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Business intelligence project management: Five must-have pieces of advice

Get business intelligence (BI) project management advice from a recent TDWI conference.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- You've been appointed the project manager of your organization's next business intelligence (BI)...

software or data warehousing initiative. Now what?

According to attendees and a prominent speaker at The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI)'s conference here, there are five pieces of advice that will help you set priorities, avoid conflict, empower BI project team members and generally make sure that things go smoothly.

1. Find solutions by getting a handle on interests versus positions

In an interview following her presentation to TDWI conference attendees, Lorna Rickard, chief workforce architect with Connect: The Knowledge Network, a Littleton, Colo.-based BI and data warehousing consultancy, said that BI projects are cross-organizational in nature.

This means that BI projects cover many of an organization's departments, many different interests and, oftentimes, competing interests, she said.

"But the way to get to good agreements is to understand the difference between your interest and your position," she added.

Your position is something that you want. For example, a departmental representative at a BI project planning meeting may say, "I want to be the first to receive this BI report." That is his position.

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His interest, Rickard said, consists of all the reasons he took that position. It's desires, fears, the influence of his constituency -- everything that led him to take "position x" in the first place.

"The value of interest versus position is that you can begin to understand what's important and where you share common interests, and then it multiples the opportunity for solutions," Rickard explained. "So, rather than me just trying to get A, now I recognize, you know what, A, B, C, D may work for me."

To understand what people's interests are, all you have to do is ask them why their position is important to them, Rickard said. At the BI project meeting, she said, you can even make a chart of interests versus positions if you so desire.

"Understanding interest versus position gets people out of this lockdown," Rickard said. "We really don't understand the problem until we understand the interests."

2. Understand the causes of poor performance, and provide constructive feedback

When the performance of your BI team falls below expectations, it's important to understand the root cause in order to produce better results.

A recent University of Minnesota study found that a lack of feedback by team leaders and a lack of clear expectations or goals are two of the biggest reasons why teams begin to perform poorly. The study also found that poor working environments and a general lack of skill in the project areas can be other contributing factors to team failures, although those two issues come up significantly less often than the issues of feedback and setting expectations.

BI project managers can have the biggest impact when it comes to providing feedback and setting expectations, according to Rickard. Feedback should be provided early and often, because it's better to ask for a minor course correction as problems occur, rather than doing a dramatic project overhaul when things go south.

Positive feedback can be a powerful tool, Rickard said, but it has to be very specific. For example, instead of saying, "Hey you did a great job," say something like, "Hey, I noticed you got that report done -- it looks very complete. Several folks on the team have mentioned that it's really helped them understand how this department's goals fit into the division's goals."

When it comes to setting expectations, Rickard said, it's important to provide team members with a clear picture of what the successful outcome of a BI project will look like once the initiative is completed.

3. Promote healthy tension

When it's time for the BI project team to look at substantive issues where there may be differences of opinion, it's important to do it in a way that's healthy, she said.

Most importantly, that means working with more -- rather than less -- information.

"The less information you have, the more likely it is to evolve into opinion," Rickard said. "Open up alternatives [because] the fewer alternatives you have, the more likely you are to be polarized as a group."

Opening up more options and providing the maximum amount of information for the group offers the added bonus of giving strong personalities a chance to rethink their opinions while saving face, she said.

Along those same lines, don't be afraid to use humor, she added.

"Humor reduces defensiveness. It makes people forgive more, and they feel better about themselves," Rickard said. "Even bad humor works. Just get people laughing and it will help."

4. Avoid triangulation

Triangulation is a part of human nature that needs to be fought off, according to Rickard.

It occurs when one BI project team member has a problem with the performance of another, but instead of approaching that person with the problem directly, he enlists the support of the manager (you) or another empathetic third party.

"One of the most dangerous things to do in conflict is triangulate," Rickard said. "Instead of going directly to the person that we have a conflict with, we go to someone else. We go to a manager, we go to our friends, we go to someone who would be on our side -- whoever we think is going to benefit us in some way."

As a manager, if you're approached as the third party in this situation, it's important to tell the person to approach the underperforming member directly and without being judgmental. It's OK to offer to mediate the conversation, she said, but do everything possible to have the conflicting parties work out their issues together.

"This kind of triangulation, it doesn't solve the problem. It keeps the system stuck because [the underperforming team member] never gets the real feedback and it leads to collusion and gossip," Rickard said. "Triangulation is like putting a drop of ink in the water. Even though it's very small, it very quickly colors the whole thing. It's a very negative thing and, as humans, we have to fight that [tendency] in ourselves."

5. Get legacy BI teams on board

When new BI project teams are formed, it's often because there is a business need for information that hasn't been met by existing, or legacy, BI teams.

This can immediately lead to unhealthy tension between the new and old teams, said conference attendee Rav Ravindran, manager of corporate analytics with Century Insurance Group.

Ravindran said that mitigating this unhealthy tension is a matter of getting the new team to collaborate with the legacy team in an open, mutually beneficial way.

"Collaborating with the legacy core team, building those relationships and getting on common ground [is important]," Ravindran said. "You've got to get everybody on board with the mission."

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