Writing the Project Purpose

Have you been on a project where people just argue all the time about the features or the scope? Or a couple of the developers come up with software that contradict each other? Or no one seems to know what they are doing? Or maybe the team questions why this project is being done at all?

I have come across these kinds of things in a lot of projects. Let’s take a look at a real world example and show what you can do to fix these kind of problems.

No one knows what the project is about
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One year into a 4 year project, I was invited to take over as Senior Business Analyst and Assistant Project Manager. The team had really been struggling with determining which requirements were part of the scope of this project and which were not. There were a lot of arguments going on between the Project Sponsor and the various stakeholders about what the project was supposed to deliver. The project should have been much further along after one year, but it kept being delayed while everyone tried to figure out what they were supposed to be doing.

Whenever I hear something like that, it is obvious to me that there is some problem with the project vision. Either it has not been shared with everyone, it is poorly described, or possibly some of the stakeholders disagree with it.

In this kind of situation, the first thing I want to look at is the project purpose or project vision to see if it is well written. Then I will interview key people in the project to see if they agree with the project purpose. I use this approach to discover what the problem is – a problem with the vision, with communication, or with lack of agreement.
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Have you experienced something like that on your projects? I find it really frustrating to watch a team not making progress due to lack of direction and I just can not stop myself from trying to fix it.

Even though the project was already one year old, I went back to the original project documentation to discover what the project was supposed to be about. I also interviewed the Project Sponsor, Project Manager, and the key stakeholders of the project to discover what they thought the project was about.

I had the perfect excuse to do all that – I was new to the project so it was reasonable for me to ask what it was about.

I discovered that there were two, closely related projects, both of the vision documents were poorly written and confusing, and there was some of the same information describing the purpose and scope of each project. No wonder everyone was confused! Not only was the scope not clear on this project, but it was related to scope that was not clear on a second project!
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In this situation where the two scopes were closely intertwined, I got permission from the Project Manager and Stakeholders to put both project visions together and rewrite them as if there were just one project. I analyzed the new vision, made sure it was clear and easy to understand, and got it approved by the Project Manager and the Stakeholders.

Once everyone understood the whole thing, they were able to divide the vision up into independent pieces. They actually redefined this as five new projects, each of which was well-defined and independent. That meant that instead of doing the projects one after the other, they could do all five at the same time.

We went from having one large confused team to having five small focused teams. There were no more arguments about which requirements were in scope or out of scope, no question about what was the most important thing to work on next, and the stakeholders were much more confident that they were getting what they needed.
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What other approach might I have taken? Project 2 had not started yet, so what I had initially considered was just looking for related scope items and putting them all together in either project 1 or project 2, being careful to balance how much work was in each one based on their projected size.

In my particular situation this did not work for two reasons. First, there was a lot of overlap between the projects, so it was much easier to just put the whole set together to review. Second, the scope items were written so poorly that it was not clear which ones were related.

Before writing the project vision, I had to go back to the sponsor and stakeholders to find out what was intended by each scope item and rewrite a new set of scope items based on what was really meant. If the scope items had been well written, then it would have been easier to just move scope items between projects to remove dependencies and overlap.
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In general, how do you fix problems with the project vision or project purpose? The basic approach is this:

  1. Review any written documentation
  2. Interview the Project Sponsor and key stakeholders
  3. Put together all the information you have learned and if there are any inconsistencies or areas that do not make sense, review the information with the Project Sponsor and together write something that does make sense.
  4. Analyze what you have written to be sure it is sensible and complete, do more research if you need to, rewrite the project vision if necessary, then verify it again with the Project Sponsor.
  5. I like to put the information into a formal statement or document so everyone gets the information the same way. This does not have to be a big document. I have worked on projects were 3 goal statements of one sentence each were enough to describe the project.
  6. Be sure to share this with everyone on the team. You will not remove the confusion unless everyone knows what the project is about.

Usually it is not much work to write a good project vision or project purpose. When it is a lot of work, that means it is even more important to do it right.

Why?

When it is a lot of work to write the project vision or purpose that is because there is a lot of uncertainty and misunderstanding. It can be a lot of work to resolve the issues and gain clarity.

Why is this important?

My project that was behind schedule after a year not only made up time, but finished early once everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be delivering.

I see this every time that the project purpose, vision, or scope is poorly described – the team wastes a lot of time trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing. If you spend a relatively small amount of time making sure the purpose of the project is clear, you save a lot of time for all the team.

Is Anyone Doing Solution Anthropology?

I was chatting with a good friend recently who said “Solution Anthropology sounds really cool, but is anyone actually doing it?” I can say with certainty that yes they are and I see the demand growing.

In recent weeks I have spent quite a bit of time with a number of different companies in the US and Europe talking about their product (especially software) development processes. As part of these discussions the topic of Solution Anthropology came up. These companies are already trying to do some work in that domain and are looking for more information. These companies are in a variety of sectors. The ones I have been talking with recently are in manufacturing, insurance, banking, and product development.

