Some Assembly Required… Maybe?: Aligning Goals by Understanding and Communicating the Problem

Lately, I have started in on the long list of house projects. Some have waited around the last three years (since I purchased my home) and others are newer. All provide a sense of accomplishment…. and a tinge of frustration.

Just like any good project, eh?

Misaligned and Shifting Projects

Frustration during projects often does not come from the work itself (unless you decide to try to hang a long shelf that needs someone else to balance it while you anchor… bad move, amateur.) The frustration in projects often arises from misaligned or shifting goals that the team cannot seem to tackle as one because there is not enough talent or time for proper communication. Therefore, communications are unclear, aspects of the project or iterations of the product are built in a displeasing way, and either the client is unhappy or the work must be redone. Misaligned and shifting priorities (whether they be goals, KPIs, or simple to-dos) and insufficient communication that often accompanies them are costly, emotionally frustrating, and detrimental not just to the work at hand but to any future work done with that client or within that team.

I see numerous resources dedicated to aligning goals and discussions around misaligned goals, but few resources exist that support an agile world of constantly shifting goals. Fewer explain the importance of qualitative research methods in projects or the omnipresent threat of the only constant — change.

Project Management can’t just prescribe dozens of processes or documents to complete in order to align original or shifting goals. (Although clearly the PMBOK and its hundreds of pages try.) There are other disciplines that come into play to be a great project manager and the resources out there are so rigid that their importance is undervalued.

Communicating in Projects

I lean heavily toward agile methodologies and frameworks because, using the Cynefin framework as a guide, the world is no longer simple or even complicated, and, therefore, projects are not simple or complicated. Our world is evermore complex and even chaotic (she writes in October 2023 as one of the largest, most painful global conflicts of her life rages on.)

One of the jokes moving around since AI became a “threat” to technology jobs is that Project Management will never be replaced because the customer would have to clearly explain to AI what their goals and KPIs are and that scenario… is not on the horizon.

It’s not that people don’t know what they want. I’ve never seen someone introduced to Maslow’s Hierarchy and go “ehhh nah. That’s not right. Food and the ability to sleep is definitely not important.” And, even though people roll their eyes when they hear someone talk about Maslow’s for the fiftieth time in their life, the importance of the hierarchy is indisputable and should be kept in the forefront of our minds. (BTW Wrike writes an interesting perspective on Maslows Hierachy + the Pandemic + their product. Good marketing, Wrike.)

Again, the problem with product and project development/execution is not that people don’t know what they want. The true problem we face is that people do not know the problem(s) hindering them from accessing what they want. The problem being not knowing the problem means clients often do not understand the product or project elements necessary to address the problem to get to what they want. (There are often barriers in getting clients to look past immediate needs to long-term or vice versa, but that’s an entirely different conversation.)

The true talent in communication is not just clearly writing back and forth. It’s actually to:

  1. have the qualitative research skills necessary to identify the problem in a natural setting –through emails, meetings, etc and analyze that data to understand how ever-evolving issues might impact or reshape the project’s goals
  2. gather well-rounded, worldly information to understand how projects may be affected by major changes whether it be laws like GDPR or (what you think is less common) wars, pandemics… (you know, just those little things we are dealing with in the last decade)
  3. know how to watch for market trends and what other people are doing in the industry and communicate to the team how to stay relevant and up-to-date throughout the project

These skills in communication that address emerging challenges (most of what project management calls “External Environmental Factors” or “EEFs”) are often undervalued. Instead, project management leans heavily on the “If XYZ factors are present, then Circle Solution is definitely the way to go” thereby ignoring factors A-W and the project’s stakeholder’s language which might throw in a “ñ” if not a whole other alphabet.

Pre-Approved Prescriptions vs The Problem

Project management as a discipline relies too heavily on the button-upped, stodgy, and overly prestigious world of processes and documents and therefore leans on those with the 3-letter acronyms behind their names to prove they know the prescriptions. But knowing the pre-approved prescription does not mean someone knows the problem.

Do you feel like your team does not seem to align on projects? Have you explored if they truly understand the problems your project or product is to address — the original and the shifting, emerging problems?

Not nearly enough companies give credence to the thinkers who learned to be scrappy in times of trial rather than slap on the memorized prescriptions they were given. While the PMBOK discusses the need for tailoring projects, project managers need more than a definition of tailoring to really understand how to design, execute, and manage a project. They need to be able to cut through the noise of pre-prescribed processes and understand the problem.

Does this Project Need Assembly? Do my teams need some assembly?

I keep coming across what appear to be simple house projects… but they are analogous to the two underlying problems noted here. Let’s take the example of a simple cat brush that adheres to a surface for the cat to self-groom.

  1. The manufacturer wrote a clear note that explains the product and how it can be used. However, no instructions were communicated in the framework of the problem. “If the scenario (problem) is X then your goal of this product might be Y and here is how to use this project.” Even in a world of simplicity, communication was unclear because the problem was not considered.
  2. The manufacturer provided multiple types of screws and stickies… and catnip for inside the brush. I guess we could try to be positive and argue that the manufacturer is giving me an opportunity to be scrappy… but overall, I think the communication was lazy so they just threw in all the pre-approved prescriptions that might be necessary and called it a day. (Do you know any projects where a team has thrown in “everything but the kitchen sink” and then wondered why it failed?)

So do your teams need some assembly?

Great time for you to cut through the pre-approved prescriptions and really get to know the problem.

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