When change doesn’t go your way

There are always opportunities for improvement…”harder, better, faster, stronger.” That said, everything you try isn’t going to work out. Cliche, I know but still true. I had an experience outside the corporate environment recently that is having me to reflect on what went wrong, what i would change (or not) and how to recover quickly.

change-all-thingsI have been leading an external effort with a big goal. My team is composed of many volunteers all working towards the same goal. As part of this initiative, we just completed a multi-faceted online/offline marketing initiative. There was a solid group of volunteers working on these initiatives and they really did a good job. Logistically, we pulled off a larger initiative that in previous years. Unfortunately, despite the hard work of the volunteers, the outcomes were not what was expected or hoped for. As I was getting real-time updates during the execution phase, I started to realize that we might not see the results we had projected. We reacted quickly and made adjustments to the execution plan. Even so, the results were underwhelming.

What now? While I was saddened by the results, all I can do, and all I can encourage my project team to do is learn from the experience and move on. Here’s how I’ll approach this post mortem:

Remember that people put effort and emotion into executing change. It’s very important to remember not to point blame. This should be treated as a learning opportunity for everyone. 

  • Determination of too much or too little – This is the evaluation of the prep & execution plans to determine whether you did too much or not enough.
  • Support – Did you get the support you needed across the organization? Did everyone buy in? Did everyone do their part? Where did the breakdown occur? How could more support have been provided.
  • Eliminate technical issues as a cause – This involves checking each and every one of technical component (software, hardware, etc) that could have had issues. To the best of our knowledge, are they in working order now? were they in working order at the time of execution? “Working order” encompasses both the physical “did it work” and “did it perform its function?”
  • External factors – Were there external factors that could have impacted your plan? Common ones might be weather, mergers and acquisitions, politics, etc. Some times these do just get in the way. The goal is to identify the ones that impacted you this time, and review those risks the next time
  • Get up again – Ok, so this plan didn’t work out. It has no bearing on the next plan, or even the continuation of the current plan. We take what we’ve learned and apply it to the next round.

The success or failure of a project isn’t solely in the hands of the project team members. The entire project team, including the direct and indirect stakeholders have responsibility to provide the support needed. Further, it is the broader stakeholders that need to help pick the team back up and give them the leeway they need to make improvements the next time around.

 

 

 

Choose your words carefully

be-sure-to-taste-your-wordsWe are often reminded that words should be deliberate, and that sometimes words can hurt. In project management, these are applicable. More importantly, we need to be very conscious of the image that our words present. New projects are often opportunities to deepen the customer relationship. If all project stakeholders aren’t careful about the language they use, the customer or team can get the wrong impression.

Project managers need to have a very clear picture of goals of the project, and the nature of the relationship. It is our job to set the tone of the project. This means if any language is being used that might derail the tone you are trying to set, it is critical for you identify it early, and reframe the conversation.

Many of my projects are data related, which means I spent a lot of time validating data and demonstrating our process to the business users to explain how we got from point A to point B. As we all know, users don’t like change so the introduction of a new system brings distrust until you can prove that you’ve done what was expected (specifically the data gets validated). It is not uncommon for me to hear “it’s wrong.” Probing into that phrase usually results in the business users conveying additional information that would change the methodology. “The data is wrong” in the context of a data project is never where you want to start the implementation. Sometimes I will find that there is an upstream issue that gets uncovered during the implementation. Yes, that is a problem that needs to be fixed. But had we not been in the middle of an implementation, you might not have realized you had the issue.

Another example is configurable software. Again, people are very caution of new software systems, especially ones that proclaim predictive or advanced functionality. The easiest way to convince people is to configure a test. However, too often, the response will be the “algorithm is wrong.” Is the algorithm really wrong? The output is exactly what the software tells it to do. So if a test was configured to “show the art of the possible” with limited information about the specific business or use case, there is a high probability that the outcomes will be unexpected.

“Unexpected” does not mean the same thing as “Wrong”

These words should not be used interchangeable. “Wrong” sets the tone with the business users that the system isn’t doing what it needs to do. This creates very negative emotions towards the project. “Unexpected” can be explained, adjusted and resolved. Working with your project team to resolve unexpected results can foster respect, and positive emotions towards the project and the software.

 

What is the nature of this relationship?

dilbert-vendor-relationship

I had some work travel this week that took me onsite to a customer. My colleague and I were brought there to do some training and have some collaborative business discussions. This trip, and this engagement really highlighted the mutual respect the vendor and the customer have for each other, and how much we are viewed as a team.

