Time is a relative experience. A week can feel like a day when a lot happens, or it can drag when things seem to be going badly. Over the last 10 years, we’ve examined success and failure and strived to do all we can to learn as much as possible from both. We say that ‘Triple A Projects’ have alignment, action and accountability in the project team, and that stretches across client, vendor(s) and all related parties alike. Here are some of the truths that we’ve learned over 10 years. See if you can tell which category each fits into (some of them are more than one) 😊
Meeting culture is a cornerstone of business behaviour (and tells outsiders a lot about your business). Meetings are the place where alignment meets the action plan.
I’m a little bit obsessed with meeting etiquette and hygiene. How people attend meetings in a business tells me a lot about the culture of the business. Being prepared, having the right people in the room, keeping to time, ensuring that we’re focused on getting outcomes – this is what we support teams with in project meetings. Like the ‘story structure’ that I was taught at primary school; “a story has a beginning, a middle and an end” so too do meetings. There’s the preparation, the meeting and the follow-up. There are whole books written by people much more qualified than us on how to create good meeting purpose, [add ref] and I have written about it and can also refer you to other experts if you want to dive into this more but suffice to say it’s more than just turning up with a notebook. We’ve all been to meetings that could have been an email or ones that don’t really seem to have a purpose. If it’s outgrown its purpose, then maybe it doesn’t need to be a meeting anymore. Taking stock of the meeting flow, timing and attendees throughout the cycle of the project is part of how we ensure that your team are using their time and energy to best serve the outcomes.
If the project is not supported at the top, then it’s doomed. Instead, put your energy into education and alignment. That way, when you do start, everyone is with you.[Alignment & Action]
One of the harshest lessons we’ve ever learned was where we thought we had engagement from the top (via a sponsor in the business), but when it came down to it, we really didn’t. The sponsor, a very senior person in the business, was clear about what they needed to deliver, and we were aligned with that. Other parties in the business were not and had lots to say. The organisation was not very experienced in projects, and instead of working through the issues with the partner, they folded the project before going live. Clients that are more project experienced and mature will have a greater understanding of their own role and required contribution to the project and its success. On reflection, we should have identified that this client needed more alignment work before heading into the action stage.
In projects, it’s important to establish good working habits early. [Alignment & Action]
Missing deadlines early in a project, it’s tempting to think that you’ve got time to make it up. We’ve all been guilty of underestimating the amount of time a task will take, but if a project starts out this way, then it sets the tone for the rest of the project. Not addressing slipping deadlines or expectations that are not met doesn’t serve you, the client, or the vendor(s). Committing to and meeting deadlines for one another is part of what makes project teams’ work’. It creates trust when we believe that others will do their part and contribute their expertise to the project. Getting some wins shows a team the product of meeting commitments early and helps build confidence and trust in the team. If this can be built into the project early, it can create momentum.
Prepare for things to ‘be bumpy’ the first time (and keep practising). [Action & Accountability]
It does actually happen that things go to plan a lot of the time, but you need to be mentally prepared for them not to. Picking yourselves up and having another go is part of the learning and developing of working process that happens in projects for teams. One of the most critical elements that contributes to your project success is the mindset you bring. If you expect things to always go well, then you’re going to get very disheartened, frustrated and exhausted very quickly. Expect that practice will be required and plan for it. Adapting to the changing circumstances of what’s going on in the project and the business sets your team up with a greater chance of success.
Projects are a marathon, not a sprint. Managing energy to keep enough momentum through the difficult stages allows people to finish strong [Action]
Just like a race it’s important to start strong and balance this with leaving enough in the tank to finish well too. Limping over the finish line, exhausted with no energy to do the job once the project is complete, doesn’t serve the clients business objectives. We’ve learnt that there are ebbs and flows for different roles in the project, allowing (encouraging) time for people to take some rest when their workloads are lower means they can come with fresh energy when needed. Each team member needs to be able to manage their energy and take some small breaks along the way to keep themselves well to the end of the project.
Everything takes longer than you think (we are as guilty of this as the next human). Allowing some ‘give’ where you can, will create space for the unexpected [Action]
Everything takes longer than you think. It takes time to set up the project team, time to explain how things work and time to create alignment in a team. The allowed on a project is often not calculated by people who will do the work. Often, time pressures are driven by other external constraints like what the vendor can fit in, a launch or business deadline. Humans are hard-wired to be optimistic and are terrible at estimating how long things will take. If you have a firm time constraint, other parts of the project need to be flexible; what can be postponed, refined later, and rethought to work differently. Working to time constraints often requires us to be brutal about what scope looks like, but that doesn’t mean that all ‘nice to haves’ should be sacrificed. Consider carefully where your biggest benefits are and put them in first.
You’re either winning, or you’re learning. We’ve learned a lot. [Action] [and Analysis]
Even when you think you’ve failed, you’ve learned that something didn’t work. That’s not a loss. Being able to bounce back from setbacks is a learned behaviour that sets apart the experts from the beginners. Brene Brown has written a whole book about ‘rising strong’ and this idea, of being able to bounce back from disappointment and take the learning and apply it to the next phase, is a key skill that the project team needs to develop. We’ve always looked to learn as much as possible from our mistakes. The project where the top-level management pulled out before completion was analysed and reviewed multiple times to extract as much as we could from it about client engagement, alignment and commitment to a project.
Change is learning new habits and skills. [Action]
Change is not easy; the most significant thing an internal team are doing in the execution of a project is learning. Learning new things takes up a lot of energy (just think about how exhausted kids are in those first few weeks of school). Learning how to negotiate with each other, how to communicate ideas, how to experiment and improve (or get out quickly). Learning a new process or way of working usually means that we’ll make mistakes, have to repeat some things and adjust.
Software needs input from the business experts to serve its purpose. [Alignment]
Getting software working well in your business is like adjusting to a new phone. A phone doesn’t come installed with all your apps; it doesn’t have your preferred ringtone, links or email; you must set it up and learn how to use it. Once it’s been in use for a while, it feels incredibly familiar. You can’t make software familiar to a clients business without understanding their purpose and processes.
Being clear about what the result looks like improves success rates [Alignment]
Getting the client and the vendor aligned to deliver a project is a bit like building a bridge; they’re starting from different points, but it’s essential they meet in the middle, or there’s no way the bridge will serve its purpose. We have seen multiple times that even the interpretation of a word, like ‘pack’ can mean many different things depending on who you’re talking to and which part of the process you’re in. One ERP implementation did require a whole meeting (with diagrams) about packs, after multiple conversations had created confusion between the client and the vendor. Clarity about terminology is just one example of how clarity in outcomes is so critical. The clearer the client can be about what it is they are trying to achieve and how they know they have achieved it, the more likely success will follow. Finally, one additional element (learning) that you can always bring to projects to make them just a little better is a little levity and fun.
Lightening the mood makes the team more positive about the project.
The projects we work on are serious for the businesses that we work with, but that doesn’t mean that every conversation or interaction should be sombre. A little levity in the form of chocolate or humour lifts the spirits, and if you can lift your own spirits, you’re more likely to lift the spirits of those around you.