Planning for Department of Energy notification and the questions you must be ready to answer
When the Department of Energy calls will you be prepared to answer the questions that surely will follow?

There are several ways that you might receive the word: by snail mail, e-mail, or possibly by phone. But, you really didn’t think that the check would just be mailed, did you? No, notification will most likely be a “process” that your organization or city “experiences” over the next several weeks. The real issue is whether you have prepared yourself and your organization for the message that you are about to receive up to 50-percent matching funds for the new smart grid development within your service territory.

Notification of a successful smart grid grant award is just the first step. By that, I mean, when the Department of Energy (DOE) calls, will you be prepared to answer the questions that surely will follow? Will you be able to respond with a resounding “YES!” when asked the question: Are you ready to go? 

Similarly, how will you answer these questions?

  • Do you have a plan in place to move forward?
  • How will you manage and report on the grant award?
  • How far have you advanced the RFPs for each of the projects?
  • Can you accelerate any of them?
  • How soon will you begin spending dollars on each of the projects?

With that Boy Scout motto, “Always be prepared,” in mind, consider these proactive steps your organization can take—before that phone call or message hits your desk.

Review your project timelines
Think back to the hectic days just before August 6th, when you were trying to pull together all the pieces of a winning grant proposal. You likely proposed many projects, including some related to AMI, MDMS, distribution and/or substation automation, innovative TOU/CPP rate design, and the list goes on. How did you detail each of the projects? Did you do it in a careful and methodical manner, or was it hastily prepared?

What were the start and complete dates you originally selected for each of the projects? Are they realistic or should they be stretched a bit? Can you start them a bit earlier? Have you started the process of informing your board or upper management of options that might be employed? Anything you can do to expend capital funds earlier will be in your favor when talking to the DOE. Remember that you have just 36 short months to make all of this happen.

Create your project teams
Any project has three broad sets of constituents: (1) the immediate project team charged with implementation; (2) the surrounding stakeholders who influence, direct, or fund the project; and finally, (3) the individuals affected by the project’s implementation. Each group plays a different role and is involved at varying levels during a project’s life cycle.

You can increase project readiness by defining each of the team members now—if you haven’t done so already. Think about how project team selections will affect your internal staff. We all know that you want to pull your best business resources to make the project a success, but what about the hole they leave behind? Will you need to backfill their existing duties? Can you bring in contract help, or will you just try to spread the work around? Or, will that just cascade, causing more disruption than needed when everything else is shifting?

How will you define their roles and responsibilities? How critical are “soft” skills such as dealing with confrontation, gaining group consensus, or understanding team motivation – and can you identify and address these now, during this “quiet” period before everything shifts into high gear? These are not easy questions to address, and those associated with your employees’ soft skills are particularly well suited for third-party assistance. An independent perspective can prove invaluable in mitigating the obvious issues that those close to the organization tend to overlook. This is a good example of a situation in which one needs to lean on his or her organizational behavior training!

You also should take steps now to identify your various stakeholders, as they also will be involved in selecting or assigning project team members. Have you identified each stakeholder’s interests and level of involvement? Have you conducted a “stakeholder assessment” for each function – one that enables you to plan and manage their roles and responsibilities? Your stakeholders need to be the drivers of the project, not the obstacles to its success. Have you selected them to ensure this really happens?

While it’s early in the process, you also should be considering those who will be impacted by the project implementation. This includes identifying affected groups and outlining communication and training plans that will ensure they feel a part of what is happening. If those impacted feel they have a say in the outcome, they will likely be more supportive.

Define your project
Now that you have created your project team, identified your stakeholders, and assessed the impact on others in the organization, you can begin to define the project scope—or what is commonly known as a “project charter.” Taking the time to create project charters for each of the projects now will be instrumental in addressing the questions the DOE is sure to ask of you.

The degree of specificity in your project charters likely will be directly related to the proximity of the project. Projects slated to start in late 2010 will have fewer details now than those already moving forward. You might have an AMI RFP already on the street or in review and, as such, will have more details and facts available for insertion in your project charter.

Nevertheless, when the DOE calls, it will be very beneficial to be able to open your book of project charters for review. From that one set of documents, you should be able to demonstrate:

  • The project scope
  • All cost components
  • Tasks associated with the critical path
  • Any project risks that you have identified
  • Your key or essential personnel; those who will be doing the work
  • Your stakeholders and their roles and responsibilities
  • The project manager’s authority
  • Individuals/groups impacted by the project
  • Your communication plan
  • Start and completion dates
  • Critical milestones
  • Your conflict resolution process
  • Any planned “off-ramps” for handling things that go wrong
  • Your approval process for handling scope changes
  • Internal reporting requirements

While this is not a complete list, this will demonstrate your organization’s readiness when the DOE calls.

Form your program management office
A final, but critical, consideration for this type of effort is a program management office (PMO). Have you considered creating a PMO? It serves as an umbrella organization over all of your smart grid projects and performs several key functions, including:

  • Tracking and reporting smart grid project milestones
  • Reporting progress and costs to the DOE, as per DOE guidelines
  • Providing change management services
  • Providing quality assurance functions
  • Acting as mediator between the projects
  • Ensuring that training occurs in a timely fashion

Your PMO should report to a steering committee comprised of senior management representatives. This is no simple task, as you’ll likely be expending more capital dollars at one time than at any time in the past.

Concluding thoughts
Let’s face it, you’ve spent a lot of money and expended much effort to develop your smart grid grant application. Now, neglecting the details could cause you to forfeit all of that effort. Take this time to complete the work you’ve started by reviewing your timelines for accuracy, selecting project team members, identifying key stakeholders, assessing teams for compatibility and other issues, and drafting your project charters. But, don’t forget to start building your program management office. It may just be your biggest key to ensuring a complete and successful smart grid implementation.

Tom Kerestes is a senior principal in West Monroe Partners’ Energy & Utilities practice.