This is not always the case. There are definitely times where the vendor-customer relationship is much more doctoral than collaborative. I wonder what is gained by this? It seems to me that either side of the vendor-customer relationship being too rigid isn’t a good thing. From the vendor perspective, if I’m always mandating exactly how something gets done, without having any flexibility to truly understand the customer problem, I get to maintain order and consistently replicate process. However, unless I’m able to truly predict where the customers are going, and can react really quickly to changes in the business process, this is not sustainable. At some point the customers will get frustrated that their needs are being met, and that the vendor isn’ work with them. Alternatively, if the customer is always pushing and dictating how things are done, they lose out on the learnings and growth that happens from supporting multiple customers. It can become increasingly more complicated to manage and maintain solutions that are only designed with one customer in mind. A vendor that kowtows to a customer will ultimately end up with both sides being frustrated.

There is definitely some middle ground in the vendor-customer relationship that will be mutually beneficial. The customer has a right to advocate for their business needs. The vendor has a right to try to standardize and streamline process and systems. It’s the details of the relationship that are going to bridge the gap. On the customer side, bring your concerns, share your business drives and let the vendor do the same. Let the vendor also bring their expertise and insights from multiple customers and have a discussion about the best solution. These are the only way that both organizations can grow and evolve.

Do you understand the nature of your vendor or customer relationships? Have you figured out the the right balance of how to make both organizations successful?

3 factors that contribute to products not delivering business value

A couple of weeks ago I explored the idea of when work is done. This week, I’d like to extend this idea to product management. We have all seen too many products where they promote they do X, but once you start using it you realize that it doesn’t quite do X, or X is so complicated to execute that it defeats the purpose. But how do we really get here? It’s unlikely that a product manager simply decided to push out a bad product. Or that the quality assurance team didn’t actually QA it.

Adobe-blog-product-meme-tell-me-more-extensive-testing-one-client

I think there are probably 3 contributing factors:

  1. Lack of customer feedback – Sometimes businesses truly are on the cutting edge in the development of something new and therefore there is no way to get the feedback needed on your new product (think iPod). However, this is usually not the case. We all need to make sure that we are engaging with customers and getting feedback on the products we are developing otherwise we pose serious risk to missing the mark.
  2. Misunderstanding of the business context – A common factor that occurs as a result of the lack of customer feedback is missing out on the customer context. You can think you know what problem you are trying to solve, and develop a product that solves that problem, but you’ll still have adoption issues if the workflow or functional assumptions don’t align to the business context of how the users will engage with it.
  3. Making assumptions about whether it will work without actually vetting the assumed changes – Too many times we get in trouble for being wrong based on an “I think” rather than an “I think, but I’ll verify and get back to you.” All products are built based on a set of assumptions. It’s usually these assumptions that drive how it gets QA’d. We can’t then assume that because the assumptions change (no matter how small they are), that all will work well. These new assumptions need to be vetted as well.

Product management and project management aren’t exact sciences. They do take a level of art and skill to be able to navigate the chaos and deliver on the business value. However, we can take steps to mitigate these factors, ultimately increasing our probability of success with our customers.

When are you done?

it-compiles-ship-itAs a paranoid project manager, I will conduct my own validation before communicating to customers. There have been too many times where I have not done this extra validation and sent it to the customer who immediately identified obvious issues. That doesn’t help anyone during a project implementation. And actually, it can cause serious credibility issues with the stakeholders.

For me, a task is done when I can demonstrate that the requirements are met or the issue is resolved. I’m not talking about the detailed nuances that are found the stakeholder does their deep dive into the solution. I’m also not talking about the scenarios where we have set the foundation early on that the validation would be collaborative in nature. However, I’m finding that the ability to follow through and conduct basic validation before communicating it’s done is a skill. And it’s one definitely not found in my teenage daughters and in many adults. I’ll walk through two quick examples, before I set some guidelines.

My husband pays my teenage daughter, Cayla, to do his laundry. Every week, I over-hear the same conversation. “Is my laundry done?” from Carson to Cayla. Once Cayla confirms, the follow up is either “so why don’t I have any socks (or whatever)?” or “then where is my basket (as it hasn’t been returned to our room)?” For the most part, Cayla has done the majority of the work, she just didn’t fully follow through. This could mean the laundry has been washed, folded and put away but the baskets not returned; or just washed and in a pile downstairs; or some other variation on an incomplete status.

In the workplace, I’ve seen lots of examples of this. A project team member will hand over what is supposed to be a complete deliverable, but I can’t get it to run, or it doesn’t meet the basic requirements. I’ve heard all sorts of excuses as justification throughout the years: “it’s done but not complete”; “it compiled so I thought it would work”, “I installed it but didn’t configure it”, “I finished one piece of it”, “it works if you do x, y and z  (even if that’s not the logical use)”

So, when are you done? I think there a few critical components that project team members should be consider before marking something as complete.

