Expert Interview Series: Sanket Pai of Celoxis

Project management

Sanket Pai is the head of the Product & Customer Experience team at Celoxis, an all-in-one online project management software. His interests lie in project Management, product management, digital marketing, business analysis, innovation management, customer insights, research, and experience through design thinking pedagogy and application of business design. You can follow him on Twitter.

We'll talk to Sanket about the project management landscape in general, the challenges faced by businesses managing their projects, and the use of technology in project management.

Tell us about Celoxis. What services do you offer?

Celoxis is an all-in-one project management software that helps medium and large businesses manage their projects, resources, costing, billing, risks, communications, issues and other business processes online. It is a web-based software that offers a choice of SaaS and On-Premise deployment. Today, it is still one of the few tools that offer this deployment flexibility. Over the last 15 years, Celoxis has grown to one of the world's favorite project management software platforms and is successfully used by brands like HBO, Bombardier, The Cheesecake Factory, Singapore Post, Rolex, LG, University of Washington, Jabil, Del Monte Foods, KMPG and a number of healthcare organizations. Celoxis has been among the first movers in several spaces: first Indian SaaS company, first to offer workflows, first to offer free client portals; to name a few. Celoxis has a no-frills, no strings attached, full-featured 30-day trial. We also offer several onboarding and training plans to help new customers accelerate Celoxis adoption.

How has project management evolved for companies in the past 10 years?

Back in 2001, when we started, the web was young and new. Project management software then was far and few between. While the origins of project management software are rooted somewhere in the early-to-mid 1990s, project management as a discipline dates back to almost 2570 BC, where the Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Fast forward to the late 90s, MS Project and Excel Spreadsheets were the main tools used for anything that seemed a project. It was the era where project management was considered strictly for project managers only. It was rooted in the traditional command and control management philosophy that involved endless status meetings and countless project plan printouts. Getting timely updates was a nightmare and plans were rarely updated after a few futile iterations.

With the rise of the Internet, project management shifted gears to a more collaborative environment. The Internet has allowed people to instantly lookup products or services, and to communicate real-time, resulting in businesses being more efficient and client-oriented. This was the era of Project Management 2.0, where virtual teams were born and projects could be managed remotely. This was also the time when the project management software market was flooded with numerous task, project and portfolio management online tools giving businesses a choice to use a formal tool in managing projects. Around mid 2013, the rise of mobile apps and BYOD further fueled 'on-the-go' and 'social' Project Management ideologies, allowing people and businesses to manage projects anywhere at any time.

As you can see, project management landscape has evolved considerably over time and continues to adapt to newer paradigms of work management and stakeholder expectations. It is important to realize that project management is a recession-proof discipline. Even in times of deteriorating economy, it matters more as it helps businesses zero in on the projects that are most worth their effort and scant budget dollars. Today, project management is regarded as the most in-demand skills for businesses and industries worldwide.

What are some of the major challenges facing companies today with how they manage projects?

While the project management software is scattered across a wide spectrum, you'll be amazed to know that a majority of businesses aren't using one. Most of them still rely on manual methods or use a non-pm software such as Microsoft Office or Google Apps. Thus the challenges they face are plenty including:

  • A struggle to gain visibility into their projects and stay on top of them at all times.
  • Not having a clear picture of who's doing what and not able to utilize their resources effectively.
  • Businesses are also struggling with getting their entire team on the same page. They are grappling with day-to-day management of work items, setting priorities, collaboration and improving productivity of the team.
  • Issues are further compounded when processes and workflows aren't standardized across groups.
  • Version-control issues or errors due to manual data entry or duplicate data in multiple systems is another major challenge.
  • Reporting turns out to be a nightmare for organizations, as they lack a central repository for all their project related data.
  • Seamless, transparent and real-time updates to customers is another area that is a growing challenge for most businesses.

What are the must-have tools or resources for effective project management today?

By definition, no two projects are the same. And further, no two project managers handle things exactly in the same way. Therefore it is important to identify and define key tools, techniques and resources to help manage projects effectively.

Project management is all about bringing people, tools and culture together. Having the right people being managed the right way is the crux of successful project outcomes.

Here are some of the tips, I'd call them principles or axioms for effective project management. This is something that we, at Celoxis, firmly believe is what makes for successful project management.

  • Don't start without a plan.
  • Set and manage priorities.
  • Build relationships with your team, clients and other stakeholders.
  • Establish a communication framework and encourage collaboration.
  • Strive to be leaders and not managers.
  • Add data to instinct and back your decisions with data.
  • Leverage technology effectively. Technology only complements processes, does not replace them.
  • Treat people as humans, not resources.
  • Create and propagate organizational culture.
  • Look up to those can inspire you.

What are best practices for using technology to help manage a project?

When was the last time you actually took a project plan printout and walked into a meeting? And when was it last you and your client sat face to face to physically sign-off the project charter? I bet you wouldn't remember it easily. Neither do I. With the Internet, expectations have changed.

Back in 2010, a prominent research group, IDG reported that almost 16 percent of the workforce was hyperconnected, which meant that they liberally used technology devices and applications for both personal and business use. IDG estimated this number to go well over 40 percent soon. And it probably has. The World Economic Forum predicts by 2020 there will be 50 billion networked devices. Google has changed the way people look for information. So then why not with our projects? Digital sign-offs or e-acceptance, real-time status information, always-on access, digital back-ups, cloud-based storage, social project management, visual project management, etc. ... are all evolving technology areas in project management.

Given all that's out there, businesses need to leverage technology effectively. As I mentioned before, technology is there to complement people and processes, not to replace them. So, in my opinion, it's not always prudent to jump onto every technology bandwagon. A formal technology acceptance exercise is the best way for adopting any technology into your mainstream projects without disrupting the normal course of business. Without this, your business could end up faltering and falling to the wayside.

