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How to Manage Communications Implementation

Written by Stephenie Slahor

If you’re implementing a communications project, you are a manager. As such, you have to play the roles of project coordinator, go-between with your agency and the vendor, and overseer of the steps toward successful implementation. It sounds daunting, but it’s not impossible. It just takes good planning.

So says Thomas Mahon, president and principal of Wireless Consulting (tom@wireless-consulting.org). He was a featured speaker at the International Wireless Communications Expo. His consulting work is based on his more than 30 years of experience in public safety communications, first with the U.S. Coast Guard, then for local and state government agencies in Oregon. For the past few years, he has been managing the new Wyoming statewide public safety communications project “WyoLink,” a VHF, Project 25, digital, trunked radio system capable of supporting all public safety agencies in Wyoming.

Mahon said anyone taking on the work of a project manager needs a “road map” of the key components of the project plan, along with the ability to identify project risks and the strategies to mitigate those risks.

“Every project has a project manager,” he said, whether the manager is de facto or formally appointed. That manager must look at the project, organize its pieces, and deal with all its aspects. The manager, Mahon said, is “the face of the project,” the person to whom everyone with questions will turn for answers. Whether the question comes from the agency, a contributor, a vendor, a legislator, the media or the public, the project manager must have answers and explanations, and he must possess the ability to speak to an audience of any size, with little or no notice.

The project manager often functions as a translator, Mahon said, summarizing and translating technical information and converting it into language understandable by anyone who has a question or who needs an explanation. Mahon added that the project manager must tell the truth, even if it hurts and even if it’s not popular. “Do right for the customer, and do right for the vendor,” he said, and be “a leader to the people on the project team.”

How is that done? Mahon said he uses this alliterative jingle to point the way: “Proper planning prevents poor performance.” Scope, quality, scheduling, and budgeting are just some of the tasks to consider in planning. “The path you establish during project planning and procurement is the one you will walk during implementation,” Mahon said.

He likened project management to the carnival game of “Whack A Mole” in which pop-up toys randomly rise to taunt the game player. The project manager must “keep an eye on the big picture while holding back the onslaught of little details that demand attention and cannot be ignored,” he said. Those “pop-ups” cannot be allowed to distract from the big picture.

The project manager must know the contract’s terms and requirements so if questions or problems arise, the contract can be consulted to show what agreement was made, and those terms must be followed.

“Every project involves too many details,” Mahon said, so the project manager must keep lists for such tasks as work to be done, budget, contacts, scheduling requirements, and responsibilities. Like Santa, the project manager makes the lists and checks them twice, Mahon said. A project breaks down into tasks and sub-tasks, and the manager must keep track of all steps.

As a “bean counter,” the project manager is the chief administrator of the money—knowing the source of the funds and resources and knowing where they are going. “You need to know the data,” said Mahon. He advised having a spreadsheet with a budget, or working with the accounting team to know the facts.

Team leading is yet another function of the project manager, he said. Consensus is not always obtainable, but decisions have to be made. The project manager can shepherd the team through the process and explain the options and/or solutions to problems. “You need to be a people person,” said Mahon, and be a team leader that guides the tasks and the people involved in them.

Mahon said the project manager must always keep the completed project in mind. That way, the manager can look at the present situation and know what it needs to make the project or its steps reality, managing the details to get there. “This ability distinguishes the gifted from the capable, and the artist from the mechanic,” Mahon said. “The job of a project manager is not to build a public safety radio communications system. The project manager’s job is to steer the process and deal with issues so that other people can build a public safety radio communications system. A good project manager is a master enabler.”

“Every project has three common elements, whether it is an IT project or a public safety radio project,” he said, terming those elements as the “Big 3.” They focus on: what to do—the scope of the project and the “deliverables” the project will produce; when to do it—the schedule of the project and how long it will take; and how much it will cost to get it done—the budget of the project and the resources, including money, required for the project.

