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  • July 10, 2015

Don’t Make Me Turn This Project Around...

As I sit in my living room, laptop open and a Cognition column awaiting my two cent contribution, I listen to the sound of my three children shrieking upstairs. It’s bath time and they’ve been freed from the prisons of their clothing. They may or may not be careening into one another in a darkened second-floor hallway, laughing like maniacs. Parenting, like client services, is the management of the wackiest of variables, people. Decorative Illustration

There are parenting chestnuts passed down from generation to generation, that hold up over time because they are inherently true. These truths are broader and more universal than their mere application to the common struggle of rearing the next generation. These pearls of wisdom also reflect the lessons learned in a career in client services.

Never turn your back on the ocean

The alchemy of successful client services often lives in the opportunity to appropriately engage all of the stakeholders surrounding a project. Design is a team sport. Taking your eye off of a stakeholder, is like letting your attention wander when you’re in open water. All it takes is one wave or current when you least expect it to knock you off your feet. Checking and double checking that stakeholders are engaged, that they’re aware of changes and updates, confirming their awareness, saves you from the “swoop and poop” stakeholder that comes thrashing through a project unexpectedly as you near the finish line. Sometimes a thorny stakeholder feels easier to avoid if the opportunity presents itself. It’s human nature to avoid conflict. Avoiding conflict in many cases though merely forestalls the inevitable. Better to own the process and meet that potential conflict head-on, than be sideswiped later. Never take stakeholders’ silence for assent, and you’ll stay on your feet.

Measure twice, cut once

In an iterative, digital project there are many opportunities to iterate and improve. Work isn’t as final as if it was a printed page or a manufactured product. Once they go to press or the assembly line, it’s all over. In digital projects, almost all of what we do can be re-done, or revisited. There is a perceived freedom and flexibility in our work.

Many things are fluid, except first impressions.

Precedents are set in early project meetings. A poor initial design review is much harder to recover from than a subsequent review. An iterative internal review process proves to be the most powerful way to refine and refine, to “measure twice” before our partners see our work and make the final cut. Involving our dev team and PMs also ensures meaningfully distinct points of view are applied.

Additionally, the sum total of our experience, across all of the our previous client collaborations, now finds a home in our iterative approach to design. Our initial design reviews are most often more critical and more aggressive than our partners’. This allows our team to hone and shape our work to a more refined product, before it ever passes in front of our clients.

One hand for you, one for the boat

If you lose your grip in both hands, you’ve got nothing to hold onto when a swell hits you unexpectedly. It’s critical in client services to focus on doing your work, and at the same time ensure you’re leaving a breadcrumb trail to insulate your decisions from risk. Transparency in documentation is often the remedy needed when a client has a concern, or doesn’t remember an approval. Track those approvals in a public repository. Acquire signatures. Collect feedback in writing. Annotate updated project plans or requirements specifications. Copy/paste conversations from email or Slack into Basecamp.

One of the biggest adjustments that faces new colleagues who join the team at Happy Cog, is adapting to how thoroughly we document our approach, and how arduous that process can feel. In one breath we’re encouraging our team to work efficiently, move rapidly from one version to the next, be iterative and aggressive. Then in the next breath we’re asking them to slam on the breaks, disrupt their flow, and document their work. We ask them to track their time, submit their expenses, check Basecamp, scribe a meeting, write a report. We adhere to naming and file organization conventions. We notify those affected when a decision is made, or a plan altered. We cover our butts so they’re not left hanging out in the wind. The ability to lead a partner to the exact moment a decision was made, or the conversation that led to a conclusion, has proven to be a saving grace time and time again.

We’re humans managing other humans, both as parents and in client services. In both cases, the reward is often manifest in the behavior and outcomes of others. As it turns out, good advice about human nature applies in both cases.

Next time, we’ll talk about the advice my grandmother gave me, “Wish in one hand and crap in the other and see which one fills up first.” She was a colorful lady…

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