Outcomes, behaviours and commitment

A friend asked me what advice I’d have about what makes for a good project kick-off, either from the supplier or customer side. I think from the supplier side, which is where I’ve gained most of my experience, I’d have to say setting of expectations, particularly for agile initiatives where there really is some uncertainty about what’s being built (as opposed to people approaching a fixed-deliverable project using agile techniques because they somehow think this will deliver it faster!). These expectations would primarily be around outcomes, behaviours and commitment.

Ideally, the project or initiative needs to be tied to outcomes and not activity or features, so something like “our colleagues in finance need to be able to process 100 invoice per-day with no additional people” rather than “we need X way of processing invoices”. The outcomes could also include learning, possibly learning whether there is much point in going on with the project (this is one of the key objectives of the discovery phase we use in Co-op Digital initiatives). I’ve regularly seen both customer and supplier disappointed because they didn’t explicitly agree the expected outcomes of an initiative or a particular phase of it. It’s a surprisingly easy trap to fall into as efforts to agree outcomes often stall at the “but it’s obvious” or “this is really hard to describe” stages, both of which are red flags.

In terms of behaviours, the people delivering the outcomes need to have as much leeway as possible on how they deliver. As long as they are delivering reasonable outcomes at agreed checkpoints then it shouldn’t matter if none of the team are in until 10am in the morning (I’ve had this as a customer of a well-known consultancy) as they may be working later, working offsite, or they may be doing neither! If they are delivering the outcomes then it shouldn’t matter. The checkpoints should be frequent and should show reasonable progress, which leads on to…

The people who say that they want the project or initiative to happen need to be committed to it. One of the common failure modes of agile (and probably most other) initiatives I’ve seen is lack of commitment from stakeholders. If the team are doing fortnightly show & tells and the stakeholders either don’t show up or only come to the first couple then it’s a sign that this isn’t that important to them and probably indicates that the team are not getting the engagement from the customer and their people. Without this, anything based on outcomes and a set of alternative paths for getting there is likely to descend into arguments about what is delivered as it didn’t match the image in the customer’s mind at the start. If there are multiple stakeholders then it’s almost certain to end up like this (think “Brexit” – what was it people asked for?)

It’s important to thrash these things out up-front because otherwise there will be inevitable disagreements. If you can’t agree on these things then maybe you’re not a good customer/supplier match. Even if you can agree on them up-front, there should be break clauses (if it’s contractual) or re-evaluation points so that both sides can discuss how it’s going and whether the customer’s idea of “commitment” (turning up to the occasional show & tell) matches the supplier’s idea of “commitment” (e.g. customer representative onsite literally every day) and how this shapes up to reality. In this way, either side has an opportunity to say that it’s not working for them and re-negotiate or dip out.

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