hand-Coding & Deployment). You can add a new step in the process, a new set of data fields, reports or reminders in a matter of hours. The same functionalities may take months to release in outdated tools such as SAP or LotusNotes. Yes. If you have not already, avoid SAP or LotusNotes or any other obsolete technologies for PPMS at all costs. They might have been good solutions at some point in history. They certainly have a strong lobby. They might be still useful in limited areas such as accounting or finance. Still, in the context of PPMS, you do not want to buy a VHS film to store your movies.

Easy automation

“Automatic execution of any no-brainer tasks”

In addition to sending notifications and generating reports, many other small tasks can be automatically carried out. These primarily include

  • creation and assignment of repetitive tasks (e.g. storing a backup file every month or checking the availability of an item on the external website of a vendor),
  • actions on data (e.g. updating field values or updating status)

Repetitive tasks, depending on the situation, may require an RPA (Robotic Process Automation) tool. RPA tools are generally designed to simulate manual work with files and systems and execute them automatically in the desired order.

A modern PPMS is basically expected to provide automation possibilities in steering activities and flexible APIs to interact with an RPA tool, if necessary.

Integrated knowledge management

“Seamless integration with modern knowledge management platforms”

No matter whether you are steering a process or managing a project, knowledge management is an inalienable part of the doing. Many companies underestimate the significance of a proper and collaborative knowledge management system (KMS) and pay a high hidden price by spending too much time on content search and process documentation and on-boarding efforts.

An integration with a KMS should be bidirectional. It should be noted on items where the corresponding page or location for pertinent content is; and one should be able to easily show reports and items dynamically on a KMS. This way the knowledge pertaining to an item or process is generated and shared properly and integrated with our PPMS.

Painless integration

“Data transfer and synchronization with other systems”

In addition to out-of-the-box integration with a KMS, it is expected from any modern tool (and not only a PPMS) to offer APIs and other state-of-the-art services for seamless integration with other systems. The primary systems to be integrated nowadays include but are not limited to BI (Business Intelligence) reporting, knowledge management (e.g. Confluence), customer relationship management (CRM), chat/communication (e.g. Slack or Mattermost), organization (e.g. Trello or MS Teams), enterprise architecture (EA), helpdesk (e.g. Jira ServiceDesk or ServiceNow) and file server (e.g. CenterDevice, SharePoint or Dropbox).

How to select the right constellation of tools

Devising a dynamic, comprehensive and low-cost platform for your complex project requires a deep understanding of available technologies, project requirements, resources, organizational structure, culture and IT landscape. Moreover, although certain tools such as Slack or Trello require minimum customization, project steering platforms such as Jira or automation tools (RPA) certainly need more intensive configuration. They require a considerable level of customization and a sound permission concept in order to be effective, secure, user-friendly and fully automated for a large-scale project.

Tool overview

The following picture shows a few low-code platforms with regard to their application domain. How many of these tools are necessary, what capabilities they each exactly support in the context of the project and how to integrate them depends highly on the scope and nature of a project, organizational IT readiness and, obviously, the designated budget.

project management tools

A generic model

Having laid out a variety of tools for project management, it is worth mentioning that in many cases, a combination of Jira, Slack and Confluence has proven to cover the majority of project-related domains in complex situations. While Confluence provides a platform for knowledge management and Slack covers the communication part, Jira, empowered by a selection of helpful apps, can take care of the steering, reporting, notifications, risk management and so on.

What next?

If you are planning to define a large-scale project, be aware that a sound, flexible and dynamic infrastructure for process and knowledge management is a must. Some companies may shrug off the necessity of such an infrastructure and try to prepare something quick and dirty based on their existing limited tools. This attitude towards a well-designed PMO infrastructure not only dramatically increases the costs of running the project, but also paves the way for a possible gigantic failure.

Now that the importance of such an infrastructure is clear, the first necessary step is to carry out a thorough requirement analysis and solution design. This may take up to a few months for large projects. However, as a reward, possessing a state-of-the-art solution will unquestionably reduce implicit and explicit costs in the long run, increase transparency and secure a higher chance of success. The alternative, meaning starting the execution phase with a questionably unsuitable set of outdated tools, is simply too costly and risky to contemplate.

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* Solution here is not necessarily one tool or platform, but a set of tools that acts as a solution.

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Pujan is a technology, process and knowledge management expert with a focus on Atlassian products, IT strategy and end2end process management.
Upon finishing his PhD degree in Managing Information Systems (MIS) at Technical University of Munich, he has worked at and consulted multiple international companies in Europe, Asia and the US on how to manage their processes, communication channels and knowledge in a holistic and collaborative way. He has also published 10+ papers on various topics including online community design, omni-channel communication, knowledge management and IT benchmarking. His new book (in progress), “Shaping a Digital Beauty with Jira” elaborates on using the potential of Jira and Confluence to go beyond software development and provide a modern solution for managing complex processes and projects.

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