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Law firm information technology staff must consistently deliver systems and services – quickly, correctly and cheaply. To accomplish these goals, it’s critical to use a preset project framework to guide project teams from inception to the closing celebration.

Frameworks standardize key processes, allowing managers to divide projects into segments of “quick wins.” This approach helps ensure that the project teams have the right tools and attitude for success.

Using frameworks, managers can better evaluate and execute projects, measure progress along the way and help everyone in the firm understand the project.

A good starting point for developing a framework is Microsoft Corp.’s Web site, which offers the “Microsoft Solutions Framework.” While the complete MSF is likely too rigorous for most law firm projects, it can help you customize a process that fits your firm’s culture and needs.

A framework formalizes the project management process and jargon. MSF includes five phases:

Envisioning.

Planning.

Developing.

Stabilizing.

Deploying.

For example, if you are told a project is in the “envisioning” stage, and you know the framework’s vocabulary, you instantly know its status. MSF has predefined roles for team members, with predefined responsibilities. This helps team members know what they are to do and also helps managers cover all required tasks.

For example, an IT department may be rolling out an accounts payable system. If it just considers the technology aspects, it could easily overlook user issues. But with a framework, someone will be assigned the “product management” role and be tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that the user requirements are satisfied.

That role could include marketing, developing and measuring business value, and prioritizing requirements.

The framework might provide that the project manager should never be the product manager, as the roles oftentimes are at odds with each other. The project manager is oftentimes motivated by schedule, where delivering features motivates the product manager.

Firms must not only define a framework and standard process, but they also should define standard documentation. When drafting an agreement, a lawyer seldom starts from a blank Word file. Most use past agreements or firm “precedent” files as a starting point. These provide structure and key terms and keep the lawyer from reinventing the wheel at the client’s expense.

The same should be true for project managers. This is especially true for small projects, where the firm may want to use new product managers. For example, a new manager may be a skilled technician but not an expert writer. Happily, using a standard document set can help the new leader succeed with the planning process and ensure that consistent practices are followed.

Documents should be focused and written for their intended audience. For example, a document intended for steering groups or partners at the beginning of the process should describe the project’s objectives, scope, business justification and budget – and must be free of jargon. By contrast, a detailed design specification used well into the project may be full of jargon.

Documents should be short. If a document is 67 pages, recipients are likely to scan it or put it aside for later. If it’s five pages, it may actually get read, and you’re likely to get better, faster feedback. Tip: Break longer documents apart to focus on issues for particular audiences if need be, but always keep them short.

Speed can be critical in a competitive market, but it sometimes can be difficult to balance speed against the need to select the right system, establish clear user requirements and generate “buy-in” among firm leadership.

It’s almost always a good idea to phase in projects and structure installations in a way that delivers substantial value quickly. Remaining requirements can then be added in a later phase. This approach is referred to as “quick wins.” This strategy, as a part of your project methodology, increases customer satisfaction and reduces the project’s exposure to risk.

The Right Attitude

A project framework, form documents and a quick-win philosophy provide certain economies. They keep project teams from reinventing the wheel. They allow you to identify, coordinate and control project interdependencies. They help you move quickly to deliver value. Most important, they allow the project teams to focus on the real issues and help teams deliver the project on time, within budget and with (or exceeding) the expected value.

Project teams want to succeed. A project, however, can be a minefield. Ignoring principles of change management or working to the wrong requirements or underestimating the effort can make even a project that delivers what it promised look like a failure to its customers. A project framework rigorously applied can help avoid those mines. It also provides the project team with comfort that it is proceeding properly and, as a result, instills an attitude of success.



CRAIG COURTER ( [email protected]) is chief operating officer and GAVIN GRAY ([email protected]) is manager of the project support team at the Chicago office of Baker & McKenzie. Courter, until January, was Baker’s IT director and was the recipient of the 2003 IT Director of the Year Award of Law Technology News.

This article originally appeared in Law Technology News , a publication of American Lawyer Media.

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