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The Most Important Tool in Managing Change Control -- The Change Board

May 31, 2008
Effectively managing change through a change control process is critical to the success of any project. For example let's say you have identified a feature that needs to be added to a software program for a customer. If that customer asks that the feature be changed, what impact will that have on your schedule, budget and how will it impact other development efforts?

Changes can come from many sources both internal and external and when this is repeated multiple times across a project, without proper change control in place, the project can quickly spiral out of control.

Change control is a disciplined approach to monitoring each suggested change, and assessing the impact of it on the schedule, budget and team.

Proper change control will:

-- Make sure changes are prioritized properly and make sure any work done is in scope for the project.
-- Allow the schedule and budget to be adjusted accordingly to avoid slippage and surprise delays.
-- Keep the team informed and proactive instead of reactive to changes.

One of the most effective parts of a solid change control process is the change board. While it is one of the easiest parts of the process, it is often not used properly, if at all. Simply put a change board is a meeting that occurs at regular intervals and on occasion on an ad hoc basis (although this should be avoided).

The purpose of the change board is to make sure the project status and any proposed changes are being openly reviewed by all stakeholders without the inevitable delay or filtering that can often occur with communicating project issues to the team. This creates intangible benefits while simultaneously informing the group of all decisions and status.

For example an engineer may bring up an obscure feature or an aspect of the software that a Marketing person hears about for the first time. They may see a way to sell this feature or may suggest a simple tweak that would make it more effective for another customer, etc.

The following will provide a brief overview of the change board, the benefits it can provide and some of the dos and don'ts.

1. All appropriate parties must be present:
A common mistake is not having someone present at the change board that needs to be. A change board must contain ALL of the stakeholders for the project in order for it to be effective. For software, the following would commonly be represented:

-- Engineering
-- Customer Service
-- Product managers
-- Project managers
-- Marketing
-- Sales

You may find that some individuals have little to say or do not seem to get meaningful information from most of the meetings. However resist the urge to start excluding them or allowing them to exclude themselves.

I remember a customer service rep who sat in each change board with his head down writing (sketching I think) for months without saying a word, until one day we were discussing an aspect of how our licensing scheme would work. He said he thought it may be incompatible with our current CRM system. Something we had never considered, and he was right. The issue probably wouldn't have been found until release and it would have caused delays and countless problems for our customers and staff. However by catching this early we were able to provide a simple fix, pre-release with no interruption to the schedule.

So make sure all parties are included in each and every meeting. If someone can't be there have another representative fill in for them or consider or postponing the meeting.

2. Promote honest and open discussion:
You can not have an effective change board if people are not willing to be completely honest in the meeting. Make sure everyone feels comfortable bringing up ideas, pointing out potential pitfalls, and questioning estimates. If an engineer is pressured into saying they can deliver something on time when they know they probably can't, the purpose of the change board has been subverted and you now have a schedule issue that has been buried and will appear later as a "surprise".

This may seem obvious but is actually where I have seen most change boards fail. Make sure all participants are aware that this is the meeting to bring up bad news, problems and concerns. Reward those who speak up and raise concerns and never react harshly to someone who brings up a problem or has made a mistake. Thank them for bringing this up during the meeting and if you must reprimand them do it outside of the meeting, with an emphasis on the fact that they did the right thing by bringing this up.

Beware of change boards that turn into "everything is fine" status meetings. Anyone who has spent any time on a software project or any project for that matter knows everything is rarely "fine". Keep everyone talking and keep asking hard questions until the issues start coming up more easily.

3. Note taking
It is critical that you have someone in the meeting who takes thorough notes and indicates the appropriate parties involved in the issues raised. Depending on the size of your organization a Project manager is normally the best person for this role. They can then follow up on them as needed until the next change board.

It is very important that these are followed up on and discussed each meeting. This helps show continuity and demonstrates that issues are being resolved. If you do not have a project manager you can either designate one person or rotate the responsibility each week, month, etc.

3. Common change board itinerary:
Here are some of the common tasks for each change board:

-- Bring up any announcements for the team.
-- Go around the table and check status with each person/group. This provides an opportunity for each group to update the rest of the team on any new issues, concerns and ask questions.
-- Review and discuss any new changes being recommended. Make sure each group gets a chance to respond and get clarity, ask questions, etc.
-- Assess the impact of these changes on each team and the budget and schedule.
-- Review the current list of tasks being worked on (features, etc.) Make sure everyone is clear on each, check status, schedule and discuss any outstanding issues

While these points may seem obvious and simple they are too often overlooked and adhering to them will make sure you get the most out of your change boards and they will have a positive impact on your projects.
About the Author
Randy is a founder and the CEO of Reel Logix Inc., developers of easy to use and powerful scheduling software like The Calendar Planner for appointment scheduling in general business and Reel Production Calendar in Film and Television production.
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