The staff enthusiastically scrunches up their sleeves as they develop a rollout scheme, they allocate their resources meticulously and then finally execute a masterful…false start. In hindsight it is clear that they should have clarified the goals. “But we didn’t really know what we wanted?” they think.
When goals are SMART then the rest usually falls into place. We know all that already. Yet sadly failure remains more common than success in projects due to unclear goals. That doesn’t mean that we can just conjure a goal out of thin air and simply decide to give it a SMART articulation. That won’t fix anything. Goals are like trees. Every branch needs to be carefully considered. The problem is it’s impossible to know other people’s goals without asking for them. So the solution is simple. If we want to know what other people want we have to ask.
What clients want in the beginning
Initially all customers know is that they want to change the status quo. Imagine you went car shopping and the salesman greeted you heartily as he led you to “just the right car for you”, inviting you to have a look at a snazzy 2-seater. You, on the other hand, are looking for a car for family of five with all kinds of accessories. “Why didn’t he ask me what I want?” you think to yourself. You feel misunderstood.
It would be very difficult for the salesman to turn this situation around. Even if you told him what you really are looking for, the suspicion would probably still linger that he is not interested in your needs. If he had come up to you and asked what kind of car you are looking for you would have felt much better.
Good questions and individualized solutions instead of “one-size fits all” approaches
Your clients are going through the same thing. If you start to proffer solutions “that most clients want” after hearing just a few bullet points, then they will soon feel misunderstood. Their problems are unique. They want to be seen as individuals. The more you can do that the more specificity can be included in your goal description, and the better the chances of you really engaging with the clients’ needs.
Questions, questions, questions. They are what is needed. The kinds of questions you ask indicate whether you are an expert in your field or not. If your client feels taken seriously, she will accept it even if you happen to change key parts of your solution to suit her, as long as you have managed to incorporate all her key concerns.
The question of meaning
“Who do I need to speak to in order to get clarity on the goals?” people ask themselves in the beginning. There are many methods that stakeholders identify with. But I think a core question is often neglected. The question of meaning in projects.
In order to understand meaning we need to make sure that we are not just looking at goals out of context. We need to see them as being embedded in the company and in the economy. For instance it could be a strategic goal to land an important client in order to change your position in the market. One of your strategic goals could be to accept the possibility of suffering losses in order to acquire the client. The client becomes an important stakeholder in the process, at the end of the day he is the one who needs to be satisfied.
Similarly, it is possible that the client wants to look good to new applicants. So they expend a lot of energy on increasing their staff satisfaction so that they can improve their reputation through good reviews. Profit always comes into this kind of calculation. But much later. Profit is not the main concern during the first steps. Only later will the fruit (top applicants and important clients) be enjoyed. If you concentrate solely on profit in the beginning, you will only be introducing restrictions for the project that will end up hindering the meaning goal, eventually making the profit impossible to attain.
What clients want in the course of a project
Once a project goal has been defined it generally does not remain static. It changes throughout the project. “The only constant is change,” as the saying goes. The same applies to projects. What was once a law is now only a guideline and tomorrow it will be but an idea among many. This kind of change will always be with us for many reasons, the first of which being technical progress. Then there are new software versions with new demands on the system landscape that come into the equation as well as new hardware that offers many more possibilities and even total new approaches such as cloud computing. Another reason could be the company itself. For example if the number of software users changes or if the corporate strategy changes.
So the goals are not set in stone, they change…sometimes very quickly. For that reason it is important to critically think about them with questions like: “Are my stakeholders still my stakeholders?” Or: “How important are they?” Not forgetting: “Has the meaning of the project changed?”
Reflecting on results and integrating feedback
This critical questioning can be supported by giving your clients regular results and by reflecting on the next steps and getting feedback. With Scrum and similar frameworks this is accommodated, so I would like to talk about the “how” instead.
You probably know the following Confucian statement: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember. Allow me to experience and I will retain it forever.” These three steps can be wonderfully applied to the reflection on results and steps.
When you give your clients a status report you will probably have different concepts in your head. That goes without saying. It stems from the fact that we all have different experiences. You can test that quite easily: Ask two people, independently of each other, to picture an elephant and to describe it. One person might picture an elephant in a herd in a field, whereas someone else might picture one at a watering hole in colorful Indian garb. Even if these two people talk it through, it’s still impossible to get 100% overlap.
You can give your client a status report, for example, using screenshots or a small live presentation. This helps to make the internal images converge. Think about results as a map, with it you can show your client specific points and finer paths. Your client will then get a more focused overview of the points that you want to show her, without necessarily knowing everything that lies in between. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can be helpful to expand the existing knowledge, i.e. give additional information. This method is often no different to an oral presentation. The work that you invest in the creation of screenshots or live presentations will save you time later in terms of fixing mistakes.
It is even better if you give your clients a complete picture by allowing them to engage with the current version of the results. Allow them to possibly go through a book-keeping procedure or an order. The big advantage is that even here hidden points like a confusing user tour are identified in this process, problems which would have remained undiscovered if you were to simply show the client steps. This method will probably make sense in key points during the project, but it can be impractical in the day to day running the company because of the laborious feedback required.
The personal goals
Lemmings tend to do what other lemmings are doing without thinking what might be in it for them. This is less common among people. Every person has individual goals that she freely shares with others, or not. It’s possible to get a reference for future projects, to build up knowledge that can be used in the future. People who are satisfied with their work and their personal goals enjoy their work. Anyone who can do the kind of work that they enjoy with the level of responsibility that they like will generally appreciate their work and do it well.
But we only rarely talk to each other about personal goals, both large and small. Perhaps unconsciously or perhaps because we do not realize that others could have different goals to us.
Who is going to do that?
The question: “Why am I here and how can I add value?” is one that we should all honestly ask ourselves. Thinking about the staff’s goals is also an important task for project leaders. If they understand how the team ticks then they can assign tasks and responsibilities that people actually want.
To be fair, questions only help here to a certain extent. Particularly in temporary teams, in which it is difficult to build up trust. It decreases individual’s willingness to talk about their goals, particularly when the people don’t see them as worthy of discussion. If people don’t feel safe enough to say that they are hoping to use a project as a career springboard they will tend talk about goals that they are not ashamed of. It is important to keep one’s eyes and ears open and to observe how team members are “doing” in their roles.
So it’s not just about a single goal, we need to keep an eye on the following:
- Build a good relationship with your clients and engage with what she really wants so that you can keep your goals clear in your mind. This helps you to be goal oriented.
- Keep your finger on the pulse by interviewing your clients regularly so that you can recognize when goals have changed. Then you can remain agile and are able to respond quickly.
- And plan your project team so that every team member can take on tasks and responsibilities that they enjoy. That way you have a project team that enjoys its work and is reliable.