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Proven Systems and Unknown Unknowns: The Friends and Foes of a Project Manager

After having interviewed five of my colleagues about their roles on the Student Information System (SIS) Project, the rest of my colleagues know to expect my invitations for interviews. Some of them join me in Zoom feeling a little trepidatious because they’ve never been interviewed before and don’t know what to expect. Others join me apprehensive because they have been interviewed before and the results weren’t exactly what they expected. Being interviewed requires a certain level of trust and willingness to be vulnerable. 

For me, some of the most cherished moments of my job are the moments in which I can shut out the rest of the world, sit across the table or across the Zoom screen from a colleague, learn a little more about him or her, and then write about what I see. From time to time, we all need someone to remind us of our strengths, what makes us special and how our work makes the world better. Even more often, we simply need someone to reflect back to us what we already know to be true about ourselves.

Today it’s Brian Smith’s turn to sit on the other side of the screen with me. He’ll tell you he is “b4smith,” not any of the other Brian Smiths that work at the university, lest you confuse him with “b5smith” who works for the Police Department. Brian is the Project Manager for the SIS Project, and what is true about Brian is this: he has a sense of humor that never fails to bring a smile to my face, he adds calmness and assuredness to the spaces he enters (be they virtual or physical spaces), and he is excellent at what he does.

But he doesn’t need me to tell him that. He already knows, and he demonstrates it each day in his role as our project manager.


What Does a Project Manager Do?

“Being a project manager is like going on vacation,” he starts to say, and I look at him quizzically. I wouldn’t necessarily equate project management to a vacation. In fact, I might say exactly the opposite, but Brian smiles and continues. “When you go on vacation, you don’t pack the night before, because if you do, you will inevitably forget something.” Then, your trip is impacted somehow. For example, if you forget your flip-flops when you go to Hawaii, you will pay 10 times more for a pair of flip-flops while you are there.

“To avoid this,” Brian says, “you make a list about a week before you leave and every time you remember something you left off the list, you add it to the list. Then when you pack nothing gets forgotten.” It’s Brian’s goal to do the same for the SIS Project. If you distill his role down to its absolute simplest, he is making sure nothing gets left off our list, so we don’t end up on the beach without flip-flops… or with a new SIS that is missing a critical component we need to fulfill our mission to our students.

In his quest to make sure nothing gets forgotten, he is always gathering new information. “I learn something every day,” he says, and that is a key part of what keeps him excited about his work. Some days, he learns a new piece of history about a department or position on campus. Other days, he learns a cool new shortcut in one of the many software applications he uses to do his job. These kinds of discoveries keep him engaged and wanting to learn even more. Brian is also motivated by the challenge of gathering and synthesizing all that information, which is fortunate because the SIS Project definitely is challenging.

“Managing any project is also like conducting an orchestra,” he says. “You have to keep an eye on the big picture and to make sure everyone and everything is staying in sync together.” He shares that the biggest challenge in this orchestration is looking ahead for roadblocks, so they can be addressed before they impact the project. “Being proactive, rather than reactive, is easier said than done,” he says, “mainly because of the unknown unknowns.”

How to Make an Unknown Unknown Known?

How on Earth do you deal with an unknown unknown? If you don’t know it’s there, then how can you possibly plan for it? Brian laughs when I ask him these questions. He shares that there is no sure-fire way to make an unknown unknown known, but there are ways to shine a light on those areas that may have otherwise created unforeseen issues or had unanticipated consequences. “The best way to uncover something like that is by talking to other people who have done it before and who are willing to share with us,” Brian explains. 

For that reason, Brian can often be found connecting to others. He attends the Higher Education Users’ Group to learn from others who have completed similar projects. He reaches out to sister UC campuses to discuss their experiences with them. He talks to project managers from other ESR projects, past and present. “The biggest part of my job,” he says, “is talking and listening to as many people as possible and then bringing the right people together to solve problems, or even better, anticipating problems and bringing them together to keep it from happening to begin with.”

It’s for that same reason the project has been focusing so heavily on process mapping and other preparation work, because there are so many opportunities to talk with stakeholders who work every day in the processes the SIS Project will affect, and they have so much to share. “We are not the only ones going on this journey,” he says, “and we are not going alone. There is a lot for us to learn.”

Which Is It, Project or Program?

In project management, there is the concept of a project and there is also the concept of a program, which is a collection of (often related) projects. For example, here at UC San Diego we have the Enterprise Systems Renewal (ESR) Program and within the ESR Program are the SIS Project, the Enterprise Identity Management (EIM) Project, and many other past and present projects. What is unique about Brian’s role as the project manager for the SIS Project is that the SIS Project itself has evolved to look much more like a program than a project.

