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Straight Talk on Project Management

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The power of listening: IT Project Management lessons from the perfect sales pitch

A client recently shared some feedback about our sales pitch that I thought was a perfect lesson for every part of the IT Project Management process – The Power of Listening!

The feedback simply read, “Felt heard, felt our challenges were understood, felt in safe hands and felt trust that the advice was in our best interests.”

What’s the secret? Our USP? Rather than just ploughing through a PowerPoint of the wide ranging Stoneseed offer … We listen. Then having fully understood where the client is at, and what they need, we advise what benefits parts of our portfolio will deliver!

To be honest, Stoneseed’s true end-to-end portfolio of services, from IT Technical Advisory/Architecture, Business Analysis, PMO Services, and Programme & Project Delivery, to consultancy, assessments, governance and P3MO reporting tools to improve your delivery capability and performance … can be a lot to take in!!

Better to identify the actual project skills/capabilities that are needed and show how (Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) can make them available against the client’s demand schedule. That is a template for successful and collaborative IT Project design!

SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND

As Stephen Covey writes in the book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – “seek first to understand then to be understood”. Years ago, Covey identified that, in order to build deep relationships and lead with clarity, you need to first fully understand what people are saying and feeling!

AND this is as true for a successful sales pitch, as it is for Project talent helping drive meaningful business change through IT Projects! From project architects seeking to truly understand stakeholder needs and then designing something that exceeds expectations, to taking end-users with you and encouraging them to engage with the business change facilitated by your IT project’s implementation – I can’t think of a single aspect of the IT project journey that doesn’t benefit from this approach. It fosters trust, ensures actual needs are met, and nurtures end-user buy-in! And it all starts with listening!

Do we always actively listen though? More to the point, do those we listen to feel truly heard?

Consider the Project Management Institute (PMI)’s three measures of success, their Triple Constraints aka the Iron Triangle: delivered on time, on budget and on target. Have you ever delivered a project that nailed the Triple Constraints and yet did not deliver expected value to the organisation, or the anticipated return on investment (ROI), or simply that the end-users and executive sponsors were not 100% satisfied?

Often, needs have either not been properly articulated or not properly understood. Either way, it’s the responsibility of those tasked with the building to make sure the blueprints fit the requirements, right? I mean, we’ll ultimately get the acclaim or the blame so the buck kinda stops with us!

LOOP IN AND LISTEN TO THE SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS

In 2021, SaaS strategist Joy Davis wrote, “Poor project requirements are responsible for 39% of abandoned programs … when sponsors write specification documents in a vacuum, leaving the development team in the dark, the absence of requirements often fails projects.”

Joy cites the example of airline Qantas’ $40 million Jetsmart initiative in 2008, a “costly IT project had to be abandoned due to failing to involve the right subject matter experts and end-users. The solution was so poorly designed and complicated that the airplane mechanics refused to work on it.” If only someone had thought to loop those guys in at the start!!

You don’t need to go back as far as 2008! Or as far as Australia! The post-delivery project landscape is littered by “what might have been if we’d been consulted” type end-user feedback and sponsor frustrations that on-time and on-budget project deliverables are less than show-stopping!

Even today, I heard about a retailer whose hardware upgrade project included “touch screen interfaces” in its offices. The offices are beautifully bright and naturally lit with floor to ceiling windows, through which the glare from the sun effectively turns the touch screens into “retina burning mirrors”.

“More times than not, users see the software for the first-time during training, not earlier in the project when requirements are being elicited or when the software is being designed and configured. Not even when the testing is being performed,” writes ‘Project Risk Coach’ Harry Hall. When avenues for user input are limited, he writes, “less-than-stellar” results are not far behind.

In the case of the touch screens example, avenues for user input were open, suggestions had been solicited and had even included one that said “matte not gloss screens”!  This was rejected due to the better image sharpness offered by the screens that were eventually installed and the project team’s assumption that the end-user was perhaps mindful that glossy screens tend to trap fingerprints more than matte ones, more regular cleaning was recommended to mitigate this. In fact, the team member was more worried about the dazzle from the sun rendering the screens useless than having to keep a duster and can of screen cleaner in their desk drawers!!

If only they’d properly asked! And properly listened!

HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR SPUDS?