  • Available – The solution must be available in a form to distribute to the business user. Even if it’s something you are developing and installing on their behalf, there should be a tangible output to show for it.
  • Configured – Having a solution installed is often not enough. Is the solution configured as required to meet the customer needs? or in a state where the customer can configure it themselves?
  • Validated – Have you followed the steps the user would use to interact with the solution? Have you ensured the workflow makes sense, the solution does what it needs to and produces output that is as correct as you can determine (sometimes it is just doing a gut check on the output or making sure the user interface works for the inputs).

This is one of the most frustrating components of projects from a customer perspective. We all need to take ownership of the work we do and make sure we are doing some form of validation against the requirements and against basic usability. Does your solution do what the requirements define it should. I understand that not everyone has the business context, but own the functional requirements of whatever you’re developing.

3 differences between Customer Success and Project Managers

I had a recent conversation where I was challenged in my use of the term “Project Manager” to describe myself versus “Customer Success Manager”, the prevalent description for people doing similar work in their SAAS organization. This week’s blog post will explore the key differences.

I’ll first begin by providing some basic definitions.

Customer Success Managers (CSM) – According to Teresa Becker, CSMs provide “a proactive, real-time sales approach consisting of building relationships with existing customers, understanding in depth their company and product goals, and helping the customer meet those goals through day to day contact. Each customer has different needs and uses for your product, so it’s up to the Customer Success Manager (CSM) to thoroughly understand each customer and to be their champion throughout their entire customer journey. The role of the CSM is a value-add and is usually not a fee-based service.”

zombie-customer-success

Implementation Project Managers (PM) Webopedia defines an Implementation Manager as “an IT project manager who focuses on implementing information systems into a business environment. The implementation manager oversees the task, ensuring the project adheres to budget and time frame guidelines.”

From my perspective, there are 3 core differences in the two roles:

  • Longevity  – Implementation PMs are generally involved on a short-term basis for the duration of the project, while CSMs are closely tied to the customer for the length of the customer engagement (or pending other customer alignment decisions).
  • Technical Skills – The technical skills required to do a complex integration or implementation are higher than those required to maintain the customer relationship. CSMs do need to understand the product, the implementation and how to apply the product towards achieving customer goals. However, the depth and breadth of technical skills needed to navigate the implementation process is usually much broader in scope.
  • Project Management Skills – Typically CSMs take on basic project management tasks in the process of deriving & delivering value to the customer. Implementation PMs are often required to dive into the more advanced project management tasks (detailed requirements analysis, project plan definitions, risk assessments, etc).

As companies continue to evolve, we’ll continue to see blurred lines between roles,  responsibilities and titles. Both of the roles will continue to exist, but what you call them really is dependent on the organization, the product and the implementation lifecycle.

Resetting project expectations isn’t a bad thing

dream-catcherThe project I’m working on is perfect. I have the all the money, resources and time I need to be successful. The stakeholders are really engaged, the success criteria is clear and we are moving along on the project timeline exactly as we originally defined it.

Yes, that was a lovely dream. Unfortunately, we all know that most projects don’t go like this. I was working on a project that should have been a quick implementation, but immediately after the kickoff it became apparent that the scope defined in the sales process didn’t align to the requirements of business stakeholders. This made for some interesting project discussions. A couple of weeks in, just as the project was on the brink of derailing, we were able to have a very honest discussion and reset the project expectations.

This was a necessary step in making this project successful. There was definitely a miss in the early scoping process, but as a result of the communication among the business stakeholders and the project team, these issues were identified early. It also helped that this was a case where we didn’t lose any time working on unnecessary components. All the work that had been done before the project reset was still a valuable contribution to the project. Too often, project teams are hesitant to have these very honest conversations. Instead, time is wasted dancing around the problem, or implementing solutions that don’t meet customer needs.

To enable recovery from a project that is going awry, you need

  • Business stakeholders who are involved and advocate for their needs from the beginning
  • Project manager and leadership that is open & honest about the existing scope
  • An entire project team who (project implementation team, decision makers, business stakeholders) want the project to be successful and are willing to re-evaluate and reset the project scope and timelines accordingly.

