Keep Your Perspective

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Keep Your Perspective

James Graham, PMP Ta' l-Ibrag, Malta

When gathering business requirements from users, it is common to hear, ‘the system is slow’, ‘the application is unreliable and crashes’, ‘it does everything we don’t need and nothing we do need’, ‘the menu structure is cumbersome’, and ‘it takes too many keystrokes to do a simple task’.

Most software project managers empathize with users. We try to make them feel better by suggesting solutions that will appear to remove their pain. I believe that this approach, while well-meaning, is intrinsically wrong. Further, it reduces the probability of a successful outcome in the subsequent project.

Some people say that the point of gathering business requirements is to provide a custom-designed solution, which in turn reduces end-user frustration. I would agree that is a worthy goal. However, a fatal flaw occurs if the project manager who decides the best solution bases the decision on a heartfelt desire to make the users feel better. In reality, project managers may not have trained themselves to keep an unbiased perspective.

Perspective means looking for the best solution, not the fix that feels right to the users. Remember, users have a deep understanding of their business area and can make impressive contributions to a project by sharing that knowledge. But how should we use their input?

When I worked as a management consultant in London, UK, my experienced colleagues used to mentor me on the importance of objectivity. Their wisdom was based on the truism that most experts like to show how clever they are, when often they should spend more time using their skills to ask the right questions to uncover the root problem. If you don’t unmask the real problem, your attempts to remove it will only swat at the symptoms.

We all are at risk to succumb to this mistake. Recently, I was asked to design a management development programme for a large organization. My immediate impulse was to rush to address their pain points speedily, by suggesting that we look at an existing programme I own. I knew I could easily adapt it to cure the issues that were creating so much irritation for my client.

Fortunately, my self restraint kicked in. I spent an hour talking to the senior managers about their real challenges. After I stepped back to listen to the business problem, not merely the end-user complaints that indicated something was amiss, I recommended an entirely different solution. It was more suited to their needs and addressed their core issues.

The next time you are confronted by frustrated users, take a deep breath. Allow them to vent their dissatisfaction with the surface symptoms they encounter day-to-day. These irritations are real. Then ask them a series of questions to get to the underlying, root causes of their frustration. Avoid the temptation to make them feel better by providing a quick fix, It is in their best interests for you to make sure you are aiming for the right target before you plan your project solution trajectory.

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