“A crucial task for the project manager is to clarify stakeholder priorities,” Mahon said. If, for example, the stakeholders establish the scope of the project as the first priority, and budget as the second, they must then be guided to accept adjustments to the schedule of the project when those adjustments are required. Putting the three elements in priority order and incorporating that in the project charter are necessary for the project manager to be able to function effectively.

“There comes a point in any project when you cannot fight reality,” Mahon said. Some problems cannot be solved regardless of how much money is thrown at them, such as the amount of time needed to gain approval for a site on federal land. “There is a point where additional funding, and even political pressure, will not move that process any faster,” he said. Also, there may be such problems as a designated archaeological site that cannot be used for a tower or building. These points cause what Mahon termed “diminishing returns” and must be dealt with in other ways.

Parallel to the “Big 3” are four other issues that must be managed, Mahon said. The first is team morale and the leadership and interpersonal skills the manager must use. The second is risk management—identifying and planning for problems in advance so that they can be prevented or lessened. The third is communications by which the project manager gets the right information to the right people, on time. And the fourth is administration / finance in which the paperwork is managed and moved along to keep everything on task. Mahon said, “These four issues are important because most every problem will fall in one of these categories.”

Mahon next defined an outline for defining the sequence of a project and its phases. INITIATION builds support and sponsorship for the project or a step of the project. PLANNING evaluates alternatives and builds consensus among those involved in the project or its step. PROCUREMENT selects a vendor and contracts for the goods and services necessary. IMPLEMENTATION details design, staging and installation of the items procured.

TRAINING transfers skills to users and technicians (Mahon stated that the RFP should include terms that require the vendor to provide and start training). CLOSURE completes the outline with testing, documentation, and the establishing of maintenance processes. Each phase requires somewhat different skills from the manager, Mahon said.

After the Big 3 and the related, parallel issues are set, the actual project plan can be developed and written, Mahon said. The plan is “the best way to prevent problems during implementation,” he said, and this is, therefore, where much effort must be invested.

Mahon explained that the manager must define the operational requirements, document the existing system, analyze technical alternatives against the realities of the situations, develop budget, schedule and funding strategies, identify project risks and plan mitigation for those risks, and finalize consensus strategy.

The first part of the project plan should be a one-page “executive summary” that focuses on the “why” rather than the “what” of the project. Akin to a sales pitch, the summary is for those who may be commissioners, legislators, and others not directly involved with the project, but who need to have information to decide whether the project should be funded. “Make your best points,” Mahon advised. “Make them short. Use big fonts.”

Second is the “business case” in which explanations are given for why certain choices were made in the planning process. The focus should be on cost-benefit analysis. Senior staff members will use the business case to determine if the project plan makes sense from a financial perspective. Longer than the executive summary, the business case tells “how your ducks will be in a row,” said Mahon, proving that the identified problems will be addressed by the project in the most cost-effective manner.

Third is the operational requirements portion of the plan, which serves as a non-technical explanation of what the users need in order to make the communications system work for them. This portion of the project plan needs acceptance by the command staff and should be easily understandable by them and the front-line responders. It says who uses the system and why.

Fourth is the gap analysis in which the current system’s gap from the current requirements is stated. The existing radio system’s functionality is discussed, and the project is depicted as improving operational requirements, emphasizing reliability and availability. Mahon said, “If the current system does everything the users need, but it is getting tired and falling apart, then the gap is one of maintainability.”

The fifth section is for technical alternatives. It will probably be longer than the preceding portions because it evaluates the heart of the project. Budget and schedule issues will also be part of this alternatives evaluation. Because this part of the project plan will be intense reading, many will skim it. Mahon suggested that if the material is too long, put it in a separate binder or appendix, and just offer a summary in the project plan.

Sixth are the technical specifications, flowing naturally from the technical alternatives section. It will describe the specifications that define the scope of the project. Mahon added that this section feeds into the procurement process.

Seventh is risk assessment and strategy. Problems identified and documented during the planning process are described, along with strategies for overcoming them. Also, cost variations can be included. Mahon suggested rating the likelihood of the risk factor as 1=low, 2=medium, and 3=high. Rate its impact should it occur as 1=low, 2=medium, and 3=high. Next, multiply the likelihood by the impact. All those risk factors scoring 4 or above warrant an action plan.

