Posted on July 29th, 2012 in - Vicki Wrona, Best Practices, Communication, Lessons Learned, Management, Project Management, Requirements, Resources | No Comments »
By Vicki Wrona, PMP
An important tenet in management or project management is to understand and meet your stakeholders’ needs, including your boss, customers, other management, etc. How is it best to do that? There is (or at least was) the Apple approach, where customers are presented with the product or solution rather than asked up front what they want. Then, there is the prevailing wisdom to ask your stakeholders and have them tell you exactly what they need and you deliver that. Which is correct?
Neither. And both.
Don’t Ask, Just Tell Approach (Too Hot)
Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If I’d have asked my customer what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse’”. When DSL technology was initially developed in the 1980’s, customers could not imagine the capabilities it brought or how they would use the new technology. For example, without someone explaining it, they couldn’t imagine caller id, call waiting, and all the other niceties we can no longer live without. If Apple asked customers what they wanted by holding focus groups, we wouldn’t have requested the iPod, iTunes, iPhone or so many other products we can no longer live without today. Who knew we all wanted to have earbuds permanently attached and be able to carry our music around with us? Certainly not us.
Ask and Fulfill As Described (Too Cold)
The other end of the spectrum is doing exactly what the customer says they want. What’s wrong with that? Well, often they don’t know what they want until you deliver something… and then they know exactly how that doesn’t meet their needs. At that point, they need something more or different.
Combined Approach (Just Right)
As you guessed, the best approach is one that combines some of each of the above philosophies. Certainly, that is easier said than done.
To do this, we need to not only listen to our stakeholders (cold approach) but really listen and gather their real needs. This means not just accepting what they say as is and without question, but using all of our analytical tools to determine how to best solve their problem. Use analytical techniques, observation, surveys, prototyping, proof of concept, whatever you can to get their true requirements. Here is where your expertise comes in, because you may see things they cannot. This means that while we are listening, we know how to ask the right questions to draw out requirements that our stakeholders don’t even know they have, yet (getting warmer). Tim Berry wrote that “understanding the question is often more useful than knowing the answer.” To me, that statement reflects our ability to ask the right questions to get to the true need. Developing prototypes in any form will help stakeholders see what it is they will get, so they can verify earlier rather than later that the end product or service you are creating will truly meet their needs.
Part of this process involves thinking about solutions that may not be what the stakeholder describes or can imagine at this point (getting hot).
This takes much practice and time to get “just right”. With persistence, though, you can master this skill.