That beautiful context diagram you created is truly a work of art. The color, shapes and words all carefully chosen and displayed like the Mona Lisa in Louvre Museum in Paris. As the old story goes, “You’ll have to forgive me I’m in a hurry – I’m double parked outside the Louvre”. If you are the least bit French, you’ll get it. It’s always faster, faster and even faster these days. So how do you communicate project scope or context in a world where everyone has a 3 second attention span?
Short of bringing in a college marching band to stomp out your project’s context on a football field, there are a few techniques and approaches that can help clearly communicate project scope and context to all sponsors, stakeholders and project team members. Now I choose college marching bands for a reason. Wouldn’t it be great if your project team of over 100 people as this in synch? Watch this for a true example of being in synch. You can bet that takes a lot of time and practice to get right. Communication of project context is the same.
Okay that snazzy work of art you created for a context diagram isn’t going to jump into their heads on its own. There are two basic methods for communication of project scope or context: The Big Bang or Stepping Small.
The Big Bang communication strategy is exactly as it sounds. The future state is crafted and visualized into the context diagram and shared with all stakeholders, sponsors and project team members. There a few pros and cons to this method. The Big Bang is typically how most projects communicate out the future state scope. A cast of hundreds are assembled into the room and the grand presentation is made. Ta-dah! Everyone is incredibly happy with your brilliance and throws rose petals at your feet. Yeah – that never happens. Most folks in that meeting walk out with more questions than answers. In the attempt to clarify the scope, the meeting just made it more confusing.
Confusion sets in for for a few reasons. Most important of those reasons is not understanding the starting point. The starting point is current state. Never in the history of mankind has a group larger than 5 ever seen the current state the same way. Right out of the gate your audience is lost because they don’t buy into how you got from the starting point (current state) to the ending point (future state). While you took the journey from beginning to end, your audience didn’t take that journey with you. They were left on the sidelines working on some other project or emergency.
With the Big Bang the start of your project is overwhelmed with time spent getting everyone on the same page. Let me re-phrase that – the same page in the same book. What about this? Did you look at this? Why is that? The questions just keep pouring in and now a majority of your time is spent on answering their questions. Big Bang communication works well with project where the future state has minor changes to the current state. It also works when everyone has a common understanding – like when you hit control-F5 and you get the blue screen of death every time. Even typing it makes me want to reboot.
A strategy I use more often is the small path. It feeds the project scope or context in smaller pieces to make it easier for the larger group to understand. Projects that are more complex in nature are perfect for this technique. Think of this technique as taking one step at a time.
The first step is the current state. Organization’s always think they understand the current state completely. It’s usually not the case. Since the current state is where you are starting from, it’s a good thing to have a solid understanding of the current state. Current state is more than a few architecture diagrams of servers and process flows. It’s about getting everyone to have the same understanding of the current state. 9 times out of 10 the first meeting held discussing current state always has “the shocker”. “I didn’t know we were still doing that!” Build a strong base from which to launch the project.
Face to face is still the best way to communicate the current state. You need to give your colleagues an opportunity to provide input and at the same time bring them to a common understanding. Share the context diagram freely and invite feedback. Gain trust by asking for opinions and inputs from your colleagues.
The second step is taking the project charter or project request form and building a common understanding of the vision for the project. Every project has an end state or objectives that need to be achieved. Context diagrams help visualize how the current state would be altered to meet the vision but laying out the project’s objectives clearly is equally important. Don’t forget to gain common agreement on the project’s vision. This isn’t always an easy task. Most sponsors would rather just dictate the outcome and expect everyone to follow along. Gaining a common understanding and support of the project’s vision will ensure your project moves along in those tough times ahead.
Before you walk away from the second step and call it done, realize you need to set expectations. Yes, we agree on the vision of the project outcomes and objectives, but we haven’t designed it yet. Level set your audience to let them know change is coming down the path.
The third step is what I like to call “facing reality”. The reality is that project scope changes. The vision may not change, but the how the project delivers that vision is always up for change. The communication in this step isn’t going to be a cake walk. Even though you set the expectations of your colleagues in the second step, some of your colleagues find it difficult to see that change needs to occur.
Why get a clear vision only to change it? Vision is a powerful thing and propels the project forward. Reality steps in and change will happen. Communicating the change is important. This prevents the rumor mill from going wild as the what the project’s scope “really” is. Communicate often and broadly. Hiding changes will only make the rumor mill go wild and make it harder to build trust among your colleagues.
Change happens and the best way to track changes along the way is to baseline your context along the way. Baseline the current state, desired state and future state. This can be done formally in writing or by voting in a meeting. Whatever approach works best for you, make sure your colleagues understand you are asking them for approval of a specific state.
Finally, carry context with you everywhere. You never know when you are going to run into someone in the hallway who will ask about the project or context. Those confused happy campers in the hallway will need to be handled quickly and carefully. Rumors spread faster than context diagrams or project charters so it’s important to address disagreement respectfully and directly.
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