"Peeling the Onion" on Problem Projects

Doug Sisko // March 2014

When working on problematic projects, there are often some common symptoms that arise and cluster together. Your developers may complain of shifting requirements. The project managers think they are capturing the right tasks, but meeting after meeting the requirements seem to change. Clients or stakeholders may start to wonder what their money is actually being spent on during this entire project. When things don’t add up, it’s a good time to “peel the onion” and ask what is REALLY going on.

Hit or Miss?

At the root of things, you, as the development team may assume at face value that what are being represented by the client as the requirements of a project are both true and accurate. For example, you may conduct a requirements gathering session for a Drupal Commons project, and may think you took accurate notes, capturing the client needs. You may then follow up with a meeting to confirm that the team is all on the same page. One month later, you may hear you totally missed something. How is this possible? You talked to everyone on the project team, right?

When things don’t add up, one should ask quickly who the real stakeholder or decision maker is. You may have an “invisible” stakeholder who is driving the real project agenda. This stakeholder may be a business unit lead (for example, a head of marketing, a director of communications) who has vested interest in a project and who also has significant influence in an organization. In many cases, these stakeholders are not highly technical, but rather are pushing a web-based project as a means to solve a larger organizational or business problem.

Relating to Different Stakeholders

Let’s say you are working on a Drupal Commons project that will be a Jive-replacement for a larger company. Yes, you, the project manager, need to be able to oversee the face-value requirements of the project. However, you will need to be aware of the external organizational forces driving the project, especially as you relate to clients and provide updates. It is good to remember, your project owners are less concerned about the cool technical details of the project, but rather that you build out a stable, reliable site that will help advance their efforts or internal programs and help their credibility. In short, yes, you are involved in managing a web project, but you need to peel the onion as you need to relate to different stakeholders (both present and invisible) to drive a project to success. Again, it is key to relate your specific project successes to the organizational wins that are trying to be achieved.

As seemingly straightforward as it is to capture requirements and provide status updates, I see many, many projects go bad as you see the layers of communication build up and assumptions get made. At the end of the day, you are typically solving a human or organizational problem with your project using technology. Understanding your projects are a part of this often complex human context, you will relate better to your clients, which in many cases should translate to more efficient and successful projects.

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