 

3 Signs you over-thought it!

How often are we faced with a system, process or application that leaves you frustrated and confused? Based on my own experiences this week, and that of many of my friends (thanks social media), it occurs pretty frequently. Feeling inspired by all this disfunction leaves me thinking about how we can quickly assess whether we have made it overly complex.

over-engineered-system

  1. It’s difficult to maintain – A well designed process or system is one that is easy to understand it’s purpose, and intuitive enough (or simply documented enough) for someone to maintain it. Our environments are not stagnant so we can expect our processes or systems to be.
  2. Users complain about it (or just don’t use it) – Processes and systems are designed to solve a business problem. If we make them so complicated and cumbersome users won’t use it, and if there is no other choice, will complain relentlessly about doing so. If the system or process requires more people to enforce it, then it’s time to take another look.
  3. It’s not delivering the quantifiable measure of success you thought – Again, you implemented this to solve a business problem. Hopefully, you defined a measure of success. If you are only seeing marginal improvement, or even a decline in performance against the business problem, this is highly indicative of having over-thought your solution. It’s may be time to start over.

I don’t think overly complicated systems or processes come from a malicious place, however they can be detrimental to the overall success. Be conscious of these warning signs and be aggressive if fixing these. It will make for a better overall user experience improving morale and positively impacting the bottom line.

To read more on this topic, see these blog posts by Gregory C. Smith, Code Simplicity, and David Meehan.

The impact of sales context on project management

domino-effectData or software projects are usually purchased in one of two ways: as a part of a large, enterprise level deal that impacts multiple teams and has overarching corporate goals or as a stand alone purchase for a specific purpose for a specific team. This sales context can make for very interesting project management moments.

If we take the scenario where an organization makes an enterprise level implementation decision, you could have some additional levels of complexity. For example:

  • The project team may have to “sell” the project to the individual teams of users within the organization. The teams will likely have different levels of familiarity and maturity with the business process or solution.
  • Where there are varying levels of maturity, you have to be careful to effectively set expectations and cater differently to teams based on their desired engagement.

In another scenario, one part of the organization makes a purchasing decision with dependencies on other parts of the organization. This will often result is some interesting yet awkward project conversations. For example:

  • If you need to engage with another part of the organization to make the project be successful, it’s important to lay out all the facts and deciding factors. Too often project conversations must occur to relieve stakeholder concerns without those stakeholders having all the facts. Those seemingly minute details can totally shift the tone of conversations, making or breaking success.

And last, let’s consider the scenario where a specific team is looking at a solution. In this case, there can be additional considerations both in the sales process but in the project management as well. For example:

  • Does the team control the purse strings? Or are there other dependent groups or players? Make sure you fully understand the landscape of stakeholders & stakes.
  • Does the pain points being discussed align to what you do best? Just because you can sell your solution, doesn’t mean you should.
  • How does this sale fit into the overall goal of you both organizations? Is this a one-off purchase by a team without any broader organizational support? or are there opportunities for growth for both parties?

Project management in itself is a fairly straightforward undertaking. Your job as project manager is to deliver on the project goals. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” You need to quickly assess the lay of the project land. Who are the key players involved in the project? Who are the key players not involved directly in the project? What are the potential pitfalls or landmines you need keep on your radar (not necessarily on your horizon as you should be working to mitigate these as much as possible)?

The value of user engagement

On-boarding customers to enterprise software can be a fairly long & daunting process. There’s usually a standard implementation process including setup, configuration, validation & training. The implied follow up to this occurs when the trained users start actively engaging with the software and embedding it into their business processes. Without this adoption and engagement, there’s a risk of undervaluing the investment.

http://mattshore.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/value.jpgEngagement is not passively granted, but rather actively earned. As part of the project implementation, there needs to be special consideration given to figuring out how to keep users involved & engaged. Here are 3 options for continuing the conversation with the user community:

  1. Develop subject matter experts within each crucial team – Working closely with a few key team members to develop their natural curiosity around your software and empowering them as experts can turn them into subject matter experts and advocates throughout the entire organization. Some ways you can do that is collaborating on a few critical business processes to meet a specific business goal. You should result in showing those users the possibility and delivering them a “aha” moment for them to share with others.
  2. Create opportunities for sharing – This applies to within the organization and with the vendor-organization relationship. Leverage the expertise from your vendor/implementation partner to identify best practices that can be applied to your business. Within the organization, it is rarely enough to wait for serendipitous moments to miraculously occur. Everyone is working towards their own goals, often on their own isolated path. Creating “train the trainer”, subject matter expert question time, or brown bag lunch show & tell opportunities can bridge the gap.
  3. Know your path to success – Hopefully, you defined your project success before the implementation. It usually isn’t instantaneous in nature, making it even more critical that you define your path to success as well. Understand where you started from, and develop a plan for moving towards that success. Measure your progress regularly and adjust the plan as needed. You may find that you’re starting point is different than you thought or it will take longer to fulfill your end goal.

User engagement post software implementation is instrumental in the success of your project. Don’t underestimate the importance or complexity of this step.