Starting a New Project Right
Expanding on ideas from Applied Software Project Management by Jennifer Greene and Andrew Stellman
You just landed a software development project with an important client, and you are the liaison between that client and your team. For some, this is an exciting time and for others it’s a bureaucratic nightmare! Maybe, you’re someone who can approach this challenge with a great outlook and in conjunction with a great skillset you’re already confident that you can be wildly successful. However, if you’re not 100% confident, it may help to learn a little management kung fu to make sure your project starts on the right foot. Before we start getting to work, let’s take a moment and consider how the client is feeling.
For the client, they probably have been aware of the need for this software for some time. Usually, such a project isn’t entered into lightly. It took a lot of time, planning, and meetings to come to a decision as to whether or not such a project was necessary and viable. The people who rallied most for this project did so because this software will make their job and their lives easier and more productive. Try to imagine all that excitement these people are feeling. Then, there’s the management: these people might be equally excited if they truly believe that said project will add value to their company or they may be very apprehensive of the costs that said project may entail and worry about the value, or lack thereof, that it’ll return.
There’s a so much to do at this stage. You’ve likely already begun to consider your next steps. You want to begin gathering requirements and getting your developers on the job as soon as possible. Bear in mind that your skills as a manager don’t just apply your team, but also to the clients as well. These first moments can help define the dynamics of all parties involved. One priority at this point should be to establish a relationship with your clients similar to the relationship a tailor has with his clients.
When a project first starts, a project manager’s job is not unlike that of a tailor fitting someone for a custom suit or dress. The tailor’s customers will pay a premium for tailored clothes, rather than paying less for an outfit off the rack. But this customization also means that they will need to spend time with the tailor choosing the patterns, going through fabric swatches, taking measurements, and giving some of the precise instructions necessary to customize the clothing. The customer does not see this as a chore, but rather as a perk. By giving exact specifications, the customer can get exactly what he wants. The project manager should try to form the same sort of relationship with each stakeholder that the tailor does with his customers. He can do this by working to understand exactly what it is that the stakeholder will need from the software, and then by helping the project team to deliver software that is tailored to those needs.
Unfortunately for most projects managers, the typical relationship with the stakeholder is more like the relationship between a car mechanic and his customer. The customer does not see that the mechanic is using specialized skills to fix a potentially difficult problem. He just can’t use his car until the mechanic says it’s fixed. He wants the fix to be as fast and cheap as possible, and he doesn’t fully understand why it costs so much. What’s more, he’s always a little suspicious that the mechanic is doing more work that necessary or ordering a part that’s too expensive… (Applied Software Project Management)
Obviously, the mechanic is the sort of toxic relationship we should strive to avoid at all costs! What can we do to encourage the rapport one would have with a tailor with our clients?
Be the Best Version of Yourself
If you’ve ever played with children, you know that just sounding and looking excited about something can get them pretty energized. There’s a great video of parents who use this same technique on their young child to get him excited about going to a “broccoli farm”. When the car stopped, they revealed they had actually brought him to the circus. His father expected his son to be overjoyed with this sudden change but because they had built up the broccoli farm so much, the child truly believed that the farm sounded better than the circus! While adults aren’t so easily swayed, the same principles do work on a much more subtle level.
Sincerity and Honesty
Firstly, always be sincere. The following advice is meant to help one show their excitement and get the client pumped up as well. At no point will I ever advocate lying to a client or a peer. A friend of mine once said, “Always tell the truth and if they have an issue with it, it’s on them not you.” Those words have stuck with me over the years and I’ve tried to practice total honesty at home and in the office to the best of my ability. That may mean that your offer may seem less appealing than your competitor’s because yours is constrained by reality and theirs is not - but dealings done based on fantasy will always cause someone to suffer and generally will produce an inferior product.
Look The Part
The easiest micro-adjustment you can make is a smile. People feel happier when they’re around someone who seems happy and studies show a smile can make you appear more intelligent and successful. Interestingly, based on a study from 2013, our brains are wired to find smiling people more attractive as well. While you may not care if you look more attractive at work, don’t overlook the Physical Attractiveness Stereotype which is people’s natural inclination to assume that attractive people are more successful and friendly. That alone should encourage you to always put in some extra effort to looking your best in client meetings and at work in general. With that in mind, it’s important to dress the best you can within reason. No one is suggesting you get an Armani suit for client meetings, but little adjustments can make a big difference. As a young, 20-something male, I learned most of my style and grooming tips from Alpha M, but there’s no shortage of Youtubers offering free fashion and makeup advice. On a personal note: fellas, don’t wear ties without a jacket. A simple 2 button blazer will make you look so much more polished and certainly won’t break the bank.
