Too many times we make assumptions that we later regret. In the case of a big dollar, mission critical project, those assumptions could turn out to be disastrous if they aren’t right on the mark. Forcing our opinions and our own understandings or preconceived ideas on a project before fully understanding it can lead to less than desirable results. And the problem is, we may not even realize we are doing it. How many times have you gone into a project thinking you know exactly what to do and exactly what your client wants and needs because you’ve heard their high-level need and related it to a project you’ve worked on previously? “Oh, I know what you need – it’s exactly like this other project where….” may be what you’re thinking…or even saying. Be careful.
In project management, communication is king and that is the most evident as you’re trying to get the project off the ground during initial phases. How the project starts sets the course for the rest of the engagement. And if you are fully listening to your customer, fully understanding the incoming documentation, and fully comprehending the “as is” and the “to be” and how those things differ, then you are setting a good course for the project. So, put away the ego and the expertise and the experience…well, not all the experience…and come into the engagement with an open mind, open eyes and somewhat of a clean slate. Experience is good and necessary, but don’t let it put blinders on you.
To ensure you know what your client really needs, do these three things…
Read the statement of work through several times. In the beginning, the statement of work (SOW), if one exists, may be all you have. Make a point to know it inside and out. I use it as the basis for the project kickoff session. It is the origination of my staffing plan, many components that go into my initial draft schedule, how I derive milestone dates and identify all key deliverables. Know it frontward and backwards so that first time you sit down with the client on the phone, in person or during a kickoff session, you are ready to discuss expectations and next steps.
Ask the right questions of the customer. Ask the right questions and ask the tough questions. No customer likes to hear that they may have the wrong need or problem identified but you have to go there. You can’t develop a full solution based just on your customer’s initial perception of need or want. It may just be a symptom of a bigger issue, need or problem. If that is the case and you find that out at the end of a $250,000 project, you’re going to have a much bigger problem than just a few frustrated end users. If it doesn’t satisfy the need, the target will be on the project manager’s head no matter what. So ask the right questions and dig far enough to find out what that client really needs. Do they really need a new point of sale system or do they need an entirely new accounting process and all the functionality and reporting that goes into it? The latter will cost a lot more and may mean the project gets shelved, but that may be better than bad press at the end of the project for not really solving the real need.
Present multiple solutions to discuss with your team and customer. If possible, avoid going away as a team and coming back to your customer with one rigid solution. The best possible method going into a real discussion with the client is to have 2-3 variations of the solution ready to discuss and finalize with the client. That way, you have a better chance of generating some final discussions on the solution and truly come up with the best understanding of what they really want and need from you on the project. If there is a technology solution to discuss after requirements are finalized – meaning it’s not set in stone how their problem or need should be fulfilled – then presenting multiple options will allow for teams on both sides to provide additional valuable input and help to eliminate the chances that you’ve moved forward without the absolute best project plan in place for the engagement.
You’re the expert. At least your team is and you’re leading your team. The customer came to you. So be confident, make decisions, and lead. But make good decisions. And to do that you need to listen, assess and then act. In that order.
How about our readers? What steps or processes do you go through to ensure you know what your project customer needs? What tricks or tools help you get to that point where you feel you fully understand how their business operates in relationship to the project goals and think you have the requirements in place to satisfy the project needs? Please share and discuss.
About Brad Egeland
Brad Egeland is a Business Solution Designer and IT/PM consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience leading initiatives in Manufacturing, Government Contracting, Creative Design, Gaming and Hospitality, Retail Operations, Aviation and Airline, Pharmaceutical, Start-ups, Healthcare, Higher Education, Non-profit, High-Tech, Engineering and general IT. Brad is married, a father of 11, and living in sunny Las Vegas, NV. Visit Brad’s site at https://www.bradegeland.com/.