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Don VanDemark's picture
Don VanDemark  | Senior Project Manager
May
17
2012

With something as simple as the post title, I've already broken one of the rules I'll be setting forth here—that of expectation setting. This is not a post about ignoring your clients or putting them aside or picking only the right clients and shunning the rest. This real subject of this post is the '-tion' (pronounced shun) suffix at the end of the three key thoughts: communicaTION, expectaTION and execuTION.

Communication is the first, and I believe the most important, of the Tion trio. Lots of ink (digital and otherwise) is spilled on execuTION as the most important thing and I agree that execuTION is important. I believe, however, that failures in execuTION can be overcome but failures in communicaTION are harder to recover from.

CommunicaTION is about trust. Think about every time you've been really angry with a company, whether it was one who sold you a product or a service. I mean, really angry, not just a little perturbed. When I've talked to others, it was the communicaTION that angered them, not the execuTION. Whether it is admitting to the mistake, not disclosing the mistake or even not apologizing for the mistake, it always revolves around a communicaTION failure, not an execuTION failure.

There are many phases of communicaTION. Early on, the dominant piece is expectaTIONs (which we'll get to later) or properly describing the product or service you will be delivering to the client. After that comes status reporting. If you do not constantly communicate the status of the project, your client only has their own observations to rely upon and that rarely reflects reality because they're only seeing a piece. Regardless of how you communicate status you must have something that the client can rely on for the current state of the project. If you're able to clearly and regularly communicate status and what the client should expect over the next time period, the client has another view of where things stand and what will be coming. If you communicate during your project, you get a chance to fix your mistakes. If you don't, more likely than not, you will not get the chance to fix your mistakes. It's also important to remember that your client contact usually has someone to report to—whether it's a manager, owner, investor, stakeholder, whatever. Providing them with clear status allows them to communicate better with their own internal responsibilities.

A sub-TION of communicaTION is documentaTION. There are many ways to communicate with the client and everyone has their favorite. Verbal communication is an important tool that helps build rapport with a client. However, if you do not immediately follow up those verbal communicaTIONs with documentaTION, you place yourself in a position where it may seem like they did not happen at all. Following any verbal communicaTION, even quick check-ins to gauge the mood of the client, it's imperative to follow up with a quick summary of what was discussed. This serves many purposes:

  • it provides the client with a summary of what you got out of the conversation. There can be a reluctance to do this solely because you do not want to leave something out—I fall into this trap myself. It's important to overcome that reluctance. If it's an important piece, you'll be glad the client reminded you of it; if not, they might not even mention it.
  • it provides the client an opportunity to deliver their interpretation of the conversation.
  • it provides a history of what was discussed. While this can be seen as a way to cover yourself, it's also very valuable to the client to review previous conversations.

In short, if you do not document your verbal conversations, they might as well have never happened.

The next -TION is expectaTION. While this could be a sub-TION of communicaTION, it is powerful enough that it deserves its own callout. This is not simply about lowering expectaTIONs for the client, although that may be what it is most of the time. It is more about sharing your vision of the status and the goals with the client so that you are jointly setting the direction. Regardless of how well written a specification, SOW or contract may be, everyone interprets that piece of communicaTION differently. If the project manager shares his/her expectaTIONs with the client and then turns around and communicates the client's expectaTIONs with the developer, everyone's vision will start to tie together and be aimed at the same goal.

Finally we come to execuTION. While I've said that communicaTION is the most important piece, there's no hiding the fact that if you do not deliver, no amount of communicaTION is going to hide that. However, little bobbles in execuTION can be mitigated by proper communicaTION, documentaTION and expectaTION setting. If you've communicated regularly, documented everything along the way, and set expectaTIONs of what was to come, there should be very little surprises at the end. I was watching a TED video today about experience versus memory by Daniel Kahneman. The talk was about the difference between our "experiencing" selves (those that are in the moment) and our "remembering" selves (how we remember things). He told one story of how colonscopy patients who had a shorter procedure where the sharpest discomfort was at the end remembered that the overall experience was worse than those who experienced the same discomfort but where it was more during the middle of the procedure. I liken this to the recency effect, where the bias is slanted towards the things that happen most recently. How this ties to execuTION is this: if you've done all the proper -TIONs along the way, there may have been discomfort but by the end, everyone knows how it's going to turn out. Put another way, the client is usually happier when surprise issues occur in the middle of the project instead of right at the end before launch. Putting all the -TIONs in place help reduce surprises.

How has missing one of these affected your projects in the past or, conversely, did you have a project where you nailed each of these and the project was a great success? I'd like to hear about them.

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