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Let’s Have a Difficult Conversation

No one wants to have a conversation that is going to be uncomfortable, potentially make himself seem difficult to work with, or put pressure on either party in the conversation, but sometimes it’s just unavoidable. Or is it?

I have been witness to several projects lately that grossly underestimated the workload going in. This is a tricky problem to overcome, as you can never truly know exactly everything a project will entail, but having reasonable expectations from all angles is something that can be established – and should be established early on.

Underestimating project workloads is especially problematic for consultants, but can also be a pitfall for BAs working within a single organization as well. A project is selected, estimated, launched… and then the project lead discovers that all the things she thought were in place don’t exist or the complexity of the project was vastly under-estimated. This is the time to document the risks and raise the issues up the chain. Make people aware. It is better to have an uncomfortable conversation early-on so that you can adjust expectations or allocate additional resources than wait until you’ve run out of time and/or money to say “Well, either we stop here with the project half done or we blow through the deadline and budget.”

Documenting risks and assumptions is a good way to keep tabs on situations like this from the beginning. At Seilevel, we send weekly status reports to our main stakeholders. The reports include the commitments met and missed during the previous week, the commitments on the docket for the upcoming week, a burndown graph to show the progress and expected completion date, a count of open and closed issues, a list of all current risks, and a list of assumptions. If we discover that as assumption is no longer valid, we annotate this. We also keep track of updates to any risks.

The status report shouldn’t be your sole source of communication though, especially if the “missed commitments” column is piling up, assumptions are failing, new risks are identified, or risk-levels are elevating. Setup a weekly status report meeting, even if it is only 15-30 minutes long, to make sure your key executive knows what is going on. Identifying these issues early on, as well as continuously throughout the project, will allow you to cut scope, move deadlines, or allocate additional funds or resources to the project to achieve the desired outcome while minimizing the long-term negative impact of the problems. Waiting to have this conversation will make it difficult, if not impossible, to get to the same end-point on time and in budget. Using the status report and status report meeting to maintain continuous communication and align expectations is a best practice, whether you’re a consultant or a full-time BA or PdM at a single company.

As a consultant, you may find yourself stuck having to choose between delivering a low-quality/unfinished product and giving away work for free if you wait too long to initiate the difficult conversation or bring light to risks or issues blocking progress. Of course, the former is not an option! Consulting firms and business groups ultimately give away some work for free because clients need to be happy and fulfilled, but don’t let this set precedence. Establish stricter terms in the next contract on the amount of time and resources or number of deliverables you will be producing. If you feel like the project work for the next contract is still very unpredictable; use your best, reasonable estimate as to the work needed, but make it understood that the contract must be extended or adjusted if the workload is larger. That said, hold your client to it when it comes time to add new contract work; don’t let the client keep pushing you to complete work that wasn’t agreed to.

Have you ever found yourself with an overwhelming amount of work on a project that you did not anticipate? How did you approach the difficult conversation?

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