Building a Business Around Your Website: Managing People Through the Build Process
If you’re anything like me, there’s always a certain amount of anxiety around product releases. Mainly because so much can go wrong or block the tracks. The truth is that managing through a project is more about people than processes. People are doing the work, people are giving you feedback, and people are presenting new work that can impact timelines. The processes for product and project management should already be in place—which means the success of the project depends on our ability as product owners to manage people.
As part of our series on building a business around your website, I will help guide you through the problems people can present in a project and how to manage each situation. To make it easy to remember, I will break it into four categories: scope, stakeholders, executives, and plan.
This happens when the scope of work (SOW) isn’t clear. Remember: stakeholders are busy. No matter what you do, you’ll rarely ever have their full attention, and the more stakeholders think, the more they want to change.
To avoid scope creep, use the right documents for collaboration, so it’s clear what was and was not in the original scope. Remember that every goal has a timeline and the project has a time-based ROI. When any new request is made you have to leverage the time-based ROI as the deciding factor. If they want a change, they have to change the timeline. Remember that project-based ROI was discussed in our first piece on this topic.
(or if you’re using an agency—the dreaded change order)
This refers to things that were not in the original SOW.
Change requests are the result of people adding to the scope of a project. That’s the “oh, by the way, I would also like this page to have six sections instead of two.” or “I didn’t really notice until now, but I really need a lead gen form on that page.”
I handle scope challenges with three questions:
- What impact will this have on ROI?
- How much time will it take to add?
- How does this impact our projected timeline?
If the stakeholder can’t answer number one, it doesn’t move forward.
If there’s a strong ROI case, then you can look at adding it into the project plan. Remember you have that 20%. I save new requests for the final third of the project. If there is room to add this request without impacting hard timelines to start UAT and QA, then you can add the new functionality.
Remember, there are always ways to improve the user experience. The important thing is managing in short sprints and keeping everyone on the same page. I always refer back to the importance of learning from the data. This keeps people focused on getting priority 1 items done and allows for continuous testing of new concepts in the following sprints.
Stakeholder management throughout the process can be challenging. You need their time and attention to make sure content and functionality are approved. They tend to swing like a pendulum between unresponsive and over-communicative.
Here is how to handle both scenarios:
My approach is polite persistence with clear cut-off dates. One of my tactics is, “if I don’t get your approval by the end of day Tuesday, I will be going with option B.” You are making it clear that the project will not be held up because they aren’t responding. They may not love the approach, but it’s your job to keep things on time, and no individual stakeholder has the right to impact company-wide timelines. Everyone is busy.
When they do check in, it’s like a firehose with holes on the sides. Water is coming in from everywhere, and it’s coming in fast—all of the changes and updates. And, oh, by the way, it all needs to be in place and changed by tomorrow.
My approach here is to delay requests that aren’t critical. Design, development, marketing, support, research, finance, legal…all of these people have worked their tails off to get this product and project plan approved, funded, and moving forward. It’s not the most pleasant part of being a product owner, but it’s your job to remind everyone on the team that they are—a part of a team and that they’re responsible for keeping the train moving. If they make last-minute requests, those requests will be addressed in the next sprint.
Let’s give them both names for a frame of reference:
The Last Minute:
This is the executive that knows about a need and delivers it to you on a Saturday at 10:00 am with a Monday afternoon go live.
This next type of executive is a tough one. I refer to them as the helicopter. They swoop in, blow everything all over the place, and then fly back out. Sometimes this is how they have to do things and while there is always time for one minute of context. That context won’t change the impact of this approach.
If the CEO or division GM makes a request, you can’t flat out say no. Many times, you don’t have and won’t have the context. It could be a big partnership or another announcement that requires immediate attention. You can and should push back if the request is not critical and has an impact on project timelines.
These requests are one of the main reasons I budget in an extra 20%. You can get the percentage of each sprint that the C-suite requests represent in JIRA. By estimating time per ticket and making sure each request is properly tagged and estimated, the report will give a precise allocation of time by project and company division.
Here is the approach that I take when managing up:
First, I provide an alternative approach to the current process for communication.
- I suggest that the team can be more thoughtful and productive with their requests if we have a little time before we have to work. Clear examples are presented of how we can improve outcomes by going through a one or two-day maximum internal review—including getting feedback from key company stakeholders.
- I present the things that won’t get done if we make this change and ask them to choose which they’d like to push. Present this politely: “Sure, I can do that. How would you like me to change prioritization on these other items?” What this does is highlight the impact their last-minute requests have on the rest of the business.
These approaches work best as they present the value in a different approach versus a debate over them breaking the process. If you make it a sword fight you will lose – their sword (title) is bigger than yours. Guide them to the best path through a value exchange approach.
Second, if this fails and they are approachable, I communicate the damage that their approach is having on the teams’ morale and productivity. The negative impact of the team not knowing when things will change is huge. And if your team thinks their work may be thrown out, they won’t be as motivated. If there’s no trust in follow-through from the executives—there will be no commitment to meeting timelines from the rest of the team. Our job as Product Owner (PO) or Project Manager (PM) is to do what’s best for the company, and sometimes that means communicating these challenges to our managers. While this doesn’t always work, a good executive will appreciate your commitment to the team and the company objectives.
The third and final approach, when you realize nothing you say or try to do is working is to let them fail.
- Let them change directions on a weekly basis
- Communicate with other stakeholders why their projects are delayed
- Let the stakeholders present the business impacts directly to the executive
You created a solid plan, now stick to it.
Projects that are too big tend to fail. The bigger they are, the easier it is for a distraction or change in the company to push the big project back because there’s no clear near-term ROI.
Keep an eye out daily for delays that fit into any of the following buckets:
Murphy’s law: there’s a reason it is always brought up. Plan for things you can’t foresee happening, and you will meet every timeline without 70-hour work weeks.
Vacations, Business Travel: This doesn’t just refer to your team—but the stakeholders involved in the process. Don’t wait until the Thursday before they leave for two weeks on business or vacation to follow up on or make a new request.
Illness, Accidents, Mergers, Acquisitions, Joint Ventures. There are things you don’t know that you can’t see coming but—you should know that they happen. With the buffer in the project plan, you can keep things on track.
When a project is in full swing one of the biggest ways the train comes off the track is in the daily changes from design or content. This is where communications and information funnels are critical. Be sure to enforce your dos and don’ts from the project plan.
Managing People Through Processes
People will always add an unexpected element to your process. In planning for the unexpected, you can drive your team (and the rest of the company) through success. In our next blog in this series, we’ll talk about how to structure your sprints post-launch.