Learning From Our Challenge Piles

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Good design is hard to do. The very nature of human centred design is confronting, challenging and often uncomfortable. Every project builds up a collection of challenges along the way, which can pose significant risk to the project’s success, and if we don’t tackle them head on they can be detrimental for everyone involved. How can  we share and learn from each other’s challenges?

Illustration of a challenge pile  At Neoteny, we refer to the collection of challenges in a project as its ‘challenge pile’, given they’re exactly that; a pile of issues, constraints and problems. We keep track of the challenge piles using walls in our studio for each project. Some are collections of post it notes, others are photographs, drawings, diagrams, scribbles or hand written notes. Each week as part of our work in-progress meeting (team jam), we take stock of each project’s challenge pile.

We ask ourselves the following for every challenge:

  • How did this challenge come about?
  • Briefly establish the current reality, including:
    • What has it cost the project? Not necessarily in financial terms, what has been the cost to our momentum, resources, client expectations etc.
    • What is the potential impact? In what areas?
    • Could it have been avoided? How or why not?
  • How have we handed it thus far? As a group, explore options for how we handle it moving forward.
  • Agree on proposed solutions or new approaches and secure buy-in from everyone involved.
  • We’ve found that this structure helps us stay out of the drama whilst understanding the drivers for each challenge, and then focus on solutions. This makes the process much more collaborative and productive, we aren’t sitting at our desks sweating over something we could probably work through together in a few minutes.

We recently had a team jam, and here’s what came out of our challenge pile review:

1. Customer needs and business requirements collide.

Illustration of the customer and the business causing an explosion

This project is in its early stages. The client came to us with a new product that they wanted to develop, the first step was to research the product feasibility and desirability in the market.After conducting research aimed at validating the customer need for a new product, we found that what the customer needed and what the client planned to launch, were two very different things.

We’re currently in discussions with the client to try to shift the project objectives and focus, to meet real customer needs. As a group we decided not to proceed to stage two unless we could get their buy in on a revised approach.

Question for readers: What would you do in this situation?

2. Budget streams are unclear for future phases of work.

illustration of a large hand holding a bag of money over stakeholders

We’ve been involved in projects in the past that have unclear funding streams for future work. This is especially common in large corporates, where steering committees assign funds based on a comprehensive business case analyses including return on investment predictions. These can’t necessarily be defined without first doing some work. The problem with this structure is that you have a team of stakeholders that can only see as far as the next steering committee meeting. This makes a design project with a strategic foundation i.e.  something that’s designed with the whole in mind, very difficult to manage.

This particular case was flagged early because we’ve seen the warning signs before. The signs included hearing things like:

  • “If we build this…”, highlights the fact that the stakeholder doesn’t believe this project will make it to implementation.
  • “We need to show results by June…”, if you ask why, you’ll probably hear something like “that’s our next steering committee check point”.
  • “We won’t be able to build that”, if you ask why, you’ll probably hear something like “because the next budget release won’t be anywhere near that much”.

In the past, this issue has created a divide between the client or project stakeholder group and the design team. Whilst the stakeholder group is focused on securing the next round of funding to ensure that this phase can move to implementation, the design team is focused on exploring and exposing every possible opportunity for solving the design problem.

We’re currently working with senior management to ensure we have their buy-in throughout this project. In our experience, we’ve found that if the person signing the cheques is on board with the approach, the whole stakeholder group is much more relaxed and inclined to get their hands dirty in design.

Q: Have you experienced this before, and if so, how did you get around it?

3. Stakeholder groups have varying ideas of the project objectives

Illustration of four stakeholders all thinking different things
Have you ever been in a project meeting and realised that the client team doesn’t agree on the project’s objectives? This is an awful moment for a designer. It’s the moment when you move from designer to mediator. Playing mediator with your clients is generally not a lot of fun and not how you want to be spending your energy.

The design team typically work with clients to reach a shared set of project objectives. If you find yourself in a situation where you think this has happened but it isn’t the case, then it needs to be dealt with immediately. This agreement needs to be made before design work can start. Of course, these objectives may shift and be adjusted as part of the design process, but the aim is for adjustments to be made as a whole, not as a fragmented set of perspectives from different stakeholders.

