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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Project Document Magic

     Bought a car once from one of the best salesmen I ever met.
     First, he asked questions about our wants, needs, preferences and financial range. He listened attentively, and asked meaningful follow-ups.
     We looked at cars and discussed them. We decided to talk at greater length about one model, and sat down to do so.
     Before long, the salesman was asking us questions about ourselves, and writing down some of the answers.

     At the time, I happened to be teaching “Personal Selling” to university students, and I found myself admiring this entire performance in the new-car showroom.
     Among the challenges in sales is winning the trust of your prospect. Another is disciplining yourself to delicately tend this new relationship, enhancing the trust while eliciting details about what could convince this person to buy . . . or not.
     However suitable you come to know this product/service is for this prospect, you muffle your enthusiasm. If the conversation shows that the person lacks need, interest, funds and/or decision power, you gracefully bow out. No “pushy car salesman,” you.
     The greatest barrier of all for the salesperson to overcome is “The Close.” This is the moment when you flat-out ask the prospect to make the decision to buy, and to sign on the dotted line.
    None of this is easy to learn or practice for most of us, which is why we avoid the sales profession.
     I’ve had occasions when the discussion/negotiation went so well that the close was nearly automatic . . . and others when the very prospect of it was agonizing.

     This particular car salesman showed not the slightest uneasiness.
     He was flawlessly conducting a “presumptive close.” In the parlance of sales, that’s when you act as if we’ve already agreed on the purchase and this is just the paperwork.
     As a matter of fact, it was the paperwork. As my wife and I were answering his questions, he was using the information to fill in a standard purchase form. When it was full, he pushed it across the desk and we signed it.
     Obviously, when you are a discerning buyer you don’t allow yourself to be conned into going along without fully agreeing that this is a good decision.
     There was no con in this instance. We had already decided to buy the car. It had what we were looking for, and we had worked out an agreeable price.
     So our decision to buy is not the point here. The point is that the sales document, properly employed, created a smooth and professional passage through the potential discomfort of a blunt “ask” moment.

     The story does, though, provide an excellent project management insight.
     Over the years, I have come to see that the human resource is the key catalyst in projects – and the relationships among those people determine the level of project success. The relationships work when there are open, sincere, binding agreements among the participants.
     The agreements must be durable.
     To be durable, they must be functionally effective, they must be fully understood and committed to by all and they must remain stable.
     Raw human memory is a very poor guarantor when you need accurate preservation of detailed compacts such as those necessary for proper deployment of action items in projects.
     In short: Project agreements must be in formal document form, covering the requirements without excess language. I call the overall set of characteristics “minimum adequate documentation – MAD.” I don’t believe projects of any scale at all can be successful without it.
     In the project implementation phase, the documents must be shared, followed and enforced.

     Obviously, the process of designing and developing the documentation – the research and negotiation among stakeholders that lead to the formalizations – is very important. It must be conducted professionally. I see this as a core responsibility of the project manager.   
     In the implementation phase, the project manager also is tasked with monitoring performance according to the agreements, as well as supervising the inevitable changes that result from operational variances.
     The initial agreements and the documentation of them, plus proper execution, monitoring and amendment, all are absolutely essential to project success.
     Minimum adequate documentation not only enables timely and reliable conduct of action items, it supports communication throughout the project and defines guidelines for enforcement and correction.
     Project members move much more quickly, confidently and collaboratively when they know what to do both individually and in concert with teammates.
     Sometimes, the vagaries of the mind and the influence of ongoing events easily convince a person that he/she could never have agreed last month to this or that. There’s nothing like my own signature on a specific, written record to most wonderfully clear the mist away from my memory.

     And one other thing. The astute project manager, having handled the initial conversations competently, presents documented expectations to all those stakeholders – resource owners, functional managers, team members, end users, etc. – most of them senior to the project manager.
     “Here. This document lays out what we’ve agreed to do for the project. It's what we do in project management. Once you sign it, we’re on our way.”
     Presumptive close of project initiation phase. Excellent foundation for success in project execution.
     It works. Like magic.

                    Why Projects Fail

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