Procedures for project kick-off are often developed, to ensure we don't repeat mistakes of the past. Typically to kick off a project we need: (Read more)
An upsetting recent experience Have you ever felt like the person you’re speaking to is just not listening? Last week, we pulled the plug on a server migration. If you've ever done a move like this, you know how hard a call this is to make. The team had been working on this for the past five months. Multiple teams of people had gone above and beyond to make it happen, and to say we were gutted at this result doesn’t even begin to cut it. What brought about this unexpected and disappointing outcome? In the end, it came down to one question. It was one of the first questions we had for the software vendor. It was asked multiple times through the process, and it turns out, at the last minute, that the wrong answer had been given, multiple times! It was like the software vendor was hearing the words and doing the surface motions of listening but not really getting it! Oscar Trimboli (deep listening expert) really had this covered when he made this comment: 'Projects that run over schedule and budget, (and) customer opportunities that are missed, nine times out of ten can be put down to that we're listening to the words but not the meaning'. Stephen R. Covey, of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People fame, shares his ideas on effective listening framed as a ‘listening continuum.' Like a ladder of improvement, the pinnacle of his continuum is empathetic listening, at which point the listener has achieved the ability to listen within the other’s frame of reference. We see empathetic listening practised among a variety of professionals who want to help their clients, including counsellors, HR managers, CEOs and VPs. It's an important quality of leadership. One of the key qualities of empathic listening is to stay out of judgement. Christine Porath and Douglas R. Conant researched the turnaround at Campbell Soup and credited an increase in what they called ‘civility,' a vital component of this was ‘listening better.' You can read about their findings here. They talk about the time and effort that is required to create a culture of civility that has its foundations in listening, respect for each other and working to make people feel valued. Like lots of other research, their findings showed that it’s the small everyday interactions that count towards building trust. They heard the question and answered it, more than once, but they missed listening to the meaning. The meaning for us as the client (customer) had a significant impact on the rest of the business. To me, deep listening is a bit like an indicator on a car; right there and available for use but not used as often as would be helpful. So how can we all get better at listening deeply? Well, Oscar is an expert, and he describes four types of bad listening habits. I myself am an interrupting listener at times – seeking to solve the problem before the whole thing has been explained. In the case of our server migration gone wrong, someone seeking to solve the problem might well have helped us out. Some tips for better listening Sometimes it helps to have a physical thing to do, as a reminder or trigger. Some tips that I have picked up along the way that sometimes help me are: Take a deep breath (or three) and calm your own mind. Open your mouth a little (in a relaxed way, no goldfish impersonations required). Studies show that when we’re sitting in judgement, we’ve usually got our mouths firmly closed. Uncross your arms. Developing our listening skills benefits all team (and personal) interactions. This means spending an effort acknowledging people’s contributions and improving our own capacity to listen better. Getting to the meaning of what's really being asked can save you a lot of re-work and time wasted. It might even mean that when you ask that one super important question, your software vendor will really understand what you mean.