We’re currently experiencing this on a scoping project we’re working on. It came about in a workshop, where up until that point, the team seemed aligned. We handled it by stressing the need for a shared project vision and refusing to move forward without one. We managed to facilitate developing a shared set of objectives, prioritising them and we’re currently working with the client to ensure that every stakeholder is in agreement on the vision for the project.

Without this shared vision, we put the success of the project at risk because no one is clear on what success will look like. We’re currently working through ways to communicate this in a more explicit way to our clients before we start on their projects.

Q: Perhaps it’s about signing off on the project vision, would that make people more accountable?

4. Mystery stakeholder stomps on the project.

Illustration of a large foot stomping on a pile of building blocksDoes this scene sound familiar? The design team is working away, the client is happy and excited, they’re getting involved and spending time designing with us. Then BAM! Along comes the mystery stakeholder who has significant influence, but just “doesn’t like blue”. In most cases, the mystery stakeholder is a fairly senior member of the client team who hasn’t been along for the ride and is looking at the design solution without any understanding of the brief, the agreed approach, the challenges or the project’s constraints. This situation can be crippling. Challenges like this can impact resources, motivation, relationships, momentum, time and budget. You could argue that it’s the design team’s fault for not ensuring that all stakeholders were engaged, the project owner’s fault for not engaging the full spectrum of players, or the mystery stakeholder’s fault for stepping in with the ‘I’m gonna leave my mark on this project regardless of how you got here’ kind of attitude.

We’ve started to enforce what we call a stakeholder roll call. At the start of every project, and within our terms and conditions we gather a list of stakeholders, their roles and responsibilities and have the project owner sign off on this list. The full list of stakeholders are required to sign off on all milestones and agreed deliverables.

We acknowledge that the stakeholders may change, but the terms allow for this situation and protect the progress we would have made in the project up to that point. The success of this approach remains to be seen, though what it does achieve is a level of accountability agreed up front for the potential impact of those ‘stomping moments’.

Q: How do you protect your projects from random stakeholder stomping? How have you dealt with this situation in the past?

Where To From Here?

As you’d expect, there’s a ‘magical box’ of learnings and insights created by each challenge pile. It’s what we choose to do with the magic that makes the obstacles and the heartache worthwhile. I’m sure we’ll learn a hell of a lot more as our company matures, but here are some of the more salient ones we’d like to share with you:

  • There’s not always something ‘to do’, there’s something ‘to know’. There are situations we can’t ‘solve’ in the context of the project we’re working on. But being aware of the specific challenges and carefully managing expectations accordingly can be a very effective approach, one which better supports our potential success.
  • As a company (and perhaps as an industry) let’s be more reflective. That doesn’t mean we have to wade into the drama or analyse it ad nauseam, but we do need to nip things in the bud, be honest with ourselves and the team, be open about the potential impact that the shifts might have, and involve everyone.
  • Getting the players involved as the challenges arise. Rather than keeping our ‘dark passengers’ under our hat, and suffering in relative silence, all with a smile on our face, let’s face the challenges together! Clients and project stakeholders are often quite pleased when you invite them to be part of the solution. Any shifts to the project approach are also much more likely to fly if we’ve got buy-in from everyone involved.
  • Sharing the good the bad and the ugly with our peers. Let’s foster a culture where we share both our triumphs and our failures, rather than keeping the latter closely guarded. As a collective mind, I’m sure we can come up with some inspired, insightful ways to circumvent and also completely avoid some of these challenges.

We believe that we can get better at this thing called ‘design’ if, as an industry, we can make the most of lessons we learn from these challenges. After all, they enable us to be more resourceful, they give us an opportunity to be more creative, to build stronger teams and deeper relationships.

So, what do you think?

Michelle is one of the speakers at UX Australia 2010, taking place 25-27 August 2010 in Melbourne, Australia. The conference has sold out, but workshops are still available, or you can go on the waiting list. See the UX Australia site for details.

Michelle Gilmore

Michelle has been exploring design in its many forms for over ten years. With a foundation in industrial design, her study, project experience and knowledge of business, evolved to focus on Service Design. She has led multi-disciplinary teams, in Australia and internationally, on a variety of projects Michelle has taught and lectured at various design schools including Limkokwing (Malaysia), UTS, RMIT and Melbourne University. She co-founded Neoteny Service Design in 2009.