Is Your Project in Trouble? Throw a Party!

Written February 24th, 2009 by
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This essay was originally published as an E-Mail Advisor in the Cutter IT Journal.6 November 2002

BRINGING TEMPORARY ORDER TO CHAOTIC IT PROJECTS

My wife and I have a technique we use to ensure that
we stay focused on completing our household to-do
list. We throw a party.

Several years ago, when we bought our present house,
we knew that if we scheduled a party for two months
after move-in day, things would get done. We would
never allow ourselves to be embarrassed by a
half-painted kitchen, unpacked boxes, unadorned
walls, and a “sound system-less” house. Without the
scheduled party, we could — and would — always find
something more interesting to do.

Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind.

Throwing a party addresses two key problem areas for
us: motivation and scope. First and foremost, the
party positively motivates us to get things done.
Somehow, the mountain of tasks before us seems less
daunting when we have the excitement of a party to
look forward to. Second, having an immovable date on
the calendar helps us control the scope of our
efforts. We know that we can’t get everything done
within the allotted time, nor can it all be perfectly
done within the allotted budget. Given the
constraints, we’re forced to make the best possible
decisions and move on.

And then there is the day of the party. With glass of
wine in hand, music in the background, and enveloped
by the cacophony of conversation, we always find a
moment to appreciate what we’ve accomplished to date
and get a clearer vision of what has to be done next.
We relish our moment of tranquility within our
chaotic world, even if it is only for a moment.

You can view launching IT projects similarly.

On the day you kick off a project, the incredible
number of tasks that have to be defined, coordinated,
and accomplished before you declare victory can be
overwhelming. The checklists are many and varied. It
starts with all the people and meetings required to
get agreement on the product’s goals and
requirements. Development has to manage the myriad
engineering tasks of designing, developing, testing,
managing change requests, and version control.
Marketing has to produce all of the literature and
communications to support the rollout of the product.
The training, customer support, and services
departments have to make sure that they’re ready to
support the client once the product ships. The tasks
are many, complex, and intertwined.

From the moment a project starts, we find ourselves
fighting against the second law of thermodynamics —
the one that says that systems left alone will tend
to migrate toward a state of maximum entropy. Every
department tries to optimize its own performance and
minimize its dependency on the others. Like the game
of musical chairs, no one wants to be left standing
when the music stops. Somewhere along the way, the
collective goal of delivering something of value to
our customer was replaced by: “Make sure you can
always blame the project’s delays on someone else.”
Chaos reigns.

What’s a project manager to do? Throw a party.

Schedule a customer focus group (CFG) that will
unite, align, and motivate your project team to rise
above their individual perspectives and rally around
the customer. A CFG is a facilitated event where
actual customers (not customer surrogates) react to a
working demonstration of your whole product.

Everyone benefits by preparing for, and attending, a
CFG. The host (project sponsor) gets to see how
effectively his or her development dollars are being
spent, and more importantly, observes the customer’s
reactions firsthand.

By viewing a scenario-based demonstration of the
proposed solution, the project manager gets to gauge
real progress against the project plan. Did we
deliver everything we said we would? If we didn’t,
why not?

The development team has a meaningful event to
prepare for. The CFG isn’t a contrived vehicle
designed to update management that only “wastes”
precious development resources. It’s a chance to
engage with real users who can validate assumptions
and directly answer specific questions.

Members of other support organizations (e.g.,
marketing, training, customer support) get to test
their deliverables and get client input to steer
their pending efforts.

Last, but not least, customers love participating in
CFGs. Why wouldn’t they? They get to be the center of
attention for a change. They’re treated like royalty,
as opposed to victims, and get to do what they do
best — voice their opinions in a penalty-free
environment.

The magic of the CFG is in watching everything come
together for the event. For an all-too-brief moment
in time, what appeared like an amalgamation of
disconnected and chaotic efforts coalesces as a team
effort with a collective purpose: “Customers are
coming in to view a demonstration. We all have to
prepare and make sure that their time is put to good
use!”

Once you’ve set the date for your CFG, things start
to resemble our house party scenario. The project
team has to make a decision about their equivalents
of every unpacked box. Should we unpack it, put a
cloth over it, hide it in a closet, throw it out, or
be prepared to make excuses for it? You can’t just
leave it hanging around. By the end of the CFG, you
will probably even uncover a couple of boxes that
were missing as well.

And through it all, you can always count on that
quiet moment in the middle of the CFG itself, when
you come to the realization that you’ve pulled it
off. Everyone came together, focused on what
mattered, and produced a pretty smooth show. Your
customers have confirmed that you’re on the right
track and have gladly given you the inevitable
suggestions that put their signatures on the overall
project. Everything is under control. Until tomorrow
morning that is, when you have to start planning for
your next CFG.

Sam Bayer, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium