Insight No.23 : Jan 2011 : Fresh Start : How to be More Effective in 2011A Marathon Transformation at New York Road Runnersby Mark Davis
How structured are your vetting processes? When people want to make changes to the product or service your organization delivers, how specific are the business plans used to evaluate the worthiness of that proposal and how well do the proposed changes get communicated to those that may be affected? The New York Road Runners has seen up close how chaos can wreak havoc with operations when program changes go unchallenged. What the group has learned in the process of tightening up its vetting processes has helped ensure that its events - including the high-profile ING New York City Marathon - stays on course. Along the way, Road Runners has demonstrated how pace setters continually work to improve their performance.
Road Runners promotes the sport of competitive running among its 40,000-plus members. This non-profit group annually puts on 50 or more events, including its flagship marathon, which takes place on the first Sunday in November and accepts over 50,000 participants every year. Yet, while it's the leader for the road racing industry, the organization continues to best itself. That includes continually expanding its race portfolio, such as by adding triathlons.
Pulling off a major event like the ING New York City Marathon requires a tremendous amount of planning and coordination. This coordination is not only internal to Road Runners, but across stakeholder groups including sponsors, partners, professional athletes, and nearly every city agency and department in New York. The planning challenge for this event is very real - missing the deadline simply isn't an option.
Road Runners has been hosting the marathon for over 40 years, so there are some great reservoirs of institutional knowledge. However, like all great events, Road Runners pushes itself to maintain a competitive edge. New ideas are continually thrown in the hopper, and old ones - such as technological enhancements - are reviewed for improvement. That in turn means Road Runners is constantly experiencing its share of growing pains.
The growth has placed a lot of burden on the technology department, which manages a variety of systems developed over the years to support operations. Oftentimes, system requirements are changed at the last minute to accommodate a new business rule or new stakeholder, such as a sponsor. These requests for modifications can come from any direction as well - an Americans with Disabilities Act requirement from Legal or a logistical selection from Events, for example.
Most of the requirements are high priority, and they've traditionally been done without much visibility into the downstream impact of the change. As in any enterprise, cross-department communication could at times be inadequate. Planning for work that would be passed across departments often included assumptions that other departments were aware of deadlines, constraints, and requirements.
People weren't conditioned at Road Runners to identify interdependencies in proposed changes. Additionally, nobody had ever really measured time or budget estimates against actuals.
Staying on top of the systems work required by the multiple changes led to mounting frustration within the technology department. To help with marathon and other race efforts, what IT needed was a change in procedures.
Managing IT Projects
Pcubed was brought in to implement a new process for managing and prioritizing IT projects. After assessing the workflow, the firm's first step in corralling the process was to establish a framework to serve as ground rules for starting an IT project. This spanned development of a request process that included creation of documents all the way through to a project plan. The project team set in place a requirement that business managers analyze their requests and weigh benefits. (This was a particular challenge because the business units aren't charged for technology services.)
As a result, now, some project requests are turned away, others are canceled by the project requester, and those that are approved tend to move through the development lifecycle with fewer issues or change requests. Also, the request process has made business units much more aware of what IT is doing. That, in turn, has resulted in improved satisfaction rates with technology services.
Within the framework the organization has established stage gates - phases at which a decision to continue or stop work on the project has to be made. For example, one stage gate requires an improved business analysis showing that the project is in line with the goals of the business. The approval process was designed specifically for the executive team to stop surprises from vexing other business units.
Another significant objective of the framework involves resource planning. Previously, work was reactive. It could be initiated with an email thread that suggested a tweak - or even an overhaul - to an existing application. Priority was frequently given to the squeakiest wheel. Now, the IT team begins to estimate resource usage at the start of a project and thus has a better sense of its ability to meet project obligations. The intent is to control work inflow by assessing resource supply against demand and better allocate resources.
For project execution, Pcubed focused on improving team collaboration via implementation of SharePoint 2007, a collaboration and document management application from Microsoft. Major programs such as the ING New York City Marathon have dedicated sites and sub-sites reflecting the various workstreams involved. The new approach has made cross departmental milestones more visible and milestone and schedule management more universal and consistent. Now stakeholders have a more systematic way to get project status.
Though we created all sites and subsites using a template, site owners are given license to leverage the various capabilities of the tool as needed. This fit-for-purpose approach allows business managers and their teams to grow into the system at a controlled and independent pace.
The organization has undergone significant improvement in project document control. Various departments can reference a formal document and identify a single point of contact for a development project. Team meetings have more effective participation through increased visibility to scheduling. And the long email threads that previously served as a project's initiation and planning process have gone by the wayside.
Change has been hard however. Although some people were quite willing and anxious to reduce the pain of unplanned IT work, others preferred to avoid changing their processes. So we relied on brute force from department heads to make sure people were brought into the new procedures.
We knew the project was a success when IT was able to launch a major registration application for a new event in just a couple of months, fully tested and meeting specifications.
The Value of Improving Performance
The combination of process improvements and the introduction of new tools, such as SharePoint, have resulted in an integrated program execution framework for Road Runners. This framework provides key elements that enhance Road Runners' current and future event execution capacity. Some of the benefits include:
- Increased cross functional integration to better understand interdependencies and related schedules. The transparency of published schedules leads to greater accountability.
- Improved project team collaboration, in which SharePoint-based sites can serve a team as a repository for artifacts and a place for logging risks, making announcements, and posting calendar events.
- Enhanced visibility into resource allocation in order to better manage demand from a staff perspective.
- Introduction of project management best practices among business managers who act as project managers and their functional teams to improve risk and issue management and schedule control.
- Improved program oversight by the organization's leadership team.
The work that Road Runners did with Pcubed significantly increased the likelihood of success for a complex and challenging event. The organization estimates that two million people line the race course to cheer on runners and 315 million additional people watch the event on television each year. The eyes of the world are watching, which leaves no room for error. Road Runners' efforts to improve its operations demonstrate that it's a contender that can go the distance.
Mark Davis is a Senior Consultant with Pcubed, based in New York. He works in a variety of industries, including event management, federal government, consumer goods, and financial services, always with a focus on helping clients improve their program, project and project portfolio management practices. Prior to working at Pcubed, Mark managed service product development projects with a major international technology company. Contact Mark at email@example.com.