One of the companies trained about 35 people in Solution Anthropology a couple of months ago and they have a large waiting list of people who did not get into that training. They wanted to know if I could provide training for more of their people. Of course I said yes! (At this time I am one of the two companies I know of that offer training in Solution Anthropology. Our courses are consistent with each other so this client will be working with both of us to get everyone trained.) Much of the work will be using Solution Anthropology to examine their own company to see how they can provide a better work experience for their employees. This is especially important in areas where they are seeing high turnover.

An award winning mobile app design team at another company has asked me about Solution Anthropology training and follow up coaching because they think they can be even better. Their company is happy to do this because the quality of their apps has let them get a lot of customers from competitors in their market. Creating apps that delight the users is really important in markets where the products are very similar and there are a lot of choices for the consumer.

Another company is considering training 20 people in Europe because they see Solution Anthropology as a way to get better-described work packages for the implementation teams that are scattered around the world. The only thing delaying it is they want to hire locally, but the only companies offering training in Solution Anthropology at this time are in the US.

I also have been contacted by a couple of startups who are trying to apply Lean Startup principles. They see Solution Anthropology as the set of skills they can use to closely interact with their customers and quickly grow their business.

These are just a few recent examples. I have not yet found a company that told me Solution Anthropology was of no use to them. Most companies have people with a lot of the skill sets they need, but it had not occurred to anyone to blend those practices to focus on the user in their native environment.

I discovered on my trip that a lot of people have been downloading my pdf “Solution Anthropology Explained” and passing it around inside their companies. And I got some great feedback on it, so I know they actually read it!

If you have not read it yet, you can get it hereĀ SolutionAnthropologyExplained.pdf

Geri

Why is Software so Awful to Use? A Case Study and Call to Action.

Why are apps, websites, software, and other products still not very nice to use? We’ve spent more than a decade as an industry focusing on user experience, and yet I consistently find myself frustrated with the miserable experiences I have doing the simplest things on websites, in apps, in other software, and using a variety of consumer products.

I just went through a miserable experience trying to update an airline reservation. I won’t mention which airline because despite their really awful website (let me fix it, please, please, please) I love the company and in real life (not the web) my interactions with them are superior. Bear with me as I describe my experience (or see my conclusion at the bottom).

I found my reservation easily enough and found the button to change just one leg. That was nice. I wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally changing the other leg. On clicking the button, I expected to see details about that leg, but instead I got a choice of four buttons: change cities, change dates, change times, change seats. Ummm, I’m changing all of them. So what should I pick? I choose change cities and assume the rest will be changeable as well (this turned out to be a correct assumption).

I see my current flight information across the top. That is nice. It verifies what I am changing. It turns out having that information was REALLY IMPORTANT. There are 3 radio buttons: round trip, one-way, multi-city. Round trip is already selected. Wait, I’m changing only one-way. Why is round trip selected? The whole trip is round trip, but I’m only changing one part. What to choose? I left it alone because surely they would have defaulted to the right choice. Being skeptical I scrolled down the page and saw they wanted me to select travel in two directions. So they didn’t default to the right choice. I scroll back to the top and select the one-way radio button.

I had to wait for the page to refresh. When it refreshed the page now showed select a date. Wait, I haven’t changed my city yet! I scroll back to the top to pick a city. The departure city is fine, I select the destination. The screen refreshes back to select a flight and the departure city is not the one I selected. What? I did not change the departure city and I have yet to select the date. Scroll back to the top and select the correct departure city. Which changed the destination too, so I had to reselect that.

Wait for the screen to refresh. Again. It refreshes at select a flight. Thankfully it now has the right cities, but I have not yet selected a date. Scroll back up to select a date. The screen refreshes back to select a flight, but the date has not changed. Scroll back up and see that the correct date is selected. Re-clicking it does nothing, so I select a different date. The screen refreshes at select a flight and it does have the date I just selected (which is not the date I actually want). I scroll back up and select the date I really want. The screen refreshes again at the point to select a flight.

At least now I have the right type of flight (one-way), the right cities, and the right date. Now I select a flight. I get a banner saying the change is being processed, then a message that said something went wrong, try again, or call us.

I just wanted to cry from frustration at that point.

This whole process took me far longer to do than it took you to read about it, and they are asking me to start over. They even provided a helpful start over button!

Sadly, my experience that day was far from unique. That is crazy. We humans should not have to work so hard to do simple things with a computer.

I want to do something to make things better. This is what gets me so excited about Solution Anthropology.

Solution Anthropology blends practices from Business Analysis, User Experience, Solution Design, and Anthropology for the purpose of creating solutions that delight the users. It is a user advocacy role and a terrific way for Business Analysts to grow their knowledge in a way that expands career opportunities. Solution Anthropologists work in companies of all sizes from major corporations to startups and work on solutions in areas such as software, business process improvement, branding and imaging, mobile, and product development.

I am working with my clients to incorporate Solution Anthropology practices into their projects, whether Agile, Waterfall, or other. Everyone is happier when we do. And maybe someday I’ll get my favorite airline to apply Solution Anthropology to their website!

Geri