Who Does What in KPI Project Reporting
For more information and extra detail about who does what when it comes to project reporting at different levels of the organisation, you can check out this guide and infographic.
What a great question: is it worth moving clients to a retainer model for project services? A got in touch to ask me, and I thought it was probably a question worth sharing with everyone here.
This is what she said:
“We're a small graphic design studio with 3 employees. My boss wants to convince some of our clients to move to a retainer model. The thing is, most of our projects are on an ad hoc basis, without much consistency from month to month. My feeling is a retainer is not ideal in such a situation, but my boss likes the appeal of it... Money in the bank every month, how wouldn't you?! So my question is: when would you recommend a retainer, and when would you advise against it?”
What is a Retainer?
A retainer is a fixed fee that the customer pays you every month to secure a certain amount of work done. The work could be anything, as long as it’s covered by the scope of your agreement.
Sometimes hours not used are carried forward (often by a limited amount e.g. use within three months or forfeit the hours). Sometimes they are written off if the client doesn’t use them (which is the arrangement I have with a supplier at the moment).
Let’s look at the pros and cons of this payment model.
Advantages of Working on a Retainer
First, the most obvious advantage: it’s money in the bank every month! Whether you do the work or not! What manager wouldn’t want that? I totally get it.
This model works well for projects where there is an element of continuity. I know project have a start, a middle and an end, but if you have projects where there are incremental improvements planned over a year or so, you can see that having the commitment to move forward works well. Think design clients, web projects, app development, that kind of thing, although I’m sure there are other industries where this would also work.
It can improve the flow of work from the client. When they know they have committed to pay a certain amount for work done each month, you might find the work planning is easier. They should be letting you know what they need you for in advance of the next month. This can improve the consistency both of the incoming work (better for you) and the communication (better for both of you).
You should get to know them better and what they want, and that might help you advise them on how to use the retained hours each month. You are also more likely to prioritise their work above incoming fixed-fee or ad hoc projects, just because you have a relationship with them that’s different. That could be a selling point for clients.
Easier admin: both for you and the client. It’s one invoice, it’s a fixed fee, it can be largely automated as a recurring payment. It should be easier for you to maintain the relationship and manage the payment cycles (although for your own benefit and for “proof” you’ll still have to do timesheets). Fixed costs for the client could be a real plus point.
Disadvantages of Working on a Retainer
There are some disadvantages of course, for you and the client. First, you never know how much work the client might want you to do – if it’s a slow month you might be able to squeeze in extra ad hoc work from other people. It’s better to plan for all your hours to be used up so that you can definitely resource their work, but if they don’t send work your way you might have project staff waiting around.
Normally you’d charge your client less per hour on a retainer than you would for a project-driven rate – that’s the advantage to them of having a retainer.
The client might decide that if the work genuinely is ad hoc, that they don’t want this model and you’ll end up either going back to the way you worked before or potentially losing the client if you no longer offer that as an option.
Transparency becomes more of an issue. If the client doesn’t believe they are getting value for money they will vote with their feet and take their projects elsewhere. Think carefully about how you are going to do demonstrate what you have done and what value they have got from their investment each month.
So: When Does a Retainer Work Best?
I think the retainer model works well when the scope of the work is broad, ongoing or likely to evolve. In other words, where the requirement for a long term relationship seems apparent from the start. This might be through lots of micro projects such as graphic design projects, or through one larger piece of ongoing work.
It’s also an effective way of working where the breadth of the work required stretches over several teams or the capability of a whole agency/supplier. You aren’t costing hours per different type of specialist resource within your team, you’re quoting for work done on a flatter cost structure so it removes admin.
I have paid retainers before (and still do) but I am interested in hearing your thoughts on how this works in your business. Let us all know in the comments below, and thanks, A, for the thought provoking question!
This month it’s all about celebrating project success here on ProjectManagement.com, and with that in mind I wanted to explore some ideas around what makes a project successful.
Malcolm Gladwell has been instrumental in shaping my thinking about this, and you can read more of how I got to know of his work and his thoughts on the paradox of successful cultures in this article.
Often times, we rely on the old adage: “Fast, good, cheap: pick any two.”
The assumption here is that if you don’t pick ‘cheap’ and you have plenty of money to invest in your project, then you’ll get a successful outcome. We also hear leaders talk of being able to throw money at a problem.
Don’t get me wrong. Having money to help resolve issues and to fight off potential problems is a huge benefit. Funding does make many issues seem less troublesome. When you can call in extra resources or buy more stock without worrying about it, that’s definitely a burden removed.
The thinking of Gladwell, author of Blink and Outliers, suggests that successful cultures aren’t the ones with the most money to throw at problems. Success doesn’t come from unlimited funding.
Borrow and Follow
Successful project cultures are those that rely on the ‘borrow and follow’ approach that Gladwell laid out at the PMI Global Congress North America in Dallas where I heard him speak.
Those project management cultures don’t innovate – at least, not extensively. They look at what is working and adapt processes to their own environment. They actively pay attention to lessons learned. They work hard to build organisational knowledge and avoid the mistakes of the past – following in the footsteps of those who have done good work.
In other words, don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Let someone else do the heavy lifting. In project management this could look like:
There’s no requirement for ‘success’ to start with a lot of hard work in setting up systems that already exist elsewhere. While you should always be mindful of taking intellectual property and reusing it as your own (ethics is always paramount), there are plenty of materials, processes, templates and more out there that mean you can create a successful project management culture with a smaller initial outlay.
