Great Expectations

23 June, 2014

Anyone who is a fan of (or has been dragged along to) romantic comedies will appreciate that, for women, the ultimate romantic hero is not one with the physique of Conan the Barbarian, the mind of Stephen Hawking and the soul of Seamus Heaney. No, the guy that gets the girl is the one who can read their minds.

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Project managers are familiar with this phenomenon as well. Customers expect us to come up with what they want, despite the fact that they are not sure exactly what that actually is. This is the main source of uncertainty at the start of a project – a lack of clarity in terms of requirements.

Agile project management methods, such as Scrum, seek to mitigate this problem by doing a bit of work and asking the customer for feedback. This is based on a well understood principle: while the customer does not know what s/he wants, s/he knows what s/he doesn’t want. So if the aspect of the product we present does not meet requirements, we now at least have a talking point and can ask what is wrong with it. Based on this feedback, we can do better next time.

The important point that every project manager must appreciate is that the customer wants what the customer wants, not what the project manager thinks s/he wants. This is why architects spend a great deal of time socializing with clients – they need to tap into their aesthetic sensibilities and get a feel for what the customers consider good taste. Project managers also need to get to know their customers and that often means social contact, rather than formal contract negotiation.

As a simple example, visiting someone’s home will reveal much about the occupant. What sort of furniture do they like? Are the rooms cluttered, or sparse? Is the place neat and tidy, or is there chaos all over the place? Is everything tidied away, or are there dirty dishes in the sink? Believe it or not, these domestic traits can reflect more about the customer than any amount of formal conact.

Sparse, functional furnishings, suggest that the person might prefer a basic user interface to a software package. In contrast a customer who has a very over-furnished dwelling could be attracted to feature-rich hi-fi systems with lots of little buttons. Musical tastes can also provide insights, as can food. You will quickly tune in to a set of values that indicate attitudes towards price, complexity and risk. Meeting your client’s expectations then involves producing a product, service or result that aligns with the customer’s perception of what a good product, service or result is. The important thing is: your role as the project manager is to deliver what the customer wants, not what you want and this is why the Project Management Institute urges all Project Management Professionals (PMPs)® to avoid what it calls “Gold Plating”.

Gold Plating is often called bells and whistles – adding in stuff that the customer did not ask for, in the hope that, by going the extra mile, we will exceed expectations. But always remember that old taxi example: if you hire a taxi to take you home, the last thing you want is to be taken an extra mile!

How the customer reacts to the extras you have included in the product will depend first and foremost on how well you have implemented the specified requirements. Fail to get these right and your extra effort will not only fail to appease the client, it will probably result in ire being heaped on your head, along with the question: why didn’t you do what I asked you to do?

So your task, as project manager, is not to rush development so that you have time to add extras. Instead your goal is to get inside your client’s head and understand what they consider successful outcomes. Then implement the product, service or result in a manner that will appeal to the client’s particular traits.

Software designers are familiar with the concept of non-functional requirements – things like security, performance and scalability. These have to permeate the entire software architecture. Similarly, we should add the customer’s viewpoint as a non-functional requirement. In that way, we can produce uncluttered, simplified designs, or highly ornate, complex ones, depending on the client. In either case, we are producing the same functionality, but the difference is in presentation; the result is the difference between satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

Companies like Daimler Benz, BMW and Lexus understand these traits. A certain type of customer will opt for the patrician dignity of the Benz, another will prefer the self-made confidence of the Lexus, while the brash, look-at-me statement of a BMW will appeal to another cohort. As cars, they are roughly the same, but as statements, they are entirely different. Remember that when you are managing your next project. You might be building an oil refinery or a new piece of lab equipment, but pause for a moment and forget what the output of your project will do. Instead, ask yourself what statement will it make.

Velopi’s project management training courses are based on the Project Management Institute’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. If project management is intriguing for you, you might consider one of our project management certification courses that are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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