This is the third and final part of a three-part series on the lessons learned from jury duty. In Part 1 I explored the analogy of potential jurors waiting for assignments to stakeholders waiting for their end product. In Part 2 I examined the importance of communicating the complete scope, and in Part 3 I will talk about the importance of communicating the plan. Communicate the plan and provide updates. What could be more obvious—right? Then why is it so hard?
Develop a realistic plan. I think most PMs have been trained to develop a plan suitable to the project, but often our project management training is forgotten in the midst of impossible deadlines and unrealistic stakeholder expectations. Many of us are either overly optimistic (“oh this shouldn’t take too long”) or pessimistic (“let’s give them the worst case so we’ll look good”), when what most stakeholders want is for us to communicate what we know when we know it. Often our overly optimistic estimates come from too little detail in our scope and tasks. Our pessimistic estimates often happen when we assume every risk is likely to occur, so we build mitigating tasks into the schedule.
In my jury duty experience the courts had an abundance of optimism. We were constantly being told to return promptly at a given time, only to wait and wait some more. Sometimes we waited for hours. The worst day was when we were told to arrive at the courtroom at 9:00 in the morning where we waited until 10:30 and then told to take a break. We heard nothing until 11:45 when the court clerk told us to take a lunch break and to be back promptly at 1:00 PM. We were all back at 1:00 PM, but heard nothing until 2:00 PM, at which time the clerk told us that we would start in a half hour—a total of five and a half hours of waiting. From my viewpoint, it wasn’t the waiting that bothered me, but the lack of communication.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve always found stakeholders to be reasonable. It seems to me that when I am not focused on process or methodology, when I communicate status, even when the news is bad, and when I offer alternatives, that sponsors and other stakeholders while not overjoyed, are understanding and appreciative of the communication.
Our best guess is better than no guess at all. Many of us are reluctant to provide dates to our business stakeholders. And there are many reasons for our reluctance, among others:
• We are afraid our estimates will become commitments once they’re in the hands of our sponsors.
• We don’t have enough information to estimate with any degree of accuracy.
• We don’t have enough time to estimate with any degree of accuracy.
Although we often feel like we’re “flying blind,” or rushing to provide estimates based on little information, the fact is that we have more information available to us than our stakeholders have. Sure, we need to influence them to accept that estimates will change as we get more information. But our stakeholders look to us to advise them of the status and forecast of our project activities.
In my jury example, I did not expect the court clerk to provide us with accurate estimates, having realized long ago that the two words—accurate and estimate– shouldn’t be uttered in the same breath. Ideally, however, she would have provided us a time to convene and what to expect. For example, she might have said that we would convene at 9:00 AM and why it was important that we be ready, even if other court proceedings might preempt us. She might have told us that if there were delays, she would come and provide updates to us as soon as she could. She might also have told us that sometimes she would be involved in other cases that would delay her being able to get back to us. The more we knew about her job and its complexities, the more understanding we, the potential jurors, would have been.
How often should we communicate changes? How often should we provide updates? Whenever there is a significant change to what we previously said. When we provide updates, we are not contradicting ourselves. Rather, we are communicating what we know when we know it. But I have heard project managers say, “Oh, I don’t want to overwhelm my stakeholders. I don’t want to give them too much information.” And I have heard stakeholders complain that they’re getting too much information. How do we know how much is the right amount? Ask them, but ask them before we start changing the plan. If we plan collaboratively with them, if we talk about what we know and what we don’t know during the planning process and ask them their preferences for being updated, we can set expectations. When we provide unwelcome updates we also provide advice on ways to proceed, we provide a really valuable service.