Have you ever been asked to find a technology solution for *flailing-arms-make-it-better*?!? Or attempted requirements gathering only to get a detailed explanation of how to do a task in the current system?
As anyone who has done requirements gathering can tell you, it’s a bit of an art form. (Yes, pun intended in the title!)
You want to meet the needs of the people who will use the solution, but it can be challenging to understand the needs of people who may not know how to articulate them in ways that translate well to technical specifications. While business process mapping is not an uncommon part of requirements analysis, it can be hard to get started if you’re new to it and hard to know how to get the necessary information.
If you’ve ever managed a project with a long timeframe or been responsible for implementing a major change, then you know that, well, things change. Inevitably, you’ll discover something that hadn’t been accounted for or that wasn’t as clear at the beginning, or perhaps, something in your context will have changed. Maybe there’s a new opportunity you’ll want to be able to seize.
You may have even identified some potential risks and come up with plans to mitigate them. It is, however, impossible to know everything that could possibly happen or change or that needs to be accounted for when you’re initially planning a project. One of the best ways to plan for the unexpected is to plan for change, to build in a margin for it. That’s why it’s helpful to save for an emergency fund, and why you build extra time and contingency into a project budget.
You can also plan to make changes, even if you don’t know what the changes will be. Worse comes to worse, your plan works out.
Many people plan regular times to check in and evaluate progress on a project, especially a change management project, but even better is to regularly ask the question of what changes need to be made and evaluate the plan itself.
Plan to change your plan
Here’s how to prepare for course adjustments before you start really diving in:
Schedule check-in meetings and put them on the calendar along with an agenda. How many and how often depends on the scope of what you’re doing and the timeframe. Perhaps you might split it into thirds or around key milestones or phases. If this is more of a continuous thing than a discrete project, then figure out a timeframe when enough will have happened to answer some key questions, but not so much time that it will be hard to change course.
Determine how it will be decided whether to adjust course and how. This could be by consensus, by the project lead having final say, or some type of measure (e.g., as long as our revenue is on track within 5%, we stick to the plan)—or some combination.
When planning out the work, plan the first third in the most detail, the second third with some detail, and leave the last third at a high-level. This will make it easier to make changes since you’ll have left some planning (e.g., who is doing what specific tasks during which week or month) until after the check-in point.
If this is a change management project (e.g., implementing a new system and new processes), having scheduled check-ins to review and adjust the plan can also support your cause. One thing people worry about during a big change is that it will be terrible, it will make things worse, and they will be stuck with it. (That can happen, of course!) However, transparency about how changes will be made and opportunities to provide feedback or request adjustments (e.g., including some time to work out the new time tracking process before the summer staff join) can alleviate some concerns. You can engage them as beta testers and partners in working out any issues before the full rollout.
Considerations for course adjustments
Here’s are some things you might want to discuss at the start of the project and then during check-ins:
What is the desired outcome at the end of this scope of work/part of the project?
What assumptions was this planned work based upon? Have things changed? You will likely need to change your plan if an assumption no longer holds. If it was a constraint, then maybe you don’t need to change anything but this opens up other opportunities.Note:Assuming that the plan will lead towards the desired outcome is an assumption.
Does it look like we’re making progress towards the desired outcome? This is really about whether it is working for the team/organization or not.
What changes do we need to make to our plan? This can be adding things, subtracting things, or modifying how you go about them (e.g., method, strategy, timing, who does what).
Do we need to change how we evaluate the need for course adjustments at our next check-in?
When the only constant is change, might as well plan for it!
There are things that someone can show us how to do, like how to tie our shoelaces or how to fry an egg. Then there are the things you can really only learn by doing: riding a bicycle, managing people. However, it’s always helpful to have some frameworks for how to approach the new thing as you’re learning while you’re doing it.
Every time I have to do something new that is big enough in scale to warrant a plan (or feels overwhelming enough that I want to make a plan), I start with what I call the “What’s Needed Exercise.”
This exercise is very simple: I ask myself what is needed to make this thing happen and don’t stop writing (or typing) until I run out of ideas of things that might be needed. Then I organize them.
Regardless of what the new thing is – a volunteer training, version 2 of a custom grants management system, moving to a new country – there are typically a few categories of things that are needed.
Here are some prompts for thinking through what’s needed:
What are the steps or tasks to do the big new thing?
What decisions need to be made? By whom?
What information* is needed? How do we get this information (ask someone, conduct design research, analyze the website data)?
Which people are needed and for what? (This could be people on a MOCHA or DARCI chart, or this could be people to do X thing, or it could be that you need an expert in alligator wrestling.)
What supplies, tools, equipment, systems, or venues are needed?
What time or budget or commitments are needed?
*If you can’t articulate what success looks like and how you’ll be able to tell that you’ve made it to your destination, then you’ll want to add to the list of information that is needed (or decisions to be made).
I don’t try to answer those questions in order, though you can if it’s helpful. Typically, I’ll make my massive list (in a document or a spreadsheet or as sticky notes on a board) and then organize them.
Here are some groups I find useful:
To find out
Once they’re organized a little bit, it will be easier to see the dependencies. Then you can begin to sequence them.
And there’s your game plan! Well, okay, you probably have a specific timeframe for getting this thing done, or you might be working on this with other people, and so you’ll need to work on the timeline and how you and the others will work together. But this can get you started on estimating the level of effort, how much time you’ll need to allocate, and when it can fit on the calendar, how many people (and which ones) you need to get to help you, and so on. Here’s a way you can start when you’re not sure where to start!
What approaches or tactics have worked well for you when planning to do something new? I’d be interested to hear what works well for you or how it goes if you try this out. Of course, it’s common, when you do something for the first time, that things don’t always go according to plan and you find yourself having to make some course adjustments along the way. Stay tuned for a post on how to plan to change the plan…