I'll briefly highlight the main steps in the exercise:

  • Identify the project management problem or problems you are trying to solve with this new technology.
  • Tackle technology adoption as more of a cultural change.
  • As with everything, it should all start with your executives - to lead by example in the adoption of any new technology.
  • Convince your employees to use the new technology. Create internal champions.
  • Pilot this new technology before going mainstream.
  • Tackle employee training.
  • Monitor and measure adoption after it goes mainstream.

How can companies be more mindful about their use of technology? What do they need to know about achieving balance between tech tools and human capital?

In one of my older articles (read: The Human Side of Project Management), I have mentioned that with increased automation and use of technology, the people side of project management tends to get ignored more often than not. It is important to always remember this mantra

Project Management = People + Tools + Culture

This is the secret sauce to effective project management. With project management, people come first. Technology cannot replace human intellect. Technology is only an enabler so that we, as humans, can be more productive and more effective in our work. No doubt that technology has brought in a facelift to enterprise project management by offering more tools at hand, but the bottom line is that a successful project always has a great and supportive team behind it.

Companies need to have this careful and conscious amalgamation of people, tools and organizational culture.

In what areas do you find most organizations could improve how they manage projects? What are the most common weak points?

There are seven areas that are most common to failed projects:

Inaccurate project schedules
This is one of the commonly found reasons for failures. Creating a project schedule is a complex task. There are just too many parameters that go into it and schedules often change over the course and you need to constantly re-plan. You simply cannot rely on spreadsheets. You need a tool that gives you realistic schedules.

Overambitious scoping
How often have you been in a situation where your delivery leaders have promised to deliver the sun, moon and stars to the stakeholders, without having a complete picture of resource capacity, skills, budget constraints and timeline feasibility? Probably a bit too many times. Scoping is the foundation for a successful project and all parties involved need to set realistic expectations.

No or wrong success metrics
Every project has a goal or goals. And how do you measure them? Through some standard of measurement or metrics; business outcomes, costs, budgets, profitability, timelines, utilization, etc. to name a few. It is critical to choose and define the right metrics for your projects and weave them into a measurement system so that everybody gains visibility and stays updated on their projects.

Lack of risk management
A risk is an unexpected event that can negatively impact a project. It could affect people, processes, deliverables, technology or other non-human resources on the project. Risks are uncertain, which means you have no control on their occurrence. But, by being proactive in having a risk management strategy in place you can minimize their impacts. Without a proper risk management plan, a potential disaster is waiting to happen.

Lack of proper tools & processes
This is another area of concern for companies. Using no tools or using many tools is a sure shot recipe for productivity leak. Manual methods are prone to issues like version control and data errors while using too many tools can result in data duplication and reporting challenges. Imagine how projects that involve virtual teams, multiple stakeholders and complex workflows can ever be successful without streamlined processes and comprehensive PPM tools in place.

Skill gap
Getting the right team on a project is half the battle won. This is where the project managers need to be on top of things, constantly measure team utilization, identify skill gaps and try to fill them in. Working closely with your HR teams to develop a sound hiring methodology, and to have good training frameworks for skill enhancement will also ensure that the right people are available at the right time.

Accountability issues
Every person on the project needs to be accountable for his or her part of the project. More often than not what I have found that in projects across the board, the sense of awareness and belonging is grossly missing. When working in a team, towards a common project goal, it is important to understand how our task is contributing towards the greater good. It is important to realize that our actions have much bigger implications down the line.

Why should organizations incorporate metrics into project management?

As I highlighted before, without a proper system of measurement how would you define a project's success? Establishing metrics help define a successful outcome. Metrics also help businesses focus on what's important to them and thus help drive improvements to projects and processes.

Defining business, operational and financial metrics helps managers and executives to:

  • Assess the status of ongoing project in terms of schedule, cost, and profitability,
  • Check alignment with organizational strategy and direction,
  • Proactively identify whether something is going wrong,
  • Foresee any potential risks,
  • Keep track of team productivity,and
  • Help make data-driven decisions.

What tools, trends, innovations, headlines, etc. in the world of project management are you following right now? What interests you about them?

The world of project management is really exciting and continues to amaze us. As a discipline, it has evolved from different and diverse fields including defense, construction and engineering.

There are a number of trends that could reshape project management. The rise of BYOD, visual project management or social project management, for instance, is already making waves. Companies are finding new ways to improve management of projects through a fusion of social capabilities, collaboration, and high-end data visualization capabilities.

All in all, it's going towards a data-first enterprise. Further, with remote teams becoming the new normal, it's time to master Virtual project management and seamless communication across the project lifecycle is going be the challenge to address. Increasing adoption of project management concepts into many non-pm areas such as marketing and sales is another shift that is widely seen across organizations. Businesses across the board are adopting project management principles covering their breadth and are structuring teams around project complexity.

The role of PM is now moving from being a just a coordinator to more strategic global roles, leading strategic teams and delivering multi-million dollar projects. According to PMI, with this increased focus on bridging the gap between strategy and execution, portfolio and programme management are emerging as key components and by all probabilities will become an organizational mandate over the next couple years.

On the software front, with the proliferation of OpenStack technologies, businesses will soon move to the "Private" Cloud. This will culminate into a new option "On-Premise-on-the-cloud". This will entail "hosted" On-premise installations and therefore software providers will need to strengthen their value proposition for On-premise deployment going forward.

Two more trends that I recently came across and which seem quite fascinating: the impact of IoT on project management and the increasing need for design thinkers in project management. Both these trends are quite interesting, no doubt very early on, but hold the power to disrupt the traditional project management philosophy in the coming years.

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