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JAD sessions will speed up the project definition process

The JAD technique can be applied to developing software, building a quality management plan, or even defining a project. The benefit of using JAD is to save your team from wasting days or weeks in project definition gridlock.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Question
The last time I managed a project, it seemed like it took forever to get all of the major stakeholders to agree on what we were doing. The process of gaining approval obviously had value since there were some major differences of opinion on what the project was to accomplish. However, the time required to get everyone’s acceptance was unacceptable.

I have subsequently read about a JAD technique that might help us get through this process faster. What can you tell me about it, and is it something that can be used on a project?

Answer
You’re right. There is a specific technique (or set of techniques) for more rapidly gaining a consensus from a group of individuals. The technique is called joint application development, or JAD. Judging by its name, you might think that this technique only applies to developing software, but that’s not the case. Although I don’t know the origin of the term, the JAD technique can be applied to a wide variety of areas where consensus is needed. This includes gathering business requirements, creating a project work plan, building a quality management plan, and so on. In particular, based on your question, the technique can be applied to help define a project.

The normal way
Let’s briefly recap how you normally define a project. First, you might talk to your manager and the project sponsor. They give you enough information so that you can start to talk to other interested stakeholders. You begin to write a project definition and realize you don’t have all the information you need, so you make a second round of talking to people to ask clarifying questions. You create a draft project definition that is circulated back to these stakeholders. Many of them read the document and say fine, but some will have questions, or they may disagree with some of the content. The disagreements must be taken back to the sponsor for resolution, and perhaps another round of discussions takes place to provide further clarification and to build a consensus.

Depending on how controversial the project is, you may get a consensus on the project definition quickly, or it may take quite a long time. It appears, from your question, that you have already become familiar with the “quite a long time” process.

Enter the JAD session
The purpose of the JAD session is to dramatically reduce the timeframe required to complete a deliverable where consensus is required. Notice that I did not say it would dramatically reduce the cost. Depending on how the JAD is implemented, it may, in fact, cost more than the traditional methods. However, in many cases, your management and sponsor are willing to pay more for a process that takes much less time.

How dramatic could the time savings be? Very dramatic. As an example, the time required to produce the project definition might be reduced from six weeks to one week, or perhaps even two days. So, this is not about reducing turnaround time by 10 percent. JAD sessions can result in dramatic improvements—maybe 75 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent, or higher.

The JAD process
The key concept of a JAD session is that you get all of the major decision makers, stakeholders, and knowledge providers into one place all at the same time. The dramatic reduction in time comes from removing the time required to move information from person to person. If a stakeholder has a question about scope, he or she can ask it in the context of the JAD session. The people required to answer the question are in the room and can answer the question immediately—there is no time delay and no misrepresenting the question. A two-week process of getting a question clarified and answered can instead take place in 10 minutes, because all of the right people are there at the same time.

The JAD session
The concept of the JAD session implies more than just getting everyone together for a day to discuss all the issues. There is usually a set of formal techniques that are applied to these sessions to make them as productive as possible. These include:
  • Identifying the right people and making sure they are there. It’s fine to invite the project sponsor and the major clients and project team members. But what questions might arise that require others to be there as well? All decision makers must be present, as well as information providers. The information providers can be on-call if needed so that they do not have to attend the entire session. If you hold a JAD session and none of the participants can make decisions or the people with information are not available, it’s not going to be successful.
  • Using a facilitator(s). Normally, a formal JAD session has a formal facilitator (a trained facilitator, if possible). The facilitator makes sure the discussion stays on track, that meeting rules are followed, and that the meeting is as productive as possible.
  • Having someone take notes. There needs to be someone taking notes, documenting decisions, and noting any action items. If there are cofacilitators at the meeting, the second person can be the scribe.
  • Spending the time necessary to reach conclusion and consensus. This is important: The objective of the JAD session is to go through all of the items that need to be discussed and reach a consensus on what needs to be done. If this requires a one-day session, then all of the participants must make a full-day commitment. If this requires everyone to get together for a week, that is the commitment that needs to be made.

Case study
I used JAD techniques on a project to implement project management processes at a Fortune 500 company. In our case, we used the session to gain a consensus on the current state of project management in the organization. Since this was a worldwide project, it would normally have taken us at least a month to get with all the key players around the world, gather their feedback, and gain agreement on a document that described the current environment. Instead, we identified the right group of people and brought them all to our headquarters for a three-day JAD session.

These people came from around the world. It was probably more expensive to use the JAD approach, but the final deliverable was completed and approved in three days, instead of the 30 or more days under a traditional approach. We also felt like it was of higher quality, since the contributors were all talking face-to-face.

A JAD session might be just what you need if it would take you a long time to reach consensus on your project definition under normal circumstances. The sponsor must work with you to identify the right people and make sure that they will all make the time commitment necessary (including the sponsor). Get yourself a facilitator and a scribe and get everyone together to hammer out and agree on the details of your project. You should be able to complete the project definition immediately after the session, or even during the session, and have everyone approve the final document very soon after the JAD session is over.

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called  SupportStep.

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