Dartmouth-Hitchcock: A Case of Curing Project Management Pain

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Jul 13, 2012

The Solution

Newswanger had used the usual sorts of tools for project management in the past including Microsoft Excel, email, and frequent status-update, and planning meetings. The homegrown solution Newswanger's team had settled on prior to LiquidPlanner was based on 37signals Backpack. When he realized that they needed a project management reboot, Newswanger considered 37signals' Basecamp, which they'd used a few years earlier. While he found it to be "a fine place to store files and communicate around projects" he did not feel it was sufficiently robust to manage the large CMS project as well as the ongoing web content support his team provided. Newswanger also considered Microsoft Project, which has been used in other parts of Dartmouth-Hitchcock; however, he was concerned about the extensive training (and potential delay) it might require.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock opted to bring in a project management consultant, which  Newswanger found incredibly valuable. He says, "I don't come from a project management background. I'm a writer, a designer, a communicator at heart." The first thing the consultant did was introduce the team to "project management 101." She then recommended that Newswanger consider LiquidPlanner because of its feature set and also because she felt the team could very quickly get up to speed with the tool and avoid unnecessary delays.

Newswanger started out by having a couple of his team members test LiquidPlanner. He says they had a bit of basic training from the consultant, but that his people "essentially just picked it up." In just a matter of weeks, those two people trained Newswanger and he says they had it rolled out to the entire team in a span of about six weeks.

While he says "we tend to hire people who never read the manual and just figure things out," Newswanger points out that his team is made up of writers and web designers, not programmers. The team, according to Newswanger, uses a lot of SaaS tools and they find that "LiquidPlanner has the UI right" and that "LiquidPlanner's help documentation and service has been excellent." Seybold says his company offers training and support but that "most people find success with our online training. They tend to reach out to us only for specific issues that reflect their specific needs."

The hardest part in the entire process of moving to the new system, according to Newswanger, was "learning to manage really big complex projects." He does point out, though, that using a tool that creates this much transparency and structure around projects "can be relentless" if not handled well. He says, "You stack lots of projects up and people are not going to run out of things to do. I run the risk of people feeling that they never get to the end of their task list. There is a possibility of working people too hard, so as a manger, you need to learn to set aside time for people to do things like go off and research ... Maybe even create a task to let them daydream."

The Outcome

Prior to using LiquidPlanner, Newswanger spent his time manually creating task lists for staff members each week, then meeting with everyone to find out where they were in terms of goals, and then revising all of the task lists accordingly. When faced with increasingly complex projects to manage, he found that this system simply would not scale. As a result, he and his team lived with constant uncertainty and fear of failure.

"Before," Newswanger says, "I was totally laying awake at night. Now I can see that we just didn't have sufficient resources. But there was no way to communicate it to management other than saying 'I'm scared.' The first thing we did after moving to LiquidPlanner was furiously get all of our tasks in there. Then, at that point, I went in to my boss and said the figures do not lie, we can't deliver as we'd hoped."

However, he points out that being empowered to deliver this news five months out rather than a week before the deadline was a very good thing. "After that conversation," he says, "I started sleeping well again. I had been feeling like I was working harder than I've ever worked and I was going to fail. But LiquidPlanner showed that it was simply a fact of not enough people to deliver in that amount of time."

Not surprisingly, Seybold feels Dartmouth-Hitchcock made the right decision choosing LiquidPlanner. He has had feedback that reinforces this view, however. "With our tool we hear from Ryan's team that deadlines are being met, stress levels have gone down, and the team leaves at 5 p.m." He says, "Ryan got a promotion so I think things have gone well for him."

For his part, Newswanger is also pleased with the decision. His team has recently begun another major redesign project, this time for Dartmouth-Hitchcock's intranet. Instead of his previous project management uncertainty, with this project he was leveraging LiquidPlanner before the project even began. Where in the past he might have been "scared we couldn't get a job done with our resources," these days he approaches things very differently.

When management approached him with the intranet project, he built out the project for 27 months factoring everything from hiring and training staff to project completion. Then, when he made his pitch for project resources, he was able to demonstrate "with full confidence, that we could meet the following deadlines with this set of resources. I showed what we could deliver with three versus four people."

"I'm not afraid anymore," says Newswanger, "because I've modeled it out." One month into the intranet project, he says that "Every day, every week we can see how we're doing and make the necessary adjustments. What was terrifying before was not knowing, and not knowing what was feasible or not. When you take that worry out of it, when you know your base is solid it gets you focused on eating the elephant one bite at a time."

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