Many projects can come with a series of challenges: interpersonal issues with clients, monetary restrictions, or time constraints, for example. These issues can lead to added stress, leaving individuals feeling as if they are facing an impossible task. This blog series will focus on using the Red Hat approach for helping individuals with challenging projects that help overcome rapid burnout and help individuals feel like a contributor. Seeing how one’s contribution to a project impacts the overall end goal is critical, and knowing at what point someone has maxed out that contribution can be even more important.
I’ve personally been through a few of these daunting projects. Two examples come to mind, both of which I experienced in the last five years of consulting:
- A finance company needed to have a new process in place for an SEC regulation going into effect at the beginning of the year. The software to handle this had to be in place by January 1st, or serious consequences would ensue.
- A company had a large subscription to a hosting platform that would expire on a certain date. If the migration off this platform wasn’t complete, significant fees would be incurred.
Ideally, these situations are avoided by proper planning and communication, but unfortunately, some situations lack foresight. I enjoy being assigned to these highly challenging engagements. I find it stretches my problem-solving skills and usually leads to strong bonds with team members and clients once we have overcome the challenge. Not all of these impossible tasks have been a triumph for me, but I’ve seen enough of them fail or succeed in having an idea of what works in these situations.
Entering Into Chaos
At the start of an engagement, a consultant might consider proposing new processes as a solution to their problems, be it Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, or some other technical approaches. All of these can likely improve the client’s productivity over time. However, time is the biggest issue for the consultant in challenging engagements. In the above examples, there were extreme consequences for failing to complete the project on time. This usually leads to stakeholders keeping a close eye on the project from the beginning, looking for early results to justify hiring the consulting team. Because of these setbacks, individuals often start the project in a state I refer to as the "chaotic state." In these situations, it helps to identify early victories, build confidence with stakeholders, and help shift the project's state from chaotic to an efficient process state rather than working against the grain. Getting from chaos to controlled chaos calls for identifying low hanging fruit within the deliverables and turning those into action items. This can build critical momentum in the project from the beginning, potentially leading to a stronger and more successful finish.
Low Hanging Fruit
Looking over deliverables and identifying early victories is the number one strategy that can create a successful project, especially one that appears difficult initially. This calls for communication with the client and making sure to understand the goals of the project. In most cases, the contract defines these deliverables, but they usually need to be clarified further as set tasks to be handled by individuals. Try to identify tasks that can be completed quickly, in which a consultant can have confidence while discouraging tasks at the beginning are time-consuming and may call for further research. The 80/20 rule is an example of this; a natural ratio often found in the fields of economics, biology, and computer science that describes cause vs. effect. Summarizing the application of this rule as it relates to project management: "80 percent of the overall work is completed with 20% of overall effort". This is where the individual needs to be prepared to push back some with the client or project manager and weigh the priority vs. difficulty level of a task. However, be cautious in unintentionally creating technical debt in doing so.
This will build confidence with the stakeholders, as they can see completed tasks right away. Communication of completed tasks is key to maintain visible progress with stakeholders and the client. I find preparing a demo showcasing the project’s progress is extremely effective. If the client has neglected to set a formal process in place for demos, sending a quick screen capture video with voice over is sufficient when an in-person or online meeting is not possible.
Don’t Throw a Wrench, Plant a Seed
Even during challenging engagements, the focus never changes: We should always want to set up our clients for success through improved processes. When time restrictions or cultural differences prevent teaching a process upfront, the consulting team needs to identify ways of helping grow processes without throwing a wrench into it. Challenging engagements and efficient process change push back often go hand in hand when requirements are tight. Pushing the client towards a more productive direction can be enabled by slowly planting seeds of process change. Does the client need to adopt agile? Start by suggesting a daily standing meeting and using a Trello board to track tasks. While this still might be a waterfall approach, by slowly introducing the client to this process, the team will more effectively help them adapt to something new over time. This will prevent the client from feeling overwhelmed during a critical period of time.
Achieving customer success on challenging projects can be like a marathon: patience and endurance are critical to finishing the race. An individual will not be able to change the process and culture of a client from day one. They will find they will never completely change it during the length of the project. This is why it is critical to identify early victories and build confidence with stakeholders. Using these tips, you can slowly plant seeds that may eventually grow into an efficient process that allows the client to operate at a high velocity.
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