We all talk about our users’ or our customers’ needs as if they were written in stone… as if we could nail them down completely with the right probing questions or well-structured methodology.
Well, let me tell you something. Not only are these needs fuzzy at best, but they change during the course of the project. No matter how well we dig and probe, the target will always shift and evolve.
And here’s a bulletin for us all… it should. As we work with our customers—if we’re doing our jobs–we bring them insights they never had before. We provide possibilities they may never have imagined. Their vision of what they want will need to adjust to take that learning into account. As we learn from them, they learn from us and each other, and our collective view of what we are trying to accomplish morphs over time.
The result? If we try to pin the needs down, then build the solution that fulfills them, we will always come up short. We need a way to listen for the changes along the way and to incorporate them without undermining the project.
I can hear some of you out there talking about agile methodology and prototyping. That does a great job of addressing evolution in the features and functions a customer wants, but sometimes at the expense of overall cost and schedule. And we’re all familiar with scope freezing to manage cost and schedule at the expense of features and functions.
My question is how we manage the right amount of evolution, or not, in each of the elements at once. The answer involves an AB comparison approach. At the outset of the project, and also at the beginning of each phase, the delivery team needs to assess the wiggle room in each of the categories:
- What is your most vital deliverable?
- Do you have a budget in mind for it, and if so, how much wiggle room is in the budget?
- Do you have a delivery deadline for this in mind, and how much slippage would you tolerate?
- To what extent do you know exactly what you want for features and functions, and how certain are you of your specifications?
- Would you rather meet your budget or your deadline?
- Would you rather get the solution just right or come in on time? How about on budget?
Rinse and repeat for each key deliverable.
Depending on your customer’s answers, your approach—and the changes you listen hardest for—will be quite different. And it will potentially change for different phases. For example, you might begin with a quick win phase that has “good enough” design and a very crisp deadline. Your second phase might shift to a more flexible deadline and budget with a chance to optimize the features and functions.
Working with Wiggle Room
To use the wiggle room framework, your first task will be to highlight the expectation train wrecks… those areas where, practically speaking, success is impossible. For example, the customer who wants to work with you on the custom design of the best overall solution, but has a fixed budget and aggressive deadline is probably in for a disappointment. This describes almost everyone who has ever worked with an architect to build a custom house, for example.
You’ll also need to keep your eyes open for new train wrecks as the project proceeds. Unless the customer has endless budget and patience, you’ll be well-advised to alert them to the financial and schedule implications of design decisions as these emerge. This also goes for the design implications of schedule and budget changes. Don’t wait for the customer to ask; make it part of your service to them.
Your second task will be to lay out a project approach that honors the fixed and variable elements. Say your tradeoffs out loud (and in writing): “Because we are holding this deadline no matter what, we will be selecting the software vendor based on one workshop and 20 reference calls. We recognize it may not be a perfect fit, but we are willing to let that go to meet our date.” Or, “Because we are limiting our budget to $25,000, we are going to use an open source toolset. We recognize we may need a more robust option later, but we have decided to proceed anyway.”
Finally, use your best active listening to make a blowout success in the area where wiggle room is allowed. After all, your customer will have given up a great deal to open up that space in the project and it’s up to you to make that a worthwhile bargain. If the customer is after a brilliant design, engage that process deeply. Thrill them with it. If the customer has a fixed budget, do your utmost to make it stretch as far as it can possibly go.
As the project proceeds, continue to validate the wiggle room profile by asking the customers if they are still comfortable operating under the given constraints. Take opportunities to remind everyone which of the goals are inviolable.
Recommendations for Customers
As you’re evaluating professionals to help you with your projects, interview them based on the wiggle room framework. Ask them about projects where they kept a fixed deadline or budget and how they performed. Ask them about more open-ended designs and how they managed the other elements in the mix.
When you ask your friends and colleagues to share their experiences with service firms, use the wiggle room framework to categorize the projects you are hearing about. Then make sure you trawl for references on the category of project you intend to do.
Best intentions aside, sooner or later we all end up in a project that’s on the wrong track. We may be down the pike with a brilliant designer who doesn’t have the execution skills to finish the project. Or we’re part way through a fixed budget project with a professional who has no idea what things cost or how to stretch a dollar. As uncomfortable as it may be, we think it’s best to cut and run. Appreciate and respect the value you have already received, then go after the professional who can work with you in the wiggle room you’re in.