Risk response options are: AVOIDANCE by changing the project plan to eliminate the likelihood of the risk and thus protect the project objectives from the impact of the risk; TRANSFERENCE by which the consequences or ownership are shifted to a third party to make the risk someone else’s responsibility; MITIGATION in which early action is taken to reduce the probability of risk or to minimize its impact—more effective than trying to repair the consequences after the risk occurs; and ACCEPTANCE in which those project risks that cannot be avoided or mitigated are given a contingency plan to follow if the risk occurs in the budget, schedule or scope of the project (allow extra time / money, or accept that some goals may not be met and work around that).

Mahon said there are stops that can occur in a project. For example, getting leases from the federal government might be a problem, and it may be easier to negotiate with a private landowner. “No land, no radio sites,” Mahon said. He said federal leases can be held for years before you build. “Get your leases in place.” Another example of a stop is spectrum problems. “No frequencies, no radio,” he said.

You must have useable frequencies in the desired band, so you must do a spectrum availability analysis. You can license for extended development, which gives you five years to build, otherwise you have only one year to build. And yet another example of a stop is funding, but Mahon said that’s the easiest to solve. “No money, no project,” he said, but funding may come with time limits for encumbrance.

Eighth is the project budget. Mahon recommended a “range” rather than exact numbers. Until the bidding process is done, the final budget cannot be fixed.

List the low, high and likely numbers (Mahon called this “three-number budgeting”). The span between low and high represents the number of variables, and placement of likely numbers is an expression of the risk level, especially if the project has never been done before. “It’s a guess,” said Mahon, “a best estimate.” But listing all three budget numbers gives a more honest assessment of the project costs.

Ninth is the project schedule, which can be presented as a timeline or a table, but Mahon advised being realistic and not trying to promise more than can be delivered. Like the budget, the time projections should be a span, not definite numbers.

Among the appendix materials for the project plan can be a traceability matrix reference document that column lists, point by point, each of the operational requirements. Another column lists the technical specification addressing each requirement. Intermediate columns can provide a look back at the planning process.

This traceability matrix is a tool for looking back at the planning process to understand how a given requirement was either included or deleted. Mahon said that, when drafting procurement documents, the traceability matrix should be updated with another column to ensure that all features and requirements are included in the procurement documents.

“People are the project,” Mahon said. “You need people. Project management is about people. There are many roles in planning and executing a communications project, and they will include full- and part-time workers.

Among them might be a sponsor, purchasing agent, contract attorney, accountant, real estate specialist, utilities specialist, property inventory specialist, safety officer, architect, electronics engineer, spectrum engineer, civil engineer, structural engineer, electronics technologist, tower crew, fabrication mechanic, and clerical staff. Each has special skills for the project and will bring multiple issues that will converge in the project.

Mahon said people deserve realistically achievable goals and will quit if the goals seem unachievable or not contributing to the whole of the project. They also need resources sufficient to the task. The project manager must be sure they have the tools they need. Communication must be clear and meaningful so that people know what is to be done, how to do it, and when it must be finished.

Compensation must be appropriate to the skills, effort and quality expected. And individual value, effort and achievement must be recognized. The project manager must be proactive, regarding those involved in the project as followers, not subordinates. Doing so makes the project attainable because it has the contributions and willing cooperation of everyone involved in it.

Mahon advised drafting a “project charter” to define roles, responsibilities, communication requirements and other project processes. Remember the project’s history in its initiation and planning and in the interest groups that have pushed for the project, he advised. That helps in handling shifting priorities and requirements that may arise.

Mahon said, “Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from making mistakes. Learn from other people’s mistakes. The bigger the project, the more experience matters.”

He added, “Know your users and what they want. Go to them in person, not through a survey.” Surveys often yield only incomplete information, and some people don’t want to respond to them. Contact other agencies that have done similar projects and learn from their experiences, finding out what choices they made and what they would have done differently, given hindsight. Use professional networks for advice and feedback, and contract with a qualified consulting firm to help with the planning process.

