project management of your biggest orderSo, as the CEO of a growing technology company and having landed your biggest order ever, you take the advice of a trusted friend to put a project manager in charge of delivering your biggest order. It is certainly a good idea to treat your biggest order as a project, simply because it is big and important and you can’t really afford to have it fail. It is certainly not a good idea to assume that anybody who can say “MS Project”, “critical path” or “Gantt chart” can actually handle the project management of your biggest order.

Being able to use any of the commercially available project management software applications doesn’t make a person a project manager any more than being able to read music makes a person an orchestra conductor. Most people who get called a “project manager” are actually project coordinators, necessarily focused on the myriad of details that make up the whole delivery. In some unfortunate cases, “project managers” end up being the documenters of failure – they can tell you what went wrong, maybe a bit about why it went wrong, and pretty much nothing about how to actually fix it, never mind how to avoid challenges in the first place.

Someone who is in charge of project management of your biggest order doesn’t focus on the details – they leave that to project coordinators and qualified engineering personnel. Instead, they focus on the customer. Yes, the customer, and what the customer has ordered. At the end of it all, it’s the customer that decides if the project was a success; that the order was delivered to the customer’s satisfaction.

Also, people who take charge of project management of your biggest order should have real authority; they can hire and fire, they can spend money, they can direct staff and vendors, they can negotiate with the customer to change the plan. Thus they can be truly held accountable for getting the project done – and the order delivered. Most importantly for a growing technology company, they can do these things with the trust and full support of the company’s founders.

delivering your biggest orderThe person you want as your project manager is effectively going to be the CEO of delivering your biggest order ever. He or she is running a business, one with a beginning, middle, and an end, but a business nonetheless. So, that person must have serious technical and managerial skills, and must commit those skills to the success of your technology company. He or she has to care deeply about delivering your biggest order ever. Without that kind of care, the hard decisions won’t get made and effort needed to overcome challenging circumstances won’t be expended.

By way of example, some years ago, when I was a young(-ish) manager of an engineering and implementation group, we took on the responsibility to deliver a multi-million dollar, turn-key system order – the company’s Biggest Order Ever. One of our suppliers comprised almost three-quarters of the value of equipment in the project, and that supplier’s product was the heart of the system.

Early in this project, we had to demonstrate the product, complete with modifications as negotiated amongst the customer, the supplier and my sales colleagues.  My engineering team quickly ran into difficulty getting answers from the supplier to simple technical questions. I called a meeting with our customer on a Thursday afternoon to tell them of our increasing concerns about the supplier, and to explain what we were doing to address them.

We (my team and our customer’s engineers) ended up getting the supplier’s sales rep on the speakerphone and taking turns asking a set of straightforward technical questions. At the end of the third round of nonsense answers, I spoke up to tell the sales rep that it was obvious he didn’t know what he was talking about, and that he had until Monday to get us the answers or, as the person responsible for delivering the project, I would have to shut it down.

By the time my team and I got back to our office, our President was in the parking lot waiting for us. His hair was on fire. The supplier’s CEO had called and wanted me fired. It took three of us over two hours to convince our President that our supplier was lying to all of us.

As it turned out, the supplier had taken our order for an existing product line with certain modifications, but planned to develop and deliver a brand new product line that would be “better” than the one we ordered. As it further turned out, the supplier wasn’t actually going to tell anybody about its plan. It was just going to ship the brand new product and “we’d all be heroes”. I’m not making this up.

In the end, I didn’t get fired, the customer decided to accept the brand-new product line, the project schedule went from 200 days to 400 days accordingly, we did fantastic work for a very satisfied customer, and we made a solid profit on the job – all because we focused on the customer, and we made the hard decisions that had to be made to successfully deliver Our Biggest Order Ever.

success of delivering your biggest orderTo be clear, there were a ton of details to be managed in that project; we had a number of people doing project coordination, we used Gantt charts, and we were always aware of the critical path. But none of that would have mattered, nor helped us succeed, if we hadn’t managed the project with a relentless focus on delivering what the customer ordered. Although, in that particular Biggest Order Ever, we all got a bit more than we bargained for!