with Kris Sprague
“How to Improve Forecasting by 98%”
Kris is the head of program and project planning at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. He is an executive-level professional with extensive experience in building and leading project management organizations and PMOs that assist business leaders in achieving their strategies.
In 2021, he was recognized by the PMO Global Alliance as one of the top four PMO leaders in America and one of the world’s top 16. He’s a highly talented leader and has an advanced master’s degree in project management and over a dozen professional certifications from organizations such as the Project Management Institute, and the PMO GA.
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Highlights from Episode 145: “How To Improve Forecasting By 98%” with Kris Sprague
Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
I currently work at Regeneron. We’re a pharmaceutical company or biotechnology company and my focus there is around program and project planning and really helping them provide more accurate forecasts regarding the clinical trials that we conduct. I have probably about 300 projects and maybe about 50 programs within the portfolio. And so there’s a lot of moving parts and really trying to ensure that the forecasts are as accurate as possible.
And how did you get started in project management? Was there something that you knew you always wanted to do? Or is it true that the career path that you just diverged on and it just led to this destination?
After receiving my bachelor’s degree in computer and information sciences, I embarked on a software engineering career. The projects that I worked on at that time, I guess you would characterize them as being chaotic as they always ran into problems. And this really, I would say sparked my interest in pursuing a career in project management. I felt I could do a better job at managing the projects than the people that were managing them.
At that time, project management really wasn’t a profession. I wondered to myself “How does one become a professional project manager?” One of the first thoughts that came to mind was to continue my education. So, I developed software during the day on a full-time basis and attended graduate school at night. Within a few years, I obtained two graduate degrees. The first one is in information management and expert systems. The second was a master’s in business administration.
After graduating, my project management career was officially launched when I accepted a position at a company that provided project management services to the federal government. I had a few different government agencies as my clients and I managed projects for them. I would say that I got really good at delivering projects and then looked for my next challenge which was managing programs. I did that for a few years and then went on to build and lead several project management organizations and PMOs in various industries.
In addition, I advised clients along the way on how to build a PMO. I also continued my education and obtained an advanced master’s degree in project management. I served as the president of one of the Project Management Institute chapters. I think most of the listeners of this podcast have probably heard about accidental project managers and I guess I was the intentional professional project manager.
How did you manage to actually work and do your academics at the same time?
Time management skills came into play definitely. Trying to balance out work, school, and family, all that time, and yeah, just made it happen as quickly as possible within a few years.
What is a PMO? And what its function in an organization is?
A PMO can refer to a portfolio, a program, or a project management office. A PMO really represents a management structure that standardizes the governance processes and facilitates the sharing of resources, methodologies, tools, and techniques. A PMO may be established for a department, a division, a business unit, or for the enterprise. Organizations establish PMOs for a variety of reasons. But the major benefit that they want to have is typically improvement in their project management in regards to better schedules, containing costs, improved quality, and reducing risk. Those are the primary factors.
PMOs have many potential roles in aligning work with strategic goals, engaging and collaborating with stakeholders, helping to develop talent within the organization, and realizing value from investment in projects. PMOs really create value in a number of ways. Delivering projects under budget, increasing customer satisfaction, improving productivity, and decreasing the number of failed projects. So, these are some of the benefits that a PMO would bring to an organization.
Would you be able to explain what exactly the Center Of Excellence is and what has been your biggest challenge in building it? And what lessons have you learned?
Let me start with a standard or textbook definition for the Center Of Excellence. And then we can talk about the specifics with this COE, for short. So, when you think of the Center Of Excellence, the definition is really a place where the highest standards are maintained. Gartner, which is a global research and advisory firm, actually describes the Center Of Excellence as concentrating existing expertise and resources in a discipline or capability, to attain and sustain world-class performance value.
The Project Management Institute actually defines the COE as supporting the execution of project work by equipping the organization with methodologies, standards and tools to enable project managers to better deliver projects. So, regardless of what definition you want to line to, the COE is really meant to address any gaps or inconsistencies with the project management processes that are being applied within the organization. So when I started this effort, the focus or goal really was to improve forecasting accuracy across the global portfolio.