In his blog, ‘3 Reasons IT Software Projects Fail’, Harry Hall also explains, “Users assume that the project teams already know their needs. That’s not always the case. In fact, often, the teams don’t know.”

So, who’s to blame for that?

I was in a restaurant recently where the waiters had clearly been drilled to ask how customers like their steak, pretty standard, but also what potatoes they’d like, chunky chips, French fries, new potatoes or mash. Even the veg options were listed and delivered tailored to the customer’s preferences. I asked the owner about this apparent obsession with perfection, and he told me that they used to get complaints about otherwise perfect steak dinners because the al dente cauliflower was either too soft or too hard, even once that the presence of mashed suedes on a plate had “ruined” the meal!! He said they used to believe it was up to the customer to say how they like their dinner but had a eureka moment one day asking if a party had any allergies – “we take on that responsibility for customer satisfaction, why wouldn’t we ask how they like their spuds?”.

In IT Projects, active listening is not just hearing what stakeholders, end-users, the client, or project sponsor tell you, it is about understanding what underlying motivations, concerns, challenges, and aspirations are behind what they say. This involves being fully present in the conversation, empathetically tuning into the business perspective, perhaps asking insightful questions to access deeper understanding. When you practice active listening, you can uncover valuable insights that inform the development of tailored solutions, increasing the chance of project success.

Often, active listening has led to a realisation that what a client needs is not what they reached out for! A client, having called for more general project talent, might need a Business Analyst, for instance, but only by listening to what they perceive as missing from their project team can you identify the need for business analysis.

It’s the same in other aspects of the process, the more you listen, the more you learn, the more you can lead!

TOP SIX ACTIVE LISTENING BENEFITS

1 – Understanding Goals and Challenges

Every project’s goals, challenges, and expectations are unique. Attentive listening gives clarity on what the project needs to achieve, obstacles that are anticipated, and what outcomes should be prioritised. This underpins the understanding upon which project plans are built, ensuring that the project aligns with objectives and delivers intended business value.

2 – Exposing Unspoken Needs

Sometimes, critical project needs are not explicitly stated but instead are hidden beneath the surface. Active listening can expose these unspoken requirements, like that Business Analyst the client earlier didn’t know they needed! Other times, an unspoken desire for greater efficiency, or a need for scalability, or aspirations for greater innovation have bubbled up just by delving deeper into those underlying motivations.

3 – Listening Builds Trust

Active listening demonstrates respect for the client’s or sponsor’s perspective and creates a sense of trust for a project team’s expertise and judgment. Trust forms the basis of a strong and enduring relationships, paving the way for open communication, collaboration, and a shared commitment to project success.

4 – Enhanced Collaboration and Creativity

When you invite a client to share their insights, ideas, concerns, etc, you get to tap into a wealth of collective wisdom and creativity. A collaborative approach like this often leads to innovative solutions that may not have happened without client, stakeholder, or sponsor input. The more you can involve clients, end-users or stakeholders in the decision-making process, the more they’ll have a sense of ownership, leading to better engagement and successful implementation.

5 – Better Tailored Solutions for Client Needs

When you have a deep understanding of the client’s goals and challenges, you can develop bespoke solutions that are tailor-made to meet their specific requirements. Generic, one-size-fits-all solutions only get you so far, customising your approach to address unique circumstances, preferences, and constraints increases the relevance and effectiveness of the project!

6 – More Successful Outcomes

Listening properly, not rushing to propose ready-made fixes, and developing solutions that are grounded in a thorough understanding of client needs leaves you more likely to deliver the desired results, meet expectations, and drive measurable business value. In other words – project success! Trust built through active listening lays the foundation for future collaboration, leading to long-term success and satisfaction, it’s a flywheel that drives itself!

Conclusion

Active listening is a powerful tool. Increasingly, we live in a world where communication is hurried and perfunctory, the WhatsApp era! Taking time to understand needs, goals, and challenges, you can develop solutions that are tailored to meet actual requirements, manifest actual business change, and drive genuine satisfaction! This more collaborative approach leads to more innovative and effective solutions and builds trust too.

If you have any project challenges, talent shortages or capability gaps, we’re ready listen!

 

Find out more about Project Management as a Service from Stoneseed

 

Sources:

6 Project Failure Reasons in the IT industry (linkedin.com)

3 Reasons IT Software Projects Fail – Project Risk Coach