Another role for program management

I'll start this post with a story:

Not too long ago, when I was in charge of a multi-vendor global sourcing program, I faced a lot of resistance to a particular vendor. None of the delivery heads were happy with this vendor's performance. Each of them had, privately, complained to me that the vendor wasn't meeting expectations, and that we needed a "shake up."

So I initiated a shake up.

I tole the staff at my company that we were going to do a shake up. I told the vendor that they weren't meeting expectations, and that I was beginning a process to fix that.

My first step was to determine what expectations weren't being met.

It turned out, as is often the case, that the "failure to meet your expectations" was really a "failure to read your mind."

That is, the expectations had never been articulated, much less written down, reviewed and socialized.

So we went through an arduous process wherein we attempted to define measurable goals and objectives for each of several delivery teams we had in place with this vendor.

After five weeks of back and forth with my own coworkers, we completed a list of expectations, had a conference call to review them, and then socialized the goals and objectives with the vendor, and subsequently with the offshore team. Good good, I thought. Job well done.

Not quite.

I committed to doing a mid-quarter performance review, wherein I asked all my coworkers how the vendor in question was doing against objectives. I got mostly decent feedback on the vendor, but in one particularly important case, I got a statement to the effect that "they didn't do what I expected in this situation, and I'm very disappointed in their behavior..."

I ended the conversation abruptly by saying something along the lines of "Hmm. I'm looking through the quarterly objectives, and I don't see any place where you called out your expectation on this apparently very important behavioral criteria. So, you don't get to "ding" the vendor on this. You can express your disappointment, and formally document this expectation as a standing behavioral requirement. And henceforth the vendor can be "on notice" that you expect this particular behavior out of them. But you didn't ask them to do this thing. You asked for 30 other deliverables and behaviors. All of which they delivered. So, they met your explicit expectations. They failed to read your mind, but so don't we all."

The moral of this story is that outsourcing program management, done well, stands between the retained team and the vendor, as a mostly neutral third party arbiter. That is, the program manager is the impassive voice of reason, clearly articulating expectations, and eliminating emotion in the presence of either poorly articulated expectations, or execution failure on the part of the vendor.

If you're in anything but a short-term project with an offshore service provider, it's important to have someone playing this role. It could be your vendor. Or you could be lucky and have excellent leadership in your retained team, who are perfect at articulating their expectations. But if you're like most companies, you need someone in the program management role.

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