Every project is different in some meaningful way, and the same solutions don’t always work in different contexts, but having a set of defined values has always helped me know how to approach each problem. Over the years, I have found myself observing certain principles that have consistently lead to successful projects and happy clients. They aren’t always easy to apply, and in many cases they are intentionally vague. The purpose of these principles is not to provide a recipe to follow, but to define some general guidelines that a smart service provider can figure out how to apply to their particular situation.
Do the right thing
Serve the best interests of the client, the project, and your company (in that order).
Do what is needed
Don’t let your job description limit what you contribute to a project. Do the things that are needed that you are capable of doing. Be sure to communicate with your team about what you plan to take on, and be willing to negotiate with them about sharing responsibilities.
Understand what a client needs versus wants
Don’t assume how they express what they want is the same thing as what is actually needed in the project. Keep digging into each request until you understand “the need” and not simply “the ask.”
Communicate meaningfully and often
Don’t just go through the motions of communication. Talk about what is relevant and important to discuss. It may be that you have a lot less to say (which is fine), so long as what you talk about is what really matters. Do this at every opportunity you have to talk with your team and client.
Communicate until understood
Active Communication, like Active Listening, means checking that the person you are communicating with actually understands what you mean and how to act on that information. Don’t simply “throw it over the wall” and hope it is received. Listen to what others say in response to what you’ve said. Does it align in a way that is clear they understand you?
Explain the consequences
Non-technical (and even some technical) people will not understand the consequences of how work to be done (or redone) affects things like schedule and budget. Explain what things mean in terms your audience will understand, and be able to grasp their impact.
Have honest conversations
Honest conversations mean not avoiding uncomfortable or difficult topics. Honest conversations mean talking about the thing you fear may be an issue later in the project, even if it isn’t a problem yet. Getting on the same page early can often enable you to navigate around potential landmines.
Take personal responsibility and accountability for project success
Be a leader in the project whether you have been assigned a leadership role or not. Lead by example by taking real ownership of your work and by stepping up to help guide others where you have a particular skill, experience, or knowledge. A real leader never needs to be asked to lead.
Give yourself permission to take calculated risks and to fail
The best way to implement change is directly in our projects, the place where we actually work and focus our energy. This takes project leaders who have the courage to take calculated risks, break process where needed, try new things, experiment, innovate. Yes, sometimes that means you are defining the process each time out, sometimes you are redefining in the middle of the project, but really you are redefining it better each time out rather than reproducing mediocre results (or worse, reproducing the same failures).
You build trust within and beyond your team and project by delivering on the things you say you will do. Words are cheap, only results matter. It’s not enough to say, “We should make this change because it will really help,” if there’s no action to produce the resulting change. People lose faith and trust when you don’t act on ideas you suggest.
Allow others to take responsibility
Don’t micro-manage others – allow them to be responsible for their work. This means allowing them to make mistakes and fail. Help them learn from the mistakes, own them, and make fewer (or better) mistakes in the future. Micro-managing makes everyone rely solely on the micro-manager, and leaves no incentive to take ownership of their work.
Exercise situational awareness
Be aware of the circumstances the client is facing at the moment and act appropriately. For example, if your client is under a very tight deadline, but you aren’t resourced 100% on the project, it may be better in meetings not to call attention to the fact that you were working on another project all day yesterday. Instead, focus on what you will be working on. Be mindful of the circumstances others are facing.
Know thy MVP
Understand the project’s goals at the highest level and what constitutes the minimum viable product. Have an understanding of the project beyond just the sub-set of tasks for which you are responsible.
Conversations lead to actions, reports lead to filing cabinets*
Documentation is great. Reports are great. Planning documents are great. But they are also useless if no one reads them. If you produce written material, and you want the client or team to take action on it, have a conversation to talk it through in summary, and then let everyone digest the full document on their own time.
* I can’t take credit for this lovely aphorism
Always deliver value
Focus on delivering value to the client. Ask yourself daily (hourly if need be) what can I do that will be most valuable to the client or project? Ask yourself if the thing you are working on, or about to work on, is the most valuable thing you can be doing, and if not, what would be more valuable, and why aren’t you working on it?