While we’re always eager to strike new ground and get working as quickly as possible, planning is the be-all and end-all of the success of any project. As the saying goes — fail to plan and plan to fail.
I’ve seen eagerness get the better of judgement. I’ve seen people lunge straight into the work side of things and be content to worry about the details afterwards. I’m not one of those people.
The best laid plans…
A few years ago, I took a former client to County Court because they were simply unprepared to let me plan a project they way I’d recommended from the very beginning. And then when things went wrong, the client simply would not accept responsibility for their own failure and refused to pay.
Now, taking my own advice, I chose to invoice the client in stages, mitigating the losses I suffered. However, because of their incessant adding of new bells and whistles, the latter stage of this failed project ballooned and the whole thing simple couldn’t be maintained.
Building the right foundations
So what’s the solution? As usual, the solution is best served when we first describe the problem in simple terms. During the County Court proceedings, I needed to make the case against the client as simple, clear and unambiguous as possible. And I did that by way of an extremely simple analogy.
Imagine you’ve been contracted to build a house; a small abode, not too dissimilar to a bungalow. You dutifully ask the client all the right questions, to which you receive clear answers and the work commences with you laying the foundations for the house.
But then the client realizes the true value of the land and changes their mind — now they want a twelve story apartment block. But they also want all of this work doing for much the same price you originally agreed to for the bungalow. And worse still, on the same plot of land on top of the same foundations.
That was my predicament described in painful detail. Sat across from me in the County Court room, the now former client squirmed with growing discomfort while his colleague looked away impassively and shame faced.
Yes, I won the case, but I’d rather not have been there in the first place. As clearly as I’d explained to the client these issues from the very outset, they were unprepared to heed my articulate protestations concerning the perils we were destined to endure, as we would eventually face each other down across a very solid wooden table in some anonymous County Court room somewhere in Yorkshire.
So again, what’s the solution? There’s no way of over stating how important trust is in all of this. And trust is a two-way street. Also, trust your instincts. I didn’t. Why? Because while I was prepared to plan ahead, I was the eager fool. So matters weren’t helped by the fact that I was being lied to by the client, which my instincts had informed me of, but I continued working with the client regardless.
Trust isn’t absolutely essential, so long as both parties adhere to what’s been agreed. Yes, that’s some kind of trust, but not the right kind. As we all know, trust is a hard-earned quality of any relationship, and for some, it’s simply not a given they can be trusted.
Laying the foundations of a successful project
Sadly, there’s no magic trick to managing client expectations. But there are a number of things you can do help insulate yourself from the death of a project, or to work towards keeping a project alive when circumstances are at odds with you and your carefully laid plans:
- Once the client is happy with using your services, reply to them either by post or email with a confirmation of the brief (or at least what you both agreed on), with a copy of your terms & conditions, and ask them to reply to this correspondence, which will be your proof of receipt and a tacit acceptance of your terms & conditions. And in a court of law, this acknowledgement is as good as a binding agreement between yourself and the client.
- In addition to agreeing on what your activities will be, the client has commitments, too — enshrine their commitments in the brief, also.
- Once they have agreed on their commitments, don’t be afraid to chase the client down when they’re being tardy. Yes, this can be an annoyance for them, but it’s preferable to seeing the project languish, stall or possibly even fail.
- Be thorough, objective and assume nothing — don’t be afraid to ask the obvious, as you’d be surprised just how many times the stark staring obvious gets over-looked!
- On the subject of being thorough, keep complete and precise notes of everything, and I mean everything — every form of correspondence, every conversation and every decision or moment of indecision. What you know is vital, and can serve as an audit trail, should things go wrong. Also, in keeping such detailed records, you increase your value to the client, as they may then rely on your for such things.
- Know who all of the stakeholders are in a project, and know what their roles are. As much as you can, limit the number of stakeholders who are charged with defining your work schedule. You do not want to commit to work that you may not be paid for.
- More importantly, don’t be afraid to say “no”. Seriously, Saying “yes” is often synonymous with “I don’t know, but I’ll try”, and that’s as good as a lie.
- Break the project into deliverable and demonstrable stages, invoicing at each stage.
- If you foresee problems, explain them to the client as clearly and as early as possible.
- Don’t allow yourself to be railroaded into doing something you know is either illegal or not in the best interests of the project.
- If the client begins to make additions and / or amendments to the project, assess their potential for disruption and be prepared to move them to the end of whatever stage you’re working on, or even the end of the project. While the client may have you believe those additions and / or amendments are vital, be thorough, objective and assume nothing — and stick to the plan.
Sometimes, the needs of the project are far greater than the wants of the client. Articulating that to a client takes a deft touch that not all can summon up the words for. So clearly, perils remain.
That aside, armed as you now are with various ways of staving off project failure, the only thing you may lack is the guile, the gumption and the sheer guts to ask those obvious questions and to say “no” where and when appropriate.
Beyond that, you should now have the right idea about how to manage a project and all of its attendant delicacies and details. So good luck!
Do you have your own project tips, tricks and things to avoid? If so, why not share them in a comment.