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The Human Factor: Making Your Process Transparent to Your Customers

by Mary Arnold

April 19, 2011


by Mary Arnold

April 19, 2011

“Writing out each of the steps in a project plan can be time-consuming, but clear expectations and boundaries around your process make the project go more smoothly, and keep the business relationship worthwhile for everyone.”

We had discussed their training needs together, agreed to a general approach, and even discussed ADDIE at the kick-off meeting. Everyone was aware that the schedule was aggressive. Somewhere in the middle of the project, though, it became clear my team wasn’t matching the expectations of our customer.

When it hit, the realization that our two teams had walked away from our friendly and agreeable meetings with different ideas about the project and the process was more than just personally frustrating; it was also a costly mistake for the team. We had estimated our costs based on a process our customer wasn’t willing to accept, and it would take many more hours to conform to their process than we had available in a work week. In retrospect, my team’s failure to make our project management strategy clear and explicit was a key learning moment, well worth the personal cost of a month of 80-hour weeks.

Find out what’s important

Time probably was the most important factor to this particular customer, but the fact is, we never knew for certain. We never checked our assumptions, or asked them to recognize the other constraints around the project. All projects have constraints: the time available, the amount of money the customer can spend on the project, and the quality required to make the project effective.

The easiest way to learn what’s most important is to draw a triangle listing one of these constraints on each angle, and then ask the customer to point to the one they care about most. (See Figure 1.) If quality is most important, the customer may have to give up some money or make concessions about the time to complete the project. If time is most important, the customer may need to be more flexible about money and/or quality.


Triangle image with points of Project Cost, Project Quality

Figure 1. The constraints triangle

Get agreement early

Armed with information about what’s most important to the customer, the next step is to document your project plan explicitly, with special focus on exactly what work product the customer should expect at each stage of the project. Take special care to define your terminology.

For instance, if the plan includes a storyboard in PowerPoint, the customer may need clarification on what the storyboard is (and isn’t) meant to do. Some customers get the impression that the PowerPoint should contain all the same functionality as the finished eLearning project; others can’t visualize how the animation might work without a working example. Writing down what you plan to do and why makes the process transparent, and gives the customer the opportunity to weigh in on any steps you may have omitted.

Hold a project kickoff meeting, and read through the written project plan with the customer. Answer any questions they may have about the process, but offer them a set amount of time after the meeting to review and revise the plan. Encourage them to read the document carefully, revise any parts they want to handle differently, get clarification on any parts they don’t understand. When they agree with what you’ve written, get a signature or other written approval to show that everyone is on the same page.

Get agreement often

The issues that can drag an eLearning project out of scope are often modifications made at the wrong time, such as changes to the script after the media is recorded or the addition of a logo after the layout has been developed without one. As a project moves forward, customers often forget the process outlined at the beginning of the project, despite having approved, or even modified the process.

To help keep the project and all of the players on track, the written plan should include checkpoints calling for additional approvals throughout the life of the project. As you present work products for approval, remind the customer of your current stage in the project, what the current work product is (and isn’t), and ask for a signature or other written approval of the work product. Some good checkpoints to include in the process are developing layouts and color schemes, finalizing the script, and completing storyboards.

If, for some reason, the work product doesn’t match the customer’s expectations, the frequent checkpoints will help ensure that the project doesn’t get too far off track before the customer has the opportunity to request corrections.

Don’t skip any planning steps

It can be tempting to skip some project planning steps when faced with a tight deadline, or when project planning meetings seem to reveal that everyone has a common understanding of the requirements. Writing out each of the steps in a project plan can be time-consuming, but clear expectations and boundaries around your process make the project go more smoothly, and keep the business relationship worthwhile for everyone.

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I am not sure how to phrase what I am feeling after having read this piece. Perhaps I just read a fairy tale about a land where clients, project managers, designers and other project stakeholders are educated, competent, skilled, experienced AND play well with each other. This is the land of the reasonable and it just doesn't exist in E-learning or whatever we are calling it these days.

Anyone who takes this naive approach will get a heaping, steaming, pile of reality for lunch.
OK, anonymous poster, what do you suggest as an alternative approach?

What Mary has outlined is a pretty standard business process -- engineering projects, for example, go through a very similar sequence of client meetings and communication. It's also pretty close to the classic advice offered by expert consultants such as Peter Block, who certainly has had plenty of experience in dealing successfully with "unreasonable" clients.
Great article! I agree that this kind of approach prevents customer surprise at what direction a project is going and also prevents scope-creep.

The recommendation for checkpoints along the way is new to me. Good idea. I also like the idea of reminding the customer of the agreement, plans, etc.

And the Constraints Triangle looks like a useful tool.

Thank you!
(23 years tech writing and instructional design, and still learning)
To the anonymous poster:

Customers want what they want, just like any other player in an elearning project. That said, I honestly can't remember an occasion when I felt my customer was motivated by a desire to take advantage of me or my team.

I have, on the other hand, worked on projects where the various players involved often had different, and sometimes contradictory, understandings of what needed to be done or how to go about it.

I can't do much about ill intent, but there's a lot I can do to make sure my stakeholders and I are working from the same set of assumptions, which is the focus of this particular article.
The constraint triangle decides the process of the project. And the checkpoints to take into consideration serves proper progress and ensures all are on the same platform. I enjoyed reading this helpful tip. Thank you !
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