"In good decision making, frugality matters," says Malcolm Gladwell;taking complex problems, and reducing them to the key levers that help us choose is a critical skill. Getting to the heart of the decision, however, isn’t always so easy! I was recently reminded of this; a project team spent weeks designing, dreaming and negotiating what could be achieved with their new website design. There was a list of requirements that was like an out of control Christmas list, and everyone was very excited at the idea of something new that would improve the customer experience. But one thing had been forgotten. Just a small matter of how much they had to spend. We’ve all been there, beer budget but champagne taste (I do it all the time). So, in the end, the decision was easy and the constraint of having to work within the budget helped them decide. Constraints help the decision making process I noticed a similar pattern years ago whilst waitressing. When customers came into the restaurant, if there were no bookings, it didn’t matter where they sat. Gesture to the restaurant's ‘sit anywhere you like’ would result in much debate back and forth. They would often choose one table only to move to another and then another. Whereas, if I gestured to a specific table and said, "would you like to sit here?" customers would either accept the offer or ask to be seated at another table. It’s that old chestnut about cognitive load. If the decision is made for you, it is either accepted or not, but being forced to make an active choice and decide for yourself from the whole restaurant is much harder. The project team were constrained by the limitations of what they had to spend. How much time and effort could they have saved by getting this basic building block in place before the requirements even got underway? The decision could have been made a lot earlier in the project. Finalising the budget and the business case before the project starts helps make the decision process smoother because it’s obvious to everyone the boundaries we’re working within. As soon as we were able to articulate the right question(s) the decision was easily made. Projects are all about working with constraints. Usually, there’s limited budget, time and people. Clearly articulating the constraints that are going to drive a decision early in the process, can save a lot of time and energy and reduce frustration and disappointment all around. Why does restricting options help us to get on with good decision making? There has been a lot written on the topic of 'choice' and I particularly like the advice of Sheena Iyengar, who highlights 4 ways to help with decision making: (Read more)
Years ago, I worked on a project where we took a legacy horse race rating system used by a bookmaker and upgraded it to a modern technology platform. I spent a lot of time with guys who were professional gamblers, they were incredibly knowledgeable about horses and horse racing. They had a methodical practice that took hours each day, doing what they called, ‘rating the race.’ This was a practice that to an external observer (me) involved watching the same horse race over and over again until you had gleaned every last piece of information possible from it and had ‘rated’ (or scored) each horse in that race. After that, the race itself would be rated, and so would many other details that they had been trained to look for. This bespoke system they had developed of rating horses, races, conditions and riders all contributed to their knowledge about how the horse would perform over time. What they had observed over years, was that a horse would improve incrementally for a period but was also capable of ‘jumping’ very quickly up a few levels in performance and it was this jump that they carefully watched for in their rating statistics. It was their ability to be ready for improvement that gave them a competitive edge. Like horses, us humans, can sometimes give the impression of making an improvement very quickly the quintessential “overnight success.” Improvement requires practice and it’s never quite clear when we’re learning something new, when we’re going to improve or whether that breakthrough will happen at all. The constant practice and search for improvement can be a bit daunting and demoralising at times. This week, I was lucky enough to be present for one such improvement breakthrough moment. One of the users we’ve been working with on a project appeared in the doorway of the cupboard/ workroom that we’ve tucked ourselves away in. “I’m so happy, I have to share!” He was beaming from ear to ear. He went on to explain his breakthrough. He has been on the project team since the beginning and has been an active participant the whole way, but it has been difficult terrain. His commitment has never wavered, but we can tell that he’s struggled with the way the new system works, there have been a lot of confused looks and ‘why are we doing this?’ moments over the last few months. His breakthrough was the result of persistence and practice. He reminded me of the importance of practice, and the absolute necessity of training for the job that people will do with their team. It’s a much more exploratory to learn but it pays off in these moments when someone gets the reward of their own efforts. We’ve spoken before about what it takes to deliver training in a project. Over the many projects that we've worked on, and people that we've worked with, we learn more about how to better deliver training. This breakthrough highlighted to me, the importance of persistence and practice. In this situation, we had also used the technique of having a ‘training buddy’ someone to work things out with, a fellow explorer in the new system. This mirrors a development practice in agile process, where two developers work together at the one screen. So the week's learning has been: Practice, practice and more practice! Celebrate the breakthrough moments (we did!) and acknowledge people for their persistence; Buddy up – two heads have more observation power than one! If you are struggling with the best way to train on a new system, get in touch. We buddy up with retailers to equip internal teams for the project efforts ahead. Our project management tools are light and flexible for retailers. The 6R team work behind the scenes, leading through project management, testing, training and team building to deliver project success.
Chatting to someone I had just met at a business breakfast, we were 'finding common ground' that you do when you first meet. She shared that her organisation is undergoing a significant software change project. They have appointed a vendor (software supplier) and are in the process of replacing 55 legacy systems (that’s a lot). They’ve selected a tier one software provider and they’ve got experts coming out of every orifice. But still, there was this disappointment about how the process was going. The gap between what they’ve been sold and what they must do to get it anywhere NEAR working that way was not clear to her from the outset and the effort ahead was starting to dawn on her. I’ve seen this before, I call it software disappointment, it happens all the time in software projects, and you can see how. The software vendor wants to put their best offer forward The vendor wants to show the very best of how their software works, they want to impress their potential client and show that their software is robust, scalable, flexible and most importantly SOLVES the client’s problems. So, they configure it to show the client how it could work, and the client is impressed. They ask many questions, compare the software to others, compare it to their current internally broken systems and get excited about this brave new world that will make every working day easier, more streamlined and end repetitive tasks. The client wants to get the project a good start inside their organisation To make an investment like this, the client needs to sell the idea internally. To get buy in and endorsement from multiple internal parties the software and the project ahead needs to have a solve problems for multiple business units. So, things are (often) stated in the most positive terms, and the negatives and risks are usually downplayed. This is where the natural optimism of humans works against us a little. People are excited and motivated and executives commit to ‘x’ project (where ‘x’ is the replacement of whole system from end to end), and the software vendor is pleased. They have their work sewn up for the next ‘x’ years and are going to improve the working lives of client and their staff. But (and this is the bit that the software suppliers don’t focus on) it’s going to take an awful lot of the client’s own internal effort and IP to get there. This is the ‘software disappointment gap’. Clients think that because they’ve done all that hard work of selecting a vendor and that the vendor has shown them a system that works a whole lot better than theirs does, that they can relax. In fact, the project work is only just about to begin. ...and that's the software disappointment gap It’s like getting a new phone. It doesn’t come installed with all your apps, it doesn’t have your ring tone, links or email, you must set that up. That takes some effort [personal aside, I’ve done it 3 times this year and it’s a pain in the arse]. In an organisation large enough to have 55 legacy systems, that’s a LOT of set up, a LOT of internal consultation and cross business unit collaboration and cooperation required to get the project moving and to implement something that works at least as well as the existing systems do. It’s this internal effort that organisations so often miss, or if they don’t miss it at an executive level it gets missed in translating it out to the wider group. Like my breakfast companion, whilst rationally she could see exactly why this was all needed and she was making the required mental adjustment to the work ahead, she was also choosing not to stay for it. Did I mention she was leaving the business? There was a restructure in her team and she was taking the opportunity to walk away. Smart businesses prepare themselves properly for the work ahead. Check to see if your business is doing these things to prepare for project success: Create capacity. Sometimes this comes through back-filling roles for key people, hiring extra hands (either permanently or temporarily) or by reworking the structure and make up of a team. But the reality is that a project requires additional work inside the client business. Additional work doesn’t happen without additional capacity! Alignment to the project objectives. It can be forgoing other planned improvements or reigning in expectations about business as usual. A key point is to stop all but the most essential work on old systems once you’ve committed to a new system. It’s a big part of both managing workload and creating commitment to the success of the new project. Improve your communication. It’s a lifelong practice both professionally and personally and it makes all the difference. So many of the mis-steps we make in business and in projects come down to communication. Improving communication of internal team members increases effectiveness. Look for advice from those who’ve done this before, both lessons learned internally and external support. If you are struggling with the software disappointment gap, get in touch. We work with retailers to equip internal teams for the project efforts ahead. Our project management tools are light and flexible for retailers.
While time is a finite resource, energy is infinite, although it may not always feel that way. That is because it doesn't just happen by itself, you have to establish rituals to build energy. Individuals and businesses that understand this succeed and as a result both the individual and the business grows. Managing energy in the build-up (or countdown) to live might be one of the most mentally and physically challenging parts of a project. Energy has, in this last week, been in short supply, it’s been a week that has challenged even the most match fit of us. When times get challenging some of the most successful techniques I have used to keep energy positive, are to keep to the routines and habits that I rely on to keep my physical health in a good place, and to create the space that allows me to step back from the chaos of getting sucked into the task level detail to think. (Read more)