Try to make sure your voice conveys excitement as well. Don’t sound tired, don’t sound bored. Try to sound happy, optimistic, and confident. Most importantly, be sincere. This is an exciting time and if you truly want your client to have a great experience, it shouldn’t be hard to convey that. If you’ve ever met a personal trainer at a gym, consider how they tend to talk. They usually sound like they’re full of energy. They generally sound kind and have a fun tonality in their voice, and it’s sincere because most good trainers want their client to be successful. A client who reaches his goals isn’t a lost client, it’s one who will want to work with you again and who will recommend you to their peers.
Stand up straight! Good posture and keeping your head up will convey confidence. My personal secret? I wear an alignment undershirt on my most important meetings. I’ve been using one for about 4 years and no one’s ever noticed. They have elastic bands in them that make you feel resistance when your posture is bad and feel relaxed when it’s good. They’re available for men and women, just make sure it has a plunging neck so that you can wear it under your clothes discreetly
Eye contact may seem basic, but it’s amazing how frequently people are uncomfortable maintaining eye contact. For some of us, maintaining eye contact is easy while it can be quite challenging for others. If you’re worried about how much is the right amount Dr. Travis Bradberry says,
The key to eye contact is balance. While it’s important to maintain eye contact, doing so 100% of the time is perceived as aggressive and creepy. At the same time, if you only maintain eye contact for a small portion of the conversation, you’ll come across as disinterested, shy, or embarrassed. Maintaining eye contact for roughly 60% of a conversation comes across as interested, friendly, and trustworthy. (Tricks that Make People Like You and Help You Get Ahead)
Don’t be afraid to psych yourself up! Many people give themselves pep talks in private, even 30 Rock’s unstoppable Jack Donaghy needs them from time to time. It might surprise you to learn that a variation of Jack’s technique is backed by Harvard psychologist, Dr. Amy Cuddy, who has researched this topic extensively:
In Cuddy’s experiment, done in collaboration with Dana Carney at Berkeley, one group spent two minutes doing low-power poses — head down, shoulders sunk, eyes averted, looking small. The other group did high-power poses — hands on hips, chest lifted, staring boldly out at the horizon a la Wonder Woman.
Then they took a saliva sample. The high-power posers showed a nearly 20 percent increase in testosterone (the dominance hormone) and a 25 percent decrease in cortisol (the stress hormone). The low-power posers saw a 10 percent decline in testosterone and a 17 percent increase in cortisol.
Cuddy says, “These two-minute changes (in body stance) lead to hormonal changes that can configure your brain to be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress reactive and feeling shut down.” (How 2 minutes of ‘Power Posing’ Can Make You More Confident)
Be Agreeable (Without necessarily agreeing)
Finally, I’ll reveal my secret weapon, a Jedi mind trick used to diffuse potentially uncomfortable situations. I do my best not to lie, but we all find ourselves in situations where someone has said something with which they expect us to agree but when doing so would go against your personal beliefs. That’s where my most handy tool in my arsenal comes in, “That’s understandable” and “That’s reasonable.” Most of the time, even if we disagree with someone, we can employ enough empathy to recognize why they may feel the way they do. At a particularly small company I worked with, the CEO was a very outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and would openly, and frequently, voice his support for the man at the workplace. One or two other coworkers who held positions above me were anything but supporters of Sanders, putting me in a potentially awkward situation. When the CEO mentioned Sanders to me, the conversation went something like,
“Bernie is the most honest politician in Washington! That guy is going to make a great President.”
“That makes a lot of sense, I think that the character of the candidates is definitely going to be a big factor this year. Do you like his stance on alternative energy?”
“Yeah man, we really need to be more green”
”Did you see that Google has a tool that shows you how viable solar panels are at a given address? My home actually has a pretty good rating.”
“Really? Are you going solar?”
“I’m thinking about it. I’m really optimistic about Elon Musk’s solar shingles. I think that the transition from bulky panels to PV tiles is a common sense one. Musk seems like an interesting guy. I really want to get around to reading his book — have you read it?”
My response allowed me to validate the CEO’s opinion — as it was a perfectly reasonable opinion to hold, albeit terribly inappropriate to share at work. At the same time, I never needed to reveal my personal political beliefs (which will remain private!) and I never needed to say anything that might make things awkward with my other peers. I managed to continue the conversation by shifting towards a more safe topic, solar energy and Elon Musk; things that I suspected we’d hold mutual interest.
Go For It!
While you’ll never be prepared for everything, you now have the right outlook and you’re ready to start talking to your clients. You may be tempted to begin creating a list of exactly what this project needs to do, but your next move is actually more important than gathering the requirements. First, you need ensure that you understand the reasoning behind the project and that the stakeholders are confident in your understanding of it.
Engage the Main Stakeholders
You’re confident, you’re ready, you look and feel like you can singlehandedly make your client’s every dream come true. You and your clients are energized and it’s time to put that energy to good use. You need to find the main stakeholders and get as much data as you can for the project. The main stakeholders are the people who will be most impacted by the project whether they’re users or just responsible for the development of the software. Ideally, they’re users, but if not, it wouldn’t hurt to track down a few users too. Yes, I’m advocating for meetings, a lot of meetings. These meetings will provide the framework that will keep you and your team organized and prioritized!