The scheduling tool that we were using was Microsoft Project Online, and Microsoft Project Professional, and the previous state was that the schedules did not provide accurate forecasts. The root cause of this problem was that they did not contain the necessary logic to model the work to be performed and the time it took to perform the work. So, what did my team was, we re-engineered the schedules and implemented a technique known as forecast scheduling, and this approach requires the schedule by itself to produce accurate forecasts on a continuous basis. In other words, it’s a dynamic model.
The logic in the schedules works very similar to the way a global positioning system would work in your automobile, indicating that you’re going to arrive at your destination in x amount of time. The same is true with the way that we’ve developed the schedules. In regard to challenges, yes, we most definitely faced some challenges along the way, and if I had to think about it, there are probably three challenges.
The first one was getting buy-in from executives and I would term them, sceptical stakeholders, to function well, Centers Of Excellence need buy-in from the top to get them planted and implemented Management must understand how businesses will benefit and they have to commit to signing resources to the team in order to make it happen. In my experience, it can take many conversations and many hours to get buy-in and support from executives and sceptical stakeholders. So, that was really the first challenge.
The second challenge I encountered was acquiring resources with advanced skills and knowledge. When I first started, I determined that the internal resources didn’t have advanced proficiency in using the chosen scheduling tools. So, what I would do was to build my team with external resources and I encountered several problems along the way that I’m going to share with you.
The first problem was recruiting Microsoft Project experts with experience in the biotechnology pharmaceutical industry. Many of the companies in this industry use commercial off-the-shelf software products, such as Planisware, Planview or Clarity as a scheduling tool. So it was kind of like searching for a unicorn to locate Microsoft Project experts who also had a background in drug development.
The second problem was taking a look at Microsoft Project experts from other industries that do a lot of scheduling. What I found there is that companies in industries such as construction, engineering, oil and gas, and professional services, predominantly use Primavera. So, hiring a resource that is an expert in Primavera, doesn’t help you when you need an expert in Microsoft Project?
The third problem was really all about location. The company that I work for is headquartered in Tarrytown, New York. For those of you who don’t know where Tarrytown is located, it is approximately 30 miles or 48 km north of New York City and is adjacent to the Hudson River. The location is both an advantage and a disadvantage when trying to recruit resources. Being this close to New York city provides people with access to everything the city offers.
However, living in Westchester county is one of the most expensive areas to live in the United States. In addition, snow is usually on the ground six months out of the year, between November and March. So, the location may be a deterrent for people who prefer living and working somewhere that has warm weather on a year-round basis. I would like to say that this is no longer a problem as my team is now 100% virtual.
I did also encounter a third challenge and which is demonstrating value. The value that is generated by a PMO, or a COE is elusive at best. It’s often hidden in improvements and efficiencies that are intangible and hard to measure. Value like beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the PMO or Center of Excellence, may think it is providing great utility, but do your stakeholders think so? The only way to find out is to ask them the question “Are we providing value to you?” So, to summarize, those were really the three challenges that I encountered building the Center Of Excellence.
Why does the modern Project Manager have to have more rounded soft skills than a traditional PM? And could you explain what some of these soft skills might be?
So, one of the biggest soft skills that I think is needed is the area of influencing and I think from a project management perspective really the trend that we’re seeing is that organizations are dealing with remote work, right? And that’s going to become permanent for some percentage of employees. In other cases, you’re going to have people or employees of an organization working in a hybrid model, and others are going to be in the office 100% of the time, five days a week.
There’s also a challenge for the project managers because they have to deal with resources that may be working remotely. Other resources are working hybrid. Other resources are working on-site. What I basically see in that area it is that soft skills would be all the, looking at it from a standpoint of how do you influence the stakeholders, a lot of the projects that are going to be done in the future are going to involve resources that are outside the team, meaning, customers or stakeholders.
As a result, these project managers are going to need to have very good interpersonal and communication skills. Not only the technical skills that are needed to drive the actual project. I think mastering the triple constraint, scope, time, and cost, is kind of the minimum standard, but it’s really taking on advanced learning and being able to apply these soft skills, in addition to the technical skills, in order to really be a well-rounded project manager.
Connect with Kris on LinkedIn here
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