The Negative Side of Funding
The other interesting idea that has come through Gladwell’s thinking is the concept of money constraining creativity.
In other words, the more money you have, the less creative your project environment is likely to be, and that can have implications for success – both on a project level and on a portfolio or PMO level.
You’ve probably seen this yourself in your workplace. When money isn’t an issue on a project (if you’ve been lucky enough to be in that kind of environment) then you’ll know that when you hit a problem, the first thing the team thinks about is how to buy their way out of it.
When I researched my first book, Project Management in the Real World, I included a case study of a build project where the team had to work creatively together to find ways to hit the project budget. The project was a success because the effort of having to think creatively around funding brought the team together. The closer working relationships they forged when together the various suppliers worked with the project’s objectives front of mind made it a better project for everyone.
Money Doesn’t Equal Success
I don’t doubt that money makes projects more likely to hit their objectives. The experience of working on a project with adequate funding is more pleasant than having to scrabble for resources, count every penny, and challenge every receipt. But it isn’t the only thing that makes a project successful.
Think about your projects and what success looks like for you. How much of it is determined by the funding available and how much by the talent of the team, the timescales or the commitment of leadership?
What do you think about this topic? I’d love to hear your thoughts so let me know in the comments below.
What’s the difference between a stakeholder and a supplier?
I was asked this question recently and I thought it was quite simple to answer. It turns out, as I started to formulate my response, that it is a lot harder to pin down than I anticipated.
Partly, I think, that’s due to the “flexible” nature of project management jargon. What’s a stakeholder for me might not be so defined by the methodology you use, or the common terminology used by your PMO.
I think the difference is easier to explain if we look at what each of them is. The comparisons, similarities and differences then become more transparent.
What is a Stakeholder?
For me, a stakeholder is anyone who has an interest in the project.
Primary stakeholders are those who do the process. They agree what will and won’t be in scope of the project. They know how much they are prepared to invest, both in terms of time and money. This group is going to shape the project and includes your project sponsor and the people who sit on your Project Board.
Secondary stakeholders have less of a vote in the way the project is run and the outputs it will achieve. They may shape and define the result, and you’ll listen to them as they are affected. The project might be quite challenging for them, and you’ll want to involve them, but they aren’t key decision makers. This group would come to meetings, maybe take part in a workstream and do smaller tasks.
Interested stakeholders are curious. They might feel like they want a say but they have no managerial interest in how the process is performed, they are not a supplier, and they are not involved in delivering the project or process. These are people you meet at the water cooler or coffee machine. They have a view, but you may or may not want to listen to it. It would depend on their level of influence over the opinion of people you do rate on the project.
Stakeholders can be internal or external. Internal suppliers work within your organiation, so your peers, managers, colleagues. They are people on the payroll of your business.
External stakeholders are the opposite: they are people outside your organisation, and that includes suppliers.
What is a Supplier?
When most people think of suppliers we think of organisations from whom we buy goods and services for our project. This would include:
Hiring equipment e.g. cement mixers, venue hire, kit of a any kind
Providing a service e.g. contract developers, subject matter experts brought into the project for a particular purpose such as specialist lawyers, trainers. Contract staff members joining the project team would fall into this category, even if they were on staff for the duration of the project and work as if they are a member of the in-house team.
Providing goods e.g. vendors from whom we purchase equipment or products for the project like computer chips, raw materials, steel etc.
These organisations or individuals are normally external. You can’t source the goods or services in-house so you go externally to procure them.
The other thing they have in common is that we typically pay for them.
However, suppliers could be internal, if your internal labour market is set up that way. IT, for example, could be a supplier of development resource to your Sales project, and they could charge you for the time and effort of the team involved. In this respect they would be a supplier and would act like one. You’d probably have a formal statement of work, estimates drawn up and so on.
I’ve only worked in one organisation like this but it is perhaps more common than you think, especially in the biggest organisations and the public sector. Personally I’m not convinced of the value of this kind of internal economy, but I mention it because there might be times where a supplier (in terms of your project) is actually someone who sits down the corridor from you and works for the same entity.
Managing Suppliers as Stakeholders
I think we can conclude that suppliers are a subset of your stakeholder group. They should be managed and engaged as any other stakeholder group. That means including them in your stakeholder analysis.
It’s important when working with people who are strategically important to the success of your product e.g. package software provider, to think about their involvement in the project and to do what you can to set them up for success. In other words, you could involve them in project communications. They might need slightly different versions of your communications because you might not be able to share company confidential information with them, but broadly you should treat them as per your stakeholder analysis suggests.
To conclude, suppliers have a distinct role to play but they appear in my stakeholder management plan. I would put suppliers as a sub-group of my stakeholders. I would classify them as external primary stakeholders. In other words, they have a core role to play and are influential in both shaping and delivering the project, but they aren’t employees.
How would you state the difference between a supplier and a stakeholder? Perhaps you can do it in fewer words than me! Let me know in the comments section below.
In this video I share a few quick tips for preparing for a project audit. It shouldn't be a scary event and yet some project managers still feel daunted by the process. I get it - it's time consuming and it does feel like you are in the spotlight for a while. But the outcome is worth it, as long as the process is robust.