Written Words for Projects

Written Words for Projects

I have always believed in the power of the pen. The incredible power of written and spoken language. I enjoy words, language and the expression of thoughts and feelings that words can provide. The recent Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris remind us that some would take away that freedom of speech and expression if they could.

But this is not a political article. It is about how studies on projects and project failures consistently find that something like 80 percent of project failures can be linked to a failure in communications. Project managers, stakeholders, and people working on those projects are not using their written words to get the results they should and could. How does that happen? Let me share a case study.

A couple of years ago I was asked to look at a struggling project. I spent about a week and couldn’t find all of the material that defined what the project was trying to achieve. So I decided to do a new project kickoff.
We use a Smart Methodology developed by Dr. Francis Hartman from the University of Calgary. A good 3 hour planning session pulls out most of what a Project Manager and the team needs to get a project rolling. It is a process that uses color coded Post-its to solicit information from the assembled stakeholders. I tell the team again and again, ‘If you think it is important, Write it down.’

The process is designed to draw out the vision that the project should deliver: Key Results, Stakeholders, Risks, Priorities and the deliverables. We start with ‘Who, Won and Done’. In reverse order, tell us what this project should deliver. Write it down on a Green Sticky and put it up on the board. The process is great in that 15 or 20 people can all put up information at the same time. And they do. You end up with dozens of these ‘Key Results’ that the project team or the customer expect. We put it on paper.

The same process with the Won. What does a successful project look like? Write it down.

And then the Stakeholders. We shift to Purple stickies to capture who are all the people involved and affected by this project. And which of them get to make the call on whether this project was successful or not. Write it down.

We continue with Risks and Deliverable using Pink and Yellow stickies. By the end of the 3 or 4 hour session, the walls are covered in color.

By the time we wrap up the first session we have a clear definition of what the project is supposed to deliver, what it needs to do to be successful, and who is making that call. It is also a bit of fun and can be a team building exercise. On the failing project is was a chance for me to meet the entire team face to face.
Most people, over 90 percent, think the sessions are good and productive. I think the proof is in the outcomes. I have not had a project fail since we started using the method. I am believer.

But on the failing project, as everyone was leaving one lead held back. I could see she wanted to talk. As the room cleared out she said ‘I don’t want to come across as negative. But for all the people that were here for 3 hours, all you have achieved is to put in writing what we have been talking about for almost a year.’

I have kept my job by, among other things, learning when NOT to laugh out loud into the face of a stakeholder.
Imagine how much success they could have had so much sooner if they had simply ‘Written it Down.’ So in 3 hours we had accomplished something they had not in nearly a year.

Now you have it written down in words. Ink on paper. What a powerful tool this now becomes. You can share this common vision with dozens, even hundreds of people. You can articulate what you are doing, when, why and how. You open the vision up to sharing and debate. You can let people poke at it, improve it, point out flaws, have it peer reviewed, put it through the crucible. Just as steel is hardened and tempered to become stronger and less brittle, so the ideas and vision are tested and improved.

But the process has another great feature. Buy in. Too often projects are hoisted onto stakeholders. The project is done ‘To’ them , rather than ‘With’ them. This Smart process allows all of the stakeholders to feel they have been given a chance to provide their input. They each have a chance to put in writing what they want or need from the project. And they have been given a chance to provide their concerns by collecting risks they see for the project, themselves and the organization. And it is all written down in words in ink on paper.
In three hours you can achieve what a year of talking does not. A written down vision. Now you can put it into action. You can plot your course and progress. You can mobilize a team to begin to realize that vision.

The bigger the program and the bigger the team, the bigger the need for good communications becomes. I recently program managed the transformation of an I.T. infrastructure for a major electrical utility. While developing the Communications plan for that program we realized that we had over 200 people we needed to keep on the same page. Those 200 people had to have the same vision, the same goals, the same understanding of processes, methods, issue management, change management, budgeting, reporting and escalations. An old Accenture advertisement once likened this kind of management to herding cats. Nearly impossible. But it can be done. You can keep 200 plus people on the same page and singing from the same song book.

But first you have to write the words down on the page.

Danny Aldham PMP