Starting in the Middle

Marc Plooster is an Accountant for the County of Ottawa, MI. Prior to joining Ottawa County, he worked for the City of Grand Rapids, MI in multiple roles including as a John H. Logie Fellow.
Have you ever been invited to a meeting only to find out the other invitees have met multiple times before? Have you ever been asked to provide your input on a project after a lot of time an effort has already been spent on it by others? Have you ever started one project only to realize multiple prerequisite projects must be completed first?

There are certain circumstances where starting in the middle is unavoidable. For instance, you are a new hire and you are being invited to a process because it concerns your area(s) of responsibility. The working group would like you to be aware of the project and offers you an opportunity to provide input. Specific examples from my own experience include projects that began before my hiring a year and a half ago that are still in the development phase. Also important to know, ten months ago, I took over maintenance of our accounts receivable setup, and recently have been included in conversations over two projects. The first is a judicial software project four years in the making, and the other project is a cashiering software upgrade ongoing a year and a half.  

Other situations arise where, central departments; including executive, finance, human resources, corporate counsel or facilities; are not involved in projects until final approval and implementation need to occur. Despite what some departments may think, central departments may need to be aware of projects earlier in their development to get a sense of the project’s impact on the organization. The impact may include already tight budget constraints, board approval and how it ties to the organization’s mission. Before a project has involved a lot of employee time and promises made to internal and external stakeholders, central departments may need to consider the impact to administrative capacities such as grant reporting, payroll processing, personnel costs, legal restrictions, and facilities requirements.

Before introducing any methods of reducing starting in the middle, it is critical for organizations to realize mid-starts are occurring.
Sometimes projects start in the middle not because of departments’ failure to communicate, but because it is not evident a project needs to begin somewhere else until the process gets underway. In other situations, it is time prohibitive to work on one project without first completing a different project. At the same time I took over maintenance of accounts receivable setup, I took over cash account balancing. While reviewing the two separately, I determined the setup of both our pooled cash accounts and accounts receivable structure are flawed. Before updating pooled cash, all changes the chart of accounts should be made. If the order is reversed, in this example, a second round of pooled cash updates will need to be made.

Following pooled cash, the accounts receivable structure can be modified without having to make multiple reconfigurations. If the order is reversed between any two steps, there will be redundant work. Once the accounts receivable structure is modified, upgrading security can be completed, which will allow the cashiering system to be upgraded, allowing multiple third-party software, including the judicial software, to integrate with our financial system.

There are undoubtedly other situations that arise where one begins a project in the middle of the process. If approached correctly, the number of mid-starts could be reduced. Before introducing any methods of reducing starting in the middle, it is critical for organizations to realize mid-starts are occurring. In some organizations, the structure of departments and general project management is reinforcing starting in the middle. For the short list of circumstances listed above, there are ways to reduce their frequency while creating additional benefits.

Comprehensive and complete onboarding tailored to specific roles is one example of a best practice that may also reduce mid-starts. While it won’t eliminate mid-starts for new hires, tailored onboarding would catch up the new hire to the current tasks of a project. Proper training would allow her to become more familiar with the government’s specific processes. Had I been properly introduced to our financial management software and been provided a reliable resource for how our organization uses the software, I would have been able to better acclimate to the additional accounts receivable maintenance tasks. Proper training would have also given me specific detail of the interrelationship of how accounts receivable setup impacts security.

Just as well-designed onboarding has multiple benefits, when organizations break down traditional silos, multiple benefits are achieved. Many organizations struggle with departments that act as though they are in their own silo when they should have a fluid relationship. Starting dialogues early with departments affected by a project means fewer surprises should fall solely on one department. Additionally, multiple departments can work together to ensure the project meets all of its goals. To understand the relationship a project will have with central departments and the full impact of a project, non-management roles should be included in the project planning from the beginning. Often, non-managers among various departments work closer than managers of the same departments. When silos are torn down, managers should find it easier to create the relationships non-management roles have with other outside their department.

While on its face similar to less siloed communication, a disparate improvement to identify all necessary project before initiating a specific projects would be fore organizations to hold a pre-planning meeting. Holding brief pre-planning meetings with many department representatives may help identify prerequisite projects before getting deep into planning. Scheduling brief meetings in advance and sticking to brevity will make these meetings most effective. When implementing new or upgrading existing systems, ensuring proper setup will reduce the chances for future mid-starts because of prerequisite projects.  Often projects are conceptualized, planned, and approved by management while implemented by non-management roles. Non-management roles may be area experts and understand interrelationships better than managers. They should be invited to project planning as soon as possible to identify connections involving other system. When fully implemented with multiple projects ongoing, non-manager will be another actor able to remind all invitees of existing project of importance.

Just as the list included above of reasons why you may start a project in the middle is not exhaustive, the ways one may improve the process is certainly not either. Unfortunately, by the time a project has started in the middle, it is too late correct the issue. The goal becomes to implement best practices. Amazingly, when general best practices are followed, the reasons why a mid-start happens are reduced. To put it another way, the most generic and comprehensive way to mitigate starting in the middle is to simply start implementing organization wide improvements.  

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