Many Sources, One List

January 12, 2010 by
Filed under: Process, Project management 

On any project, regardless of the size or complexity or uncertainty involved, there is one thing you know darned well to expect: things will change. To ignore or be surprised by potential changes is to set yourself up for heaps of trouble. It is important to recognize that change can come from many different directions. In addition, once you have collected all these potential changes from all over the place, it is critical that you triage all of them together, in a single list.

Depending on the nature of the project, the balance of where change originates from can vary tremendously. Here are some sources to consider:

  • External Business Environment: Particularly if a project spans a great deal of time, years or even decades in some cases, there will naturally be an evolution of the environment in which the product you are producing needs to reside. Even if you were to craft a perfect specification (hah) at the outset, some changes will result from the need to tweak the product to stay in tune with what is happening around it. If you ignore this pressure for change, you are likely to build an obsolete product. The only things we can really do for this form of change are to expedite the delivery of the product, and to focus on likely trends in the business environment, and build a product that is better capable of being easily modified to accommodate these changes.
  • External Stakeholders: That perfect specification (another hah) mentioned above can only be crafted if there is a perfect flow of communication between the analysts and the stakeholders themselves. For a variety of reasons (such as imperfect and incomplete analysis techniques, time pressures, or stakeholder representatives that cannot present a true image of their needs) the first version of the specification will be incomplete in some areas, inaccurate in others. At times, the needs may change simply because the stakeholder is fickle. Expect changes from this direction throughout the project, particularly after the client actually sees some aspect of the product live (which is a great reason for early delivery and prototyping: the earlier the proposed change comes in, the more likely we are able to accommodate this change). We can minimize the impact of these changes by ensuring the appropriate stakeholders are involved in the process, reasonable analysis techniques are applied, and sufficient time is invested in these activities.
  • New or Changing Stakeholders (internal or external): Again, as a project progresses, the people involved can often change, and the new ones will bring with them different expectations of what is needed or what is possible. A strong defence in this area consists of ensuring that there is broad representation initially, and that there is a clear charter in place that can be used as a sounding board against which these changes can be tested.
  • Internal Discovery: As work progresses on a project, the decisions made will tend to reduce the overall uncertainty that was there at the beginning, and there will be a number of discoveries made (and corresponding decisions as to which direction to take) that will need to be accommodated in the project. Earlier analysis and an effective understanding about when reasonable decisions should be made can be useful here, as can a thorough risk analysis and a schedule that is based on mitigating the major risks earlier.
  • Repair of Defects: On any project there will be defects that need to be corrected, and these corrections will consume resources that otherwise would have been forging ahead with the originally scheduled tasks. Be sure to allocate a reasonable amount of time (preferably based on experience from similar past projects) to accommodate these defects that you cannot quantify in advance, and strive to find and repair the defects as soon after they are injected into the system as possible, so that their impact does not grow too large.
  • New Opportunities: In almost any of the categories above, some of the potential changes that come in can actually have a positive impact on the project. There may be greater business opportunities, new or innovative ideas to explore, simplified or less expensive implementations that continue to provide the same value. Keep an eye out for all of these, and dealing with change can become quite a pleasant experience.

In order to manage all potential sources of change, depending on the nature of the project, you will need to periodically gather these potential changes together and decide which ones to incorporate into the baseline of the project, which ones can safely be deferred to a later date (and that later date sometimes becomes never), and which ones are to be rejected outright.

It is critical to manage all of these potential changes within a single list. If they are managed separately, there is an increased likelihood that at least one category of potential changes will be missed in the analysis. Even worse, if different groups are managing different sources of change at the same time, the baseline of the project can be subject to too much volatility.

All potential changes need to be triaged by a group that can reasonably represent all major stakeholders, and can credibly assess the relative merits of each proposed change on the basis of the major project drivers: scope, schedule, cost, and quality.

Staying on top of all potential changes as a means of ensuring that there is a consistent shared understanding of the effort to be done on a project is critical. Failure to do so will result in a project that is simply unmanageable. – JB

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