“We have the Core SIS Project,” he says, “but connected to or supporting that project is a series of 10 (and counting) additional projects that make up our SIS Ecosystem.” Most days he is fulfilling the role of the project manager for the Core SIS Project and at least three of the other projects in the Ecosystem, while also serving as the program manager for the Ecosystem itself. As the program manager, he mentors some of the other project managers working on Ecosystem projects, and he also manages the connections between the projects.

“Anything that, if not successful, could cause the Core SIS Project to not be successful is part of our overall effort and something the team and I have to keep a close eye on,” he shares. This means cross-project meetings, Ecosystem discussions, gatherings of project managers and change teams from all the active ESR projects, lots of dashboards, piles of documentation, a mountain of emails and an endless stream of Teams messages. Sharing information in whatever format makes the most sense to get the message across and the work done.

Who Has the Best Coping Strategy?

To keep track of everything that has to be done, Brian has a couple to-do lists. Brian’s main to-do list that exists in our project management software contains nearly 150 tasks that he, personally, is responsible for and an additional 917 tasks belonging to others that he must monitor and keep abreast of their progress. And that’s not to mention additional tasks he tracks with other tools or systems or the tasks that have already been completed (3,548 and counting!). It’s a good thing Brian is motivated by a challenge, because tackling that many tasks is definitely a challenge, and it’s his responsibility to ensure that all tasks get completed, as well as to work with the team to make sure the tasks paint as accurate a picture as possible of when the work will be accomplished.

I share with Brian that, in my role as Change Lead for the SIS Project, there are some days when it seems like there is simply too much work to be done for the team and completing anything on my ever-present to-do list starts to feel like an entirely impossible task. I ask Brian if he ever feels like this, given the size and scope of the SIS Project and its Ecosystem and the number of tasks on his plate.

“Of course,” he says, “that happens to everyone. But when it happens to me, I take a deep breath, sit down with my list and figure out how to break my tasks into manageable components and to prioritize each of those components. It’s a proven system that has gotten me through many a moment like that,” he says with a smile and a laugh. 

His coping strategy is much more productive than mine, which is to open up a Teams chat to a trusted colleague (maybe Brian) and type (possibly in all caps) some variation of “Help! I don’t even know where to start!” Perhaps I need to give his system a try and save him and my other colleagues from sudden barrages of all-caps messages.

Where to Go from Here?

From our discussion of mountainous to-do lists, we drift into discussing the aspects of the project so far that have been difficult, and our conversation naturally turns to the process of selecting a new SIS for the university, a process which has turned out to be much longer than anyone on the team anticipated. The market of available student information systems simply is not in the place we would wish it to be right now. We need to make a decision on what to do next, but there is no clear-cut answer.

“There is no perfect answer,” he says, “and the options that are available to us each have their own pros, cons and risks. The decision of what to do next is a complex decision with a lot of nuance that was not entirely evident at the start of the process.” But the process, especially the Conference Room Pilots, has helped to shine a light on much of that nuance, which in turn gives university leadership the information they need to make the best possible decision for the future of our students, faculty and staff.

The biggest question for Brian in his role throughout the project has been, “How do we make sure leadership has the information and context they need to make an informed decision about what is best for the university?” The answer has been gathering as much information as possible and then distilling it down to its most important elements, without losing the nuance in the process. This is no easy feat, but he and the team use the project’s guiding principles and overall strategic vision as guideposts and keep always in sight the north star of those guideposts: improving the student experience. “It gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that I am contributing to our students’ experiences here at UC San Diego and, through them, contributing to making a difference in the world, both on an individual and societal level.”

When Will Change Come?

I ask him if there’s anything else he’d like to share. He thinks for a moment before responding. “In every project I've managed for the last two decades there have been challenges, but in every case I've also been very fortunate to work with talented teams that I could call on to surmount those challenges and bring the project to a successful conclusion. The SIS Project team is an amazing group of people, and with the knowledge, expertise and insight of that team, partnering with subject matter experts and everyone across the university engaging with the project, I'm confident there's no challenge we can't overcome.” 

Change fatigue comes up weekly, if not daily, in project conversations, and the impact of other ongoing changes at the university are factored into all of the team’s change management plans. “Change is always painful in some way,” he says, “even when it is welcome change. There are always disruptions and there is always some level of extra work—learning new skills or processes, understanding new systems, becoming accustomed to new ways of working—but change is a necessary part of life, and it's impossible to make tomorrow better than today without change.” While change cannot be avoided, the team is doing their best to minimize the impact of changes on project stakeholders wherever possible and to communicate transparently with everyone at the university regarding the choices that have been made for the projects and why those choices have been made.

Despite the difficulties presented by a change of the magnitude that will be brought about by the implementation of a new SIS, Brian is looking forward to the future of the project. “I think, very soon, we will be moving into a new phase of the project and we will be able to put to good use everything we have been learning over the last few years.” He says it feels like we’re in a plane and the cabin doors have been closed, the pilots have completed their final checks and we’re pushing back from the gate. “Before we know it, we’ll be taking off,” he says.

Category: Student & Faculty, News