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Shared Vision

Meet Reality Customer Alignment: How to Ensure Expectations

One of the most powerful ways to close a sale is to align your solution with your customer’s vision and objectives. And one of the best ways to ensure your customer will be happy with the outcome (and that you won’t have to expend additional financial and human resources to make them happy when all is said and done) is to document the shared vision from the outset.

This is especially true for organizations that deliver under an Agile, or Agile-like, model.

At MB&A, we tell our customers that Agile is best because of its flexibility, the clarity it offers for milestones and deliverables, and how it lends itself to iterative refinement. Yet, in reality, it’s easy for projects to run off the rails. Attempting to scope Agile projects with incomplete information and inadequate documentation invites inaccurate assumptions, complications, and bottlenecks that can sidetrack your project and fundamentally alter the relationship between customer and vendor.

Friction is inevitable when the customer’s vision becomes increasingly detailed and nuanced, and the vendor attempts to maintain flexibility. More often than not, this plays out in the form of the vendor arguing requirement “A” is outside the project’s scope and the customer believing it was discussed “early on”. In no time, both camps have lost trust and the relationship deteriorates.

True, this sometimes happens as a result of bad faith. But the vast majority of these incidents occur because of a failure to document, report, and plan for change in advance. Though MB&A has been in business for 10years and I have worked with hundreds of clients and project managers in that time, we are no exception to this. However, our attitude and approach is exceptional. Rather than linger in the grey area and walk away during an impasse, we decided to change how we start and execute projects.

Essentially, we do three things:

  1. Document Base Requirements. Almost every Agile project is sold on a budget, meaning it’s easy to stumble at the finish line and lose money. At a minimum, we work with clients to document critical pieces in story form, with a few bullet points that explain what the story is not and a time box. No story should take more than two weeks to accomplish. This helps to ensure we’ve done our homework and that there is a shared understanding about the final product.
  2. Regular Progress Reports. Like most vendors, we send a report at the end of every sprint that shows which stories we’ve finished, what’s on deck, and what’s in the backlog. More importantly, we differentiate between the original scoping stories and new stories, so that we’re prepared to have a discussion if things start to go sideways. This also helps us keep the customer informed, so that they know when things are going off track.
  3. Address Change Directly. From the moment we start talking about a project, we make it clear that we can do just about anything, but that we were hired to do a specific project. Consistent with this, we ask customers to set aside certain stories and associated bullet points to accommodate change. It’s critical to engage in discussions about how you are going to handle change before the project is sold, and as soon as you get into gray area on a requirement. Customers often view waiting as tacit approval, and once that snowball starts rolling, look out!

To be clear, most vendors aren’t looking to get one over on a customer. If nothing else, the world is too small and word travels too quickly for that to be a sustainable business model. By the same token, customers are typically not attempting to get one over on their vendors. When two people who are otherwise aligned don’t see eye-to-eye, it likely comes down to a failure to communicate their most pressing needs and interests.

That’s why I always say that the greatest benefit of any legal agreement is that it forces you to think through potential problems with your customer at the beginning of a project, so that you can avoid misalignments that could otherwise land you in court. I recommend applying this same rationale to project scopes to ensure that you take the time to frame your stories, identify their edges, and determine when you’re heading afield. By discussing how you are going to report and then following through, it will ensure your customers are aware of progress and changes along the way – before it’s too late.

Full disclosure: I can’t guarantee that the above strategy will solve all of your problems. What I do know is that by building a solid foundation, communicating clearly, and starting with a framework for change, you can spend more of your time working with your customer to solve problems and less time trying to figure out who is the problem.