Remember all that excitement and positive energy you’ve been building up? This is when you really need to bring it. You want to establish positive relationship with the main stakeholders. They need to feel comfortable talking to you about any questions, comments, or concerns that they have regarding the project. They need to be able to contact you immediately if any aspect of the project changes, including scope and timelines.
Talk to the main stakeholders extensively about their vision of the project taking as many notes as you can. Each stakeholder may have very specific needs and it’s important to capture all of that information. Clients will appreciate your note taking and will interpret it as a very positive sign that you’re taking the project and their opinions very seriously. You should have a lot of notes, and while you may find that some stakeholders repeat each other, don’t hesitate to copy the same information down more than once. Each stakeholder should leave will the same feeling of dedication from you and having the same data point in notes from different people will help prioritize that information. The outline in the next section will provide you with a good agenda for these meetings.
While working in a large office, I once was given an important project from another team’s project manager. This project was given to him because it was UI/UX intensive, but when they learned it also would require significant complex server side work, I was deemed a good fit for it. The project came straight from the CTO and I was very excited to be doing work that would be seen by the highest members of this company. I asked for a formal requirements doc and was told that none existed. I suggested a meeting with the CTO so I could formulate requirements and get a better understanding of his goals for the project, but was told that would be impossible. The UX project manager assured me that all I needed to do was create a system to perform some specific tasks that he outlined. This wasn’t a particularly satisfying answer, however, I knew better than to push the subject further. A week later, I had created the app and even exceeded my initial expectations. I used some slick JS libraries to make it look amazing — every bit as gorgeous as a dedicated UI dev would make it. I demoed it to the project manager and was told I had knocked it out of the park. I demoed it to the CTO and his response was, “This isn’t what I wanted.” With those words came one of the lowest moments I’ve ever experienced in my professional career as several project managers, including my direct boss, watched as the CTO explained what he wanted and how badly the project had been messed up. Fortunately, much of what I wrote was still usable and I was given another chance but it was a costly mistake that reflected poorly on that manager and myself.
After having a client tell you that you had messed up their vision wasting time, wasting money, and tarnishing your reputation, you will never make that mistake again. It’s best to never make it once, so do yourself a favor and take very thorough notes. Once you’ve gotten notes from all the stakeholders, it’s time to condense those notes and put them to good use.
Learn to Love Paperwork — Vision and Scope Documents
Ok, I hear you groaning already. Nothing is worse than bureaucratic nonsense that does nothing to improve a situation. While I was in school, I worked part time in a computer repair shop and had to fill out numerous documents for every PC we checked in, much of which felt completely superfluous. I’m not advocating for paperwork for paperwork’s sake, but there are few documents that will be more important to you during a project than a well drafted Vision and Scope Document (VSD).
A good VSD need not be overly complicated or long (as oppose to most of the templates you’ll find online). In fact, it should be reasonably easy to create a great one from the notes that were taken with the main stakeholders. The template proposed by Greene and Stellman looks like this:
- Problem Statement
a. Project Background — A summary of the problem this project will solve. Basically an explanation as to why this project is necessary.
b. Stakeholders — A bulleted list of the stakeholders or stakeholder groups (such as Admins, Managers, Customer service, etc…)
c. Users — A bulleted list of the main users or user groups
d. Risks — A list of any risks to the project or any factors that could cause delays
e. Assumptions — A list of assumptions that the stakeholders, users, or project team have made.
- Vision of the Solution
a. Vision Statement — An explanation as to what the project intends to accomplish. What is the end goal?
b. List of Features — A listing of all the features of the project. This will be useful when drafting up the official requirements.
c. Scope of Phased Release (optional) — Smaller projects are often released all at once, but larger ones may be released in parts. Particularly useful if you believe in a Minimum Viable Product approach to development. (More on that later.)
d. Features that will not be developed — This section should be blank initially. Sometimes, for one reason or another, a feature may be removed. This is often due to a later determination that the feature is not necessary. Such a feature should be added to this section with an explanation as to why it was removed so that a reader wouldn’t assume such a feature was overlooked.
Once this document is complete, it should be sent to all of the relevant parties, particularly the main stakeholders. It’s best if you can get them to sign off on the document via email. In doing so, you’ve done all you can do to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Later on, this document can and should be referenced extensively, particularly to help resolve disagreements and misunderstandings regarding the project.
No projects ever run without a single hiccup and it’s foolish to believe that a recipe for such a project exists. However, by communicating effectively with your clients, the odds of a project going awry are significantly reduced. Most problems in the workplace don’t arise because of “good people and bad people” but because of people who have difficulty communicating their thoughts effectively. These techniques are ultimately a matter of improving communication and creating the best possible starting position for a given project. The best project manager I ever worked with would often say that people only truly grasped a small percentage of what you say, would sort of grasp a bit more, and would completely misunderstand around half — it’s a fitting irony I can’t recall the exact numbers he used.