What matters to ’us’ might not matter to ’them’

25th March 2020

A while ago I was on a train that had been severely delayed, an experience that I suspect will resonate with just about anyone who used to travel regularly by rail.  The train was originally scheduled to stop at a number of stations en-route, but in order to make up time (so it arrived at its final destination less late) a decision was made for it to go ’fast’ to the next major station.  This meant instead of stopping at the four or five minor stations that it was due to call at, it went straight through them without stopping.

I’m sure there are many reasons this decision was made, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the folks standing out in the pouring rain on the platforms, waiting patiently for a train that would end up passing them by.  I also suspected that anyone who had planned to get off at one of those stations would be rather unhappy too.  I suppose some people might consider the train as ’on time’ by the time it reaches its final destination, or at least less late, but I wonder whether that is really worthwhile if a bunch of passengers are left stranded.  After all, isn’t the whole purpose of a train to transport passengers?

From trains to projects

As the train whizzed through yet another station packed with commuters, I looked over some project work on my laptop.  It was one of those projects… The type of project which is often described as ’challenging’ and an ’opportunity’.  I thought about tough projects I’d been a part of and how sometimes at least some of the deadlines had seemed so arbitrary.  I remember many years ago a director explaining publically that he would always announce release dates to the press as that creates the pressure to actually make things happen.  I suppose that is one approach to bull-dozing change through…

As practitioners of change, it’s easy to get lost in the internal-facing language of projects.  We talk about deadlines, sprints, phases, iterations and deliverables.  Of course we talk about stakeholders and outcomes too, but when the chips are down, often ‘meeting the deadline’ is seen as paramount.  We’ve probably all worked in teams where we’ve worked hard to ‘get the project over the line’, which has probably involved very difficult decisions over scope.  If time is seen as a fixed constraint then it’s very easy for us to feel under pressure to cut scope or drop quality.   Sometimes this will absolutely be the right decision, if the date is really crucial and if time is genuinely constrained.  Other times we risk dropping vital features, functionality or services because somebody somewhere plucked an arbitrary deadline from thin air.

People might care less about time than we think

Let me ask you a question:

’Would you like a car that works reliably and safely in two weeks’ time, or one that lacks features and we haven’t properly tested today?’

There’s no ‘right’ answer to this question.  If you desperately needed to make a journey, you might take the risk of driving an untested car.  However, I suspect most people would probably be prepared to wait a while for the right outcome.   How often do we ask: ’To what extent do our customers, stakeholders, beneficiaries and other people affected by the change care about the decision we’re about to make?  What are the outcomes that they value?’.   It’s easy to get blindsided by project-speak and commitments that have been made internally.    It’s easy to hit a date and release a process or service that doesn’t hit the mark.  The project might even be seen as ‘successful’ as it hit the deadline and delivered the (vastly reduced but signed-off) scope.  But much like a train that goes ‘fast’ to its final destination, it leaves people behind.  People engage with the process or service only to find that it doesn’t meet their needs… So they (quite understandably) disengage and we have additional work to get them to participate in the future.

For change to be successful, it’s crucial that we understand what our stakeholders are looking to achieve, and what they consider to be valuable.  It’s vitally important that this remains up-to-date and visible throughout the business change lifecycle.  It’s one aspect that will help inform better project decisions, and increase the likelihood of success.


Written by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert