Agile (Un)Moments – Beware of Shortcuts

Written August 1st, 2010 by
Categories: CEO's Blog
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Beware of shortcuts because they seldom are, especially when it comes to talking to your customers!

It is so tempting to follow the lead of a “savvy surrogate” when it comes to steering a software project.  After all, it’s so much easier to present her a demonstration of the application and get positive feedback than it is to deal with all of the logistics, and anxiety, of recruiting real customers to a customer focus group.  Not to mention having to listen to them and analyze and interpret their feedback!

I sit here shaking my head in amazement as I confess to having relearned…yet again…this fundamental lesson in Agile Project Management for the umpteenth time this week.  You would think that after 25 years of experience I wouldn’t allow myself to fall for the allure of the “we don’t need to talk to our customers” shortcut, but alas…I did.

The price paid?  Delaying the delivery of real value to hundreds of human beings.

On the very day that we turn over a production microsite to a division of one of our clients, we receive the following email from the newly appointed interim Executive Sponsor of the project (the original Executive Sponsor was recently reassigned to a corporate special task force):

“Without a high interest or benefit to our customers at this point and with limited internal resources we have decided to place this project on hold.  Now with the higher awareness of what the b2b potential can be, we will spend some time gathering input from customers on the topic and we will likely revisit the concept in several months or early 2011.”

Ouch!  Sobering.  Especially when you know that there has to be real interest in their customer base and that they are literally hours away from declaring victory! (see “Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You“)

Frankly, many of the project’s risks were being broadcast loud and clear over the past six weeks.  I guess we simply weren’t tuned in to hearing them because…subconsciously we believed that success was preordained and inevitable??? and in fact promised by our “savvy surrogate”???

  • The original Executive Sponsor is no longer focused on the project.
  • A new Product Manager was assigned as our primary contact and he focused mostly on the cosmetics of the application
  • A Customer Service Representative that was appointed to the project was slow to perform validation testing
  • Four weeks into the project, there was no published…and agreed upon…launch date or strategy
  • Lastly, there was no “real customer” voice on the project!

I know how we fell into this trap.  We were lured by the “shortcut”.

Well formed Agile projects are planned in a series of iterations each culminating in a customer demonstration.  When we planned this project, we got the iteration part right, we just left out the customer demonstration part.  To be fair (and I’m not being defensive here), it’s easy to dismiss the investment in staging a formal customer focus group when the technical work involved is minimal.  After all, since our service had already been established for other divisions, it only takes us 2-3 days of effort to bring up a new microsite.  In SAP project environments, that’s usually less than a rounding error amount of time, so it’s easy to see why people don’t take it seriously.

Had we not taken that shortcut, and taken the time to stage a real customer focus group, this project would have gone into production last week.  I am certain of that.

Our newly appointed Executive Sponsor would have been briefed on the enthusiastic response that their customers provided during the focus group and how eager they were to start interacting with this division over the web.  Instead, in the absence of that direct feedback, this Executive can only go with what he knows (or doesn’t know) and that is that since their customers haven’t asked for a web channel, that means they must not want one…and therefore, no sense spending energy on that right now.

Sad.

I will guarantee 100%, that six months from now, when they finally do roll out the B2B website to their customers (because there is no doubt that they will), they’ll wonder why they didn’t “just do it” last July when they were literally hours away from success.

<quick aside>

BUT IT’S NOT TOO LATE! 

Call up a handful of your customers today, invite them to a 1 hour GoToMeeting, show them a live demo of this brave new world called “The Internet” and see what they have to say.

<end of quick aside>

For my part, I’ve relearned…yet again…my lessons about involving real customers on projects.

It’s a must, even if it feels like overkill. There are no shortcuts, even on small projects.

You absolutely positively HAVE to take the time to show REAL customers REAL software solving REAL business problems if you want to deliver REAL value in REAL time.  If you don’t, you’re only hallucinating and you better brace yourself for the consequences.

Sam