By Paul Glen
Every consultant dreads this conversation, but eventually we all have it. Invariably, it strikes at moments of great pride. You're proudly showing a client the fantastic results of your brilliant work. You're prepared for adulation, accolades and appreciation, but then the client says something like:
"That's not what I asked for,"
"That may be what I asked for, but it's not what I want."
"That won't help me."
Ouch. That hurts.
Your victory is suddenly a defeat. You may lose a client. You may not get paid.
Like it or not, when this occurs, it is a failure of the consulting process. The bad news is that the excuses that consultants typically use probably don't apply. The client probably isn't an idiot. Your deliverable is probably not really what they wanted. And your system probably isn't going to solve their business problem.
What has happened is a failure to align the technological approach with the business needs of the client. While there are effective ways to handle these situations when they occur, it is far to prevent their occurrence altogether. Ensuring alignment is one of the primary responsibilities of a consultant. Doing it well separates consultants from contractors, and helps to build long-term, valuable client relationships.
What exactly is alignment?
Alignment is about fit; that is, the mutually-supportive relationships between the goals, technologies and processes of a project. Projects that exhibit good alignment are constantly being fine-tuned to ensure that all their facets are internally consistent and mutually reinforcing. Some project features that need to be aligned include the:
- Business problem to be solved or opportunity to be exploited
- Technical solution to the problem
- Budget, schedule and quality constraints on the project
- Goals of the client organization
- Goals of the individual client
- Future applicability of the solution
- Implementation Approach
Of course, achieving alignment requires that all of the above features of a project be:
- Well understood
- Commonly known
- Effectively articulated
- Consistently realigned
All this may seem a daunting challenge, but even this is not enough. David Maister, a well-known expert on the management and delivery of professional services, and co-author of the recent book The Trusted Advisor, points out that, "we as service providers view what we do in rational and technical terms. We underestimate the emotion that clients bring when they hire a provider. The right technical solution might not be the right emotional solution for the client." In other words, even the most well-reasoned and internally consistent solution will not work if a client cannot emotionally support it.
Why try to align a project?
Projects that do not achieve at least a reasonable level of alignment are deemed failures. When the meltdown occurs, it's unlikely that anyone will realize that misalignment was the root cause of the problem.
The Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF) identifies six key goals that define project success. These goals provide a solid foundation for understanding the various dimensions of alignment. The goals are:
- Satisfied customers
- Delivery within project constraints
- Delivery to specifications that are based on user requirements
- Release of the product after addressing all known issues
- Enhanced user performance
- Smooth deployment and ongoing maintenance
Failure to meet any one of these goals assures some level of project failure.
The process that the consultant uses must also be properly aligned with the project's technical and business goals. For example, if the goal of the project is to empower a group of employees, failure to consider their input as part of the project might undermine the effectiveness of the solution. Empowerment can't be dictatorially foisted on a group of unwilling participants.
Whose job is alignment?
Alignment is one of the key responsibilities of a consultant. Only the client should make the key decisions about their own projects. Consultants should not make decisions for the clients, but have the responsibility to help the client make informed choices. You're the expert. That's why the client hired you.
Imagine that you hired an architect to design a house. Then imagine that you told that architect that you wanted the house to be three stories high. However, the architect knew that the soil on the lot could not support a house of that size. Would you be upset if the architect allowed construction to proceed without telling you? Would you be upset to be told that she didn't tell you because you never asked? Without the proper information you would be unable to make good decisions.
Clients do not hire us not because of our technical brilliance; they don't care how brilliant we are. They hire us for our ability to apply that brilliance to their specific problems. Generally, they know their businesses. If they understood how to develop a technical solution to their business problem, they wouldn't need a consultant.
What are typical sources of misalignment?
The classic Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina begins with the famous sentence: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This applies to projects as well: all properly-aligned projects are alike; every misaligned project is misaligned in its own way.
That said, there are some common sources of misalignment. According to Rick Freedman, consultant and author of the recent book The IT Consultant, the two primary hazards of misalignment are:
- Technologists who fail to understand the business environment of a system
- Consultants who start projects with preconceived ideas about the technical approach
To ensure alignment Freedman recommends that consultants "understand that technology is a means, not an end. It's a tool with one purpose, to help the client achieve the business result that the client is visualizing."
Maister also finds that many misalignments start right at the beginning of projects. Just like in romantic relationships, "when starting, we are so keen to be harmonious that we don't talk about the toothpaste issues. The time to clarify expectations is right up front."
How do you ensure alignment?
Misalignment usually comes as a surprise because no one thinks to monitor it. Everyone assumes that everyone else shares their vision for the project. Unfortunately, unspoken assumptions are rarely shared by all members of a project team.
Misalignment does not occur at those unfortunate moments when a client complains. That's just the time at which the recognition occurs. The misalignment accumulates in the project over time. The sooner it is recognized, the smaller the difficulty is likely to be.
Freedman points out, "alignment isn't an event, it's a process. You build it into the process at the start and then ensure it with alignment checkpoints that occur throughout the process. You've got to manage the engagement holistically, setting and resetting the alignment as you go."
Building aligned projects requires consistently monitoring whether you have:
- Articulated the business and technical goals of the project
- Gained consensus on the problem to be solved