The Inherent Risks of an External Project Manager

When it comes time to implement a new association management software (AMS) system, many associations will seek outside assistance with project management (I know, because I offer this type of service to my clients!).

Seeking outside assistance can make sense, both from a skills perspective (i.e., the association may not have good project management skills on staff) and a staff-time perspective (i.e., staff having enough time to take care of everything required).

But there are also inherent risks to using an external project manager. Here are three of the most significant:

  1. Depending too much on an external project manager (PM) can inhibit the ability of staff to build a solid relationship with the vendor. As I’ve discussed in many other places, the relationship with your AMS vendor is unlike almost any other customer/vendor relationship. It is a marriage, and an external project manager can create obstacles to strengthening that relationship.
  2. Relying too much on the external PM can create a crutch for staff and weaken staff’s troubleshooting ability. With an external PM, it’s very tempting for staff to simply ask the PM for help when staff runs into a hurdle, rather than rolling up their sleeves and really learning the system.
  3. And finally, relying too much on the external PM can limit long-term buy-in on the system (and the vendor) by staff. Just like #1 above, with an external PM serving as a go-between, there is a risk that staff will not build the relationships necessary for the long-term, because of the “middleman” that exists in the project.

So what can you do if to avoid these traps?

First, I always recommend (and vendors typically do, too), that if an external project manager is being used, there needs to also be an internal staff person designated as project manager. You simply cannot delegate ALL project management to an external party; someone on staff needs to share that responsibility.

Second, even if you’re using an external PM, make sure staff stays engaged with the project and the vendor throughout. Do NOT use the external PM as a gatekeeper between the vendor and association staff. The external PM should be augmenting, not replacing.

And finally, understand that the success of your project, more than anything else, depends on staff engagement. An external PM can provide a lot of value to the implementation phase of your project, but only the staff can build the relationship with the vendor that must last for years if not decades.

As I always tell my clients: “Once this is done, I get to leave; but you’ve got to use this system for years!” So don’t let your external PM become an obstacle to your long-term success.

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