(Almost) All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth
The old holiday song offers one simple request: All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth. And I contend that the youngster in that melody, like many of our customers, is lying. Lying unintentionally, but lying. (Lying through his teeth?)
Why would I pass such harsh judgment? Because it's true. This goes to one of the classic concerns about the project manager's relationship with business analysis, the customer, and the marketers in an organization -- give them an inch, and they'll take a mile.
Start with our toothless holiday wonder here. Imagine a small child who has lost those vital teeth and offered that plea. In mid-December, his teeth begin to crown through the gums. And on Christmas morning?
"Merry Christmas, young man!"
"Merry Christmas, Mom. Which presents are mine?"
She reaches down, pats his cheek, kisses his lips. "These."
The child would be beside himself. He would believe (perhaps justifiably) that he had been completely short-changed and robbed of all hope of holiday cheer.
"But you asked for two front teeth, and they're coming in!"
"Screw that!" replies the ungrateful wretch. "I meant it metaphorically! It's all I wanted, not all I expected."
And from there, it's all downhill.
Of course, we could have avoided this nightmarish little scene if we had communicated real expectations and a shared understanding of project and personal objectives.
Yet, like our giftless urchin, customers often assume that we understand when they're speaking in metaphors and generalities, and when they're really expressing precisely what they want. We cannot be expected to be the customers' psychic friends, but we should be expected to validate and double-check our solutions before jumping headlong into projects. Internal projects. External projects. Waterfall. Agile. It really doesn't matter.
I often preach this gospel in classes that I teach, and I love the participants who counter that they never get to set the objectives with the customer. "It was done before I ever got to the project," they say. "I inherit these things fully formed!"
My reply? "I don't care." I really don't. Just because you didn't get to craft the original version of the objectives for an effort doesn't mean that you don't have the honor of clarifying those objectives. In fact, those who inherit projects midstream have a much better opportunity to ask the most probing questions.
"I realize I'm the fourth person to run your project, and I want to ensure that you and I share a common understanding of what the project is all about. Here's my version of a project scope statement just to make sure we're on the same page."
To safely shepherd the customer through the experience of regaining two adult central incisors to replace the 'baby teeth' which fell out over a year ago. The project must be complete no later than December 25. Success shall be determined by the appearance of said incisors between the adult upper canines. No other deliverables shall be expected or delivered.
The customer may be satisfied OR the customer may be beside himself. He might believe he had been completely short-changed and robbed of all remaining expected holiday cheer.
"But you asked for two front teeth, and they're coming in!" we reply.
"I wanted carols! Greenery! Poinsettias! The big guy in the red suit! I meant the front teeth thing metaphorically! It's all I wanted, not all I expected."
In many cases, the only way to find out real expectations is to write them down. And we can use virtually any time of year as a license to rewrite them. Consider the following opportunities:
- The winter holidays (since team changes often happen over the holidays, it's a good time to refresh the objective statement)
- New Year's (with the natural penchant for new perspectives)
- Anniversaries (personal, professional, project, team member, relationship)
- New seasons (autumn, spring, football, soccer, lacrosse)
- Business changes
- Management changes
There are a million and one excuses for refreshing the objective statement. But most important among them is the excuse that we want to refresh the relationship and ensure we're going to end up with a happy customer.
If you ever want a holiday version of the confusion between project manager and customer, look no further than this Dickensian exchange between a visitor and Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge. First, the project manager on the "charity project" offers his perspective:
"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."
Scrooge then leads into his understanding of the problem and the solution.
"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.
"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman.
"And the Union workhouses?" demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"They are. Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."
"The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?" said Scrooge.
"Both very busy, sir."
"Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course," said Scrooge. "I'm very glad to hear it."
We can clarify. We can elevate the conversation. We can improve relationships. But we need to take those relationships to the next level. If we haven't affirmed that we have a common understanding, we run the risk of appearing Scrooge-like, indeed.
God bless us, Everyone.