“It is better to plan for the ultimate system and then scale back for implementation, rather than building small and planning to expand,” said Mahon.

Do good frequency planning through a spectrum availability analysis. “Frequency planning for trunking is different than for conventional radio,” he said, involving more interference analysis than any other system. Transmit Noise and Receiver Desensitization calculations are not sufficient. You must calculate total isolation between every transmitter and receiver on the tower. “Different bands have different costs,” he added. With VHF, there may be more expense for antennas and combiners than with 800 MHz. Yet, if you want to interoperate with federal agencies, you will need some VHF elements.

Get structural analysis on all towers a year or more before you plan to install new antennas. Review and update site leases early in the project. Process site leases well in advance, especially if federal agencies are involved. “Everything takes longer than you think. Count on it and plan for it,” Mahon said.

Get resumes of the people to be assigned to the project and maintain the authority to review any key staff changes. Use a video projector so everyone can watch the editing of contract language. This saves time and bypasses having to print multiple documents. Require a safety plan. Mahon said, “Write the project plan as though you are going to respond to it and evaluate it.”

Turning to his case study of the WyoLink Project (www.wyolink. wy.gov), Mahon said Wyoming needed a statewide, interoperable project because emergency service providers had difficulty communicating with other agencies in both daily, and critical incident, communications. That difficulty caused risk and delay. Also, with the FCC mandate that all two-way radio systems transition to narrow-band operation, it was an appropriate time to eliminate existing equipment that was beyond its service life.

Mahon said the goal of WyoLink was stated as letting “emergency service providers be able to communicate with each other, as needed and as authorized, on a daily basis and during critical events.” He said the addition of “as needed and as authorized” gave the project more structure and control.

WyoLink integrates voice and data communications and provides improved coverage reliability. The P25 digital features include unit identification, emergency alarm and call, selective unit inhibit, encryption options (DES and/or AES), mobile data terminal options, and automatic vehicle location options. Because equipment isn’t the total answer, full lists of technician training and user training were included in the RFP and resulting contract.

As project manager, Mahon served in procurement, design and implementation. The Wyoming Department of Transportation handled site acquisition, site development (buildings and towers), digital microwave, frequency planning, and support and maintenance. Motorola Inc. had the low bid “by a significant amount,” said Mahon, and was in charge of radio, control, antennas and combining equipment, installation and integration services, and technician and user training resources.

The 17-member Wyoming Public Safety Communications Commission, established by the Wyoming legislature, was responsible for governance, policy and procedure, interagency and interstate relationships, and user training through “master trainers.” Getting users involved in the training as soon as possible was vital to the project, said Mahon.

Planning ran from 1999-2003, then, in October 2003, a consensus plan was adopted. In May 2004, Mahon was retained as project manager, and in July 2004, the RFP was published. In autumn of 2004, proposals were received and contract negotiations began, with the contract signed on Oct. 29. By March 2006, the pilot phase was completed. The project is now in the process of adoption of its various phases, and additional expansion to address specific coverage needs will occur until 2010. A state surplus financed the project.

Mahon said there were delays to the project, including that a tower contractor defaulted and later went bankrupt so the bonding company had to get another tower contractor. The master site room required expansion, with HVAC and electrical upgrades. Two million dollars had to be spent to do the changes in the frequency planning process to restructure and reassign frequencies. The Wyoming Department of Transportation Telecommunication unit suffered a 30% staff loss and problems in retention and recruiting. And there were site acquisition process delays.

Mahon said, “Planning and implementing a public safety communications project is a significant endeavor,” with cost and risk. “It is possible to spend a lot of money and a lot of time and not produce a communications system that meets the operational needs of those whose lives depend on it.” He concluded, “Good project management will address the risks and variables during planning and procurement processes. This does not guarantee that problems always be avoided, but it is the safest course to a successful project.”

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., J.D., writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2009

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