Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Does Everyone Really Understand?

You’re a project manager tasked with leading a critical development project. It’s a big project for your company with significant complexity and a wealth of features. You’ve got a time-critical deadline to deliver a high quality, fully-tested product to market. You think you’ve nailed down the product requirements and project plan so that all involved understand, agree, and are working toward the same goals. But have you really?  Does everyone really understand?

We’re all familiar with the tire swing cartoon, shown above and in an earlier Effective Engineering e-Newsletter (see What Do Your Customers Really Want?) showing the various versions of different organizations’ interpretations of product requirements, including the last one showing what the customer really wanted and expected. And this is for an extremely simple project.  How does this compare to your really complex project? How do other organizations involved see and understand the project? What do the people of the various organizations involved really think they’re being asked to do? Do they really understand the details of their assignments?

Every organization sees products and projects through their own prisms, and their perspectives will color their understandings of their assignments and their approaches.

  • Product Management concentrates on defining what the product should be from a feature/function requirements perspective and how it can address demand being heard from prospective customers. 
  • Project Management concentrates on planning the tasks, resources, timeframes, dependencies, costs, and other major and minor elements of getting all the project pieces required in place in an effective and sensible manner.
  • Engineering concentrates on what it will take to design and develop the product, including technologies, technical resources, staffing profiles, capital equipment, development planning and scheduling, dependencies, likely bottlenecks and ways to plan for and around them, cost estimates, timing, etc. 
  • Marketing concentrates on how they will go about marketing the product including how they can best present the product to show how it will meet customers’ needs and thus spark customer interest and demand.  They develop marketing material and presentations based on their understanding of what the product is and does.
  • Sales concentrates on how they will be able to position and price (and discount) the product in order to best make money for the company and, of course, themselves.  This includes defining the distribution channels it will sell through and the pricing structures that will support that.  They’re also responsible for forecasting sales by channel, which will help to determine corporate future revenue forecasts that are critical to company success and favorable positioning in their markets.
  • Finance concentrates on product costs, how and where the product can best be built and distributed, how the product can be priced, what margins it can achieve, possible discount structures, revenue and margin forecasts, how it will impact other corporate revenue streams, how it will shape corporate profitability and growth, etc. 
  • Manufacturing concentrates on how and where the product will be built to minimize costs and maximize profitability, internal and/or external resources (including local, domestic, off-shore, etc.) that will be required, supply chain management, inventory planning, etc. 
  • Customer Services concentrates on what will be needed and expected once product begins shipping, training for customer service personnel, support for distribution resources, likely problems expected from end customers, large and small distributors, etc.
  • Other organizations will have their own specific needs and concerns as well, each with their own unique perspectives.

So, when you think, from above, that “you’ve nailed down the product requirements so that all involved understand, agree, and are working toward the same goals”, have you taken all of the broad and often conflicting organizational needs and concerns into account? Do you understand the needs and concerns of each of the organizations and people directly or peripherally involved in this critical project? The answer is almost certainly no (see also What We’ve Got Here Is A Failure To Communicate!).

What can you do to help to minimize the disconnect between what you know, which is dominated by your own perspective, background, and approach, and what all the other organizations and people involved need to know and have clear understandings of? The challenge is likely far more daunting than you may have initially thought. How do you best proceed?

Learn who will be involved, even peripherally, in this project and spend some time with one or more people from each organization to begin to understand what drives them and their organizations (their perspectives/prisms), and to understand their needs. Do your best to answer the questions they may have, and even to answer the questions they will but don’t yet know they’ll have. You will likely learn a lot about what is actually needed to make sure everyone really understands.

This will take time you likely don’t think you have, but it’s far better to spend time up front to enable you to do things right the first time, than to have to do things over when ‘surprises’ occur (see also Doing Things Right vs. Doing Things Over and When Bad Things Happen To Good Projects). Then make sure your project plan takes this all into account. This will almost certainly complicate your project plan, but only in ways that should be taken into account in the first place (see also Plan Based On What You Do Know, and On What You Don’t!).

Let your project be the exceptional one that goes well because it has been truly well thought out and where potential concerns and considerations of all involved have been addressed up front. The one where everyone really does understand!

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