Here's the scenario. You're running a technical project from the delivery side and you're coordinating the efforts of your team, you're leading all the meetings and you're keeping all the stakeholders up to date. You are engaging the customer once a week (and as needed, of course) with a regularly scheduled formal project status call or meeting.
As the delivery-side PM, you are running the entire engagement with the developers and system architects and business analysts reporting to you on your project team. The project is yours to run and theirs to perform on. Your customer has a point person – usually the project sponsor – who you report to, give status reports to, is your main point of contact and has complete interest in what you and your team are doing. And they can make decisions with and for you which is especially helpful when they need to be made quickly.
Now switch gears and imagine that the customer has inserted a project manager of their own on their side to be your main point of contact. A new layer of ‘authority’ and reporting who will take a keen interest in anything you are doing. Is this good? Does it benefit the customer? Does it benefit you and your team? Does it benefit the project? Or is it just a new layer of cost to the project and sometimes an impetus to forward progress for you and your team? Of course, the customer can do whatever they want to do – and it's their time and money – but I've experienced this one first hand and it can be problematic.
My experiences with the PM counterpart
I can honestly say that I’ve only had it happen twice, though I realize it can be a fairly common occurrence. Sure, project sponsors often ‘act’ like project managers delegating and assigning tasks within their own team and being that main point of contact and communication. But they are usually also key decision makers with serious resource and fiscal authority.
The one project I led from beginning to end where there was an actual project manager on the other side of the table representing the customer was a frustrating one because he had very little decision making authority and provided no real benefit to the project. Everything that came out of his mouth and pen were just reiterations of status updates and communications that I was already providing. He was basically an echo…and I’m certain a further drain on the client organization’s already dwindling project dollars.
The other project was a troubled one that I took over. We were basically in a break/fix mode to get through final issues and into production. The person on the other side of the table happened to be a friend of mine and a former colleague from a previous company we both worked for. It was a completely different situation – I was organizing the development and testing efforts on the delivery side and he was organizing the testing and approval efforts on the customer side. This was all done with one goal in mind…to get the system deployed. We were both playing very critical and separate roles. In this case, having two project managers was a huge plus and definitely helped with our joint planning, decision-making and communications.
Summary / call for input
From my experiences, I would say that the customer side project manager is not necessary. For most projects, that person will be a drain on the customer's financial resources. However, as in the case of the break/fix testing that my friend / colleague and I were orchestrating, it was very beneficial and we fell nicely back into that mode of working well together after a few years apart.
What's your opinion? What experiences – good or bad – have you had with customer side project managers?