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Your IT project is almost ready: Development is done; testing is going well; just a few defects remain. The customer is satisfied with the look and feel of the product, you both have a shared vision about the business change it will bring .... but ... they want to ... delay ‘go live’ ... just a little bit longer.
And you begin to ask – have we missed something?
The answer is almost certainly ‘yes’.
At Stoneseed, transition into service is an aspect of the project lifecycle that we are increasingly helping with clients with and this “reluctant customer” or “reluctant stakeholder” phenomenon is one that we are seeing repeated on a regular basis. It’s like getting to the edge of the penalty box and being afraid to shoot, procrastination at the delivery end of IT Projects is on the increase.
As a Project Leader, you have a number of options here. The most popular two are, as a project manager friend poetically calls them, the "Bulldozer” and “Butterfly" approaches.
She told me, "The bulldozer approach pretty much does what it says! You have other projects waiting, you've spent blood, sweat and tears on this project! Testing is going well, ok there are a few bugs, but you've delivered projects before and sorted niggles after the 'go live' day. So you use your persuasive skills to convince the client that it's just 'opening night nerves' and that the project needs go-live. NOW!"
The problem with this approach is that it's not win/win. OK, you got what you want, the project is signed off and transitioned into service but what about the end client? How do they feel? Bullied? Railroaded? And what about the end-users who have to put with buggy software? Are they happy?
And ultimately, what about your team? Can they really move on when they keep having to field support calls post-delivery?
Years ago, a wise IT Project leader once asked me, "If you deliver your project, and it doesn't bring the full impact to its users on day one, have you really delivered the project at all?"
So, what of the “butterfly” approach?
"The butterfly approach is altogether less heavy-handed. You've heard of taking a helicopter view, you can visualise exactly what's meant by that, so hold that thought. Swap the chopper for a delicate butterfly though. Same job, it takes an overview of the project from a high viewpoint but because it’s smaller and more delicate it can also really zoom in and check very specific parts of the project for issues that may have been missed. You'll have seen a butterfly land on the buddleias - imagine a helicopter doing that!! It would blow it everywhere! No, the butterfly gently lands on a single flower, does its job and leaves the rest of the plant unaffected. The attention that you give to your IT Project at this point in its lifecycle needs to be just as delicate, just as precise and just as non-destructive to everything else you've created."
So, let's park the bulldozer. How does the butterfly approach work with your reluctant customer?
"At this stage, the quality of the outcome is based upon the quality of your questions. The best project leaders direct this crucial conversation by only asking questions. It's a hard skill to learn because every sinew of you wants to get defensive and scream that you've delivered what's been asked of you! Stay calm and just ask questions AND take notes!"
Questions like ...
When they voice a worry ask, “What do you mean by that?” And after they've answered ... ask what they mean by THAT? (Drill down! Often the gold is in the answer to the third question).
What are their concerns? What would a solution to their concerns look and feel like? Who has expressed the concerns? When did the doubts start? (This can sometimes really help you pinpoint a specific time when confidence was lost and gives you a great target for that butterfly!)
Has something changed within the organisation? Is “regime change is in the air”? It happens with a cabinet reshuffle doesn't it, all the best-laid plans go out of the window as incoming Ministers seem to find new money for new initiatives. Businesses are the same, whether it is a promotion that opens up new possibilities, or mergers, acquisition, company sales etc, they all bring with them a large portion of uncertainty that can unsettle decision making.
How is your client contact and their end-user team feeling about their ability to use the project once it transitions into service? Get a sense for any doubts about end-user capability. Ask if there are post-delivery capacity issues. Do they trust the project's ability to deliver the business need? Do they trust their ability to make the project to deliver the business need? Can they handle this project if it were to go live now? Basically, there may not be a problem with the project, but you could spend weeks looking for one and fixing things that didn't need fixing when all that was needed was some extra staff training!
Often, when you take time to listen, REALLY listen, your end client will identify the thing that is missing for you and it can be something as simple as a requirement, a function or a report that can be easily accommodated. The key then is to agree on how to proceed. If it's an easy fix - do it! If it's something that you missed - admit the oversight and do it! If, on the other hand, it's a large piece of work that's needed, advise any extra costs, timeframes, etc. If it's an internal stakeholder, ask them to suggest which other business projects should be delayed to accommodate their new requests - actually take them to your whiteboard (or digital equivalent) and ask them to choose which other business manager's project should be delayed to extend theirs.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
Most project teams start this process at such a late stage that it almost always causes delay. The trick is to unleash your butterflies regularly during the lifecycle so that you can spot possible issues and deal with them.
Also, maintain a culture that is receptive to feedback throughout. These days, IT Projects are more transparent than ever and most of the popular methodologies lend themselves to you being able to pop the bonnet once in a while to show your client how things are working. Have regular catchups and solicit feedback at key milestones or whenever is suitable. If you were painting someone’s house, you might just do a patch and then ask the homeowner what they think before climbing the ladder and attacking every wall with your paintbrush. Same with an IT Project - don't leave it till the job is finished to find out they no longer like pink!
So, the reluctant customer shouldn’t be seen as a frustration – see them as wanting to give valuable feedback (albeit late in the day). Listening to and acting on client concerns usually means that you deliver a better project, more in tune with the business need and that plays out well when seeking commissions and green lights in the future.