Managing Projects Without a Framework – Part I

Marianne Hang, Senior Project Manager

July 23, 2018

So you’ve been asked to manage a project – but there’s no framework to do that, no PMO in sight, and your client thinks they know what project management is, except they don’t. If you’re lucky, your client is aware of these gaps and knows exactly what a heavy lift they’re asking you for, and may even be compensating you accordingly. If you’re not so lucky (and in that case, welcome to project management), your client isn’t aware of these gaps or the awareness level is different depending on who you talk to. Even when clients have the very best intentions of wanting all the benefits that come with a strong and solid project management process, there is often no context for them to truly understand what this means and what it will take to get there. Once they are there, they often don’t have a clear view of what it’s going to take for them to stay there. But this is all OK because you’re the project management specialist, not them. Having folks onside in terms of what project management really is and the good things it provides is, in my experience, the exception rather than the rule. So right out of the gate, ensure your expectations of your client are realistic in terms of their business, their corporate culture, their history, and their skill set. If you weren’t the expert, they wouldn’t need you, so don’t look to them for skills you’re supposed to bring. That said, with no framework in place, you still essentially have to work magic without the tools to do so.

The First Step – Don’t Panic

It’s day one of project management without a framework and you want to run screaming into the night, don’t you? Well, don’t. You CAN do this – just remember you’re the expert. All that time and effort you spent learning and practicing and implementing the basic foundations of good project management is what you fall back on now. Best practices and ethics, combined with some good old-fashioned “meets and greets” with the people you’re working with will take you through your initial days safely. I suggest starting with two things – set up your introduction meetings with people, and review existing documentation relating to your role and deliverables, including historical materials. What this does is help you move through the initial uncomfortable grey days when nothing is concrete and you don’t feel confident about your foundation. Meeting with stakeholders initiates relationships, and gives you a sense of who’s onside and who isn’t – who will support you and anyone who may not – and who you may bond with so you feel like you have a safe place to go to with questions and frustrations. I also suggest you introduce yourself to the architecture team to get a better understanding of the business application landscape and the IT architecture services they provide. The importance of this relationship is described in my previous blog: A Project Manager’s Best Friend – The Architect. Be careful of course – not everyone and everything is at it seems. You’re a stranger in a strange land but you’ve got to make a start. And you take the initiative to set those meetings up – go to them instead of expecting them to come to you. Do a lot of listening and learning rather than talking.

For documentation review, you’ll likely be given some and need to ask for the rest, especially historical documentation. Don’t discount old documents as irrelevant – they can provide you with a wealth of information that will give you context for your role. And if you reference what you’ve read, for example at the right time in a meeting, you look like you’re informed because you’re doing your homework. This reflects well on you and gives your coworkers confidence about who you are and what you do. It gives you confidence as well! Now make that documentation your own by categorizing it in a way that makes sense to you in your project folder. By making documentation your own in this way, you’re taking ownership early on and that motivates you. Also, any sort of organization at this stage is a form of what I like to call “nesting”, meaning you’re taking control of your environment and making it work for you. I’ve found that people who don’t seem to be “nesting” even just a bit – and yes, this includes contractors – are missing part of the process of establishing trust with a client early on. There’s such a thing as seeming to be too much of a hired gun, even as a contractor who has many clients, so I recommend you don’t build that sort of perception by, for example, coming and going with absolutely no sign you’ve ever been in the office. That’s a barrier to bonding and will not serve you well as time goes on. Part of dealing with the dreaded grey zone of no project management framework (that includes a project delivery and IT architecture framework) is getting comfortable in your physical and electronic space. So, take those steps when you arrive, in a way that is appropriate for you and the client, to help move out of the grey zone.

One way to demonstrate your credibility and capabilities as a talented PM is to talk about what you’re working on. Base that on your initial meetings, as well as your documentation review, and let it be known. So something like, “I’ve met with a number of people in the Finance department and what I’m hearing they’re looking for that relates to Project deliverables is…” – and then fill in the blank. Also, don’t forget to mention some IT architecture standards and potential system integrations that you’ve learned from the architecture team. In the case of your documentation review, something like, “In reading the meeting minutes from last month, I see that an issue was raised about X but may not have been followed up.” Then talk about what you’re working on to address what you’ve heard and seen. Again, you’re building confidence for yourself and others, and you’re also making some solid decisions about the work you can start on for some quick wins. Of course, you’ll have initial deliverables requested of you and you need to focus on those, but by adding deliverables that you’ve identified yourself, along with rationale for them, you build value add and quick wins into the process early on, as well as take ownership for your role and build your connection with it.

In my next blog, I’ll talk about the top three project management documents that will ensure you have the foundational pieces of a framework for success. These documents will also demonstrate quick wins for you and your project, as well as move everyone involved in the initiative out of the grey zone and into clarity. These top three documents build your confidence and the confidence others have in you – exactly what you want to have in place early on in an initiative where it’s up to you to put that framework for success in place.

Ms. Marianne Hang is a Senior Project Manager affiliated with IT Architects in Calgary, Alberta. IT Architects ( is an information consulting firm specializing in business process optimization, system evolution planning, and the deployment of leading-edge technologies. If you require further information, Marianne can be reached at [email protected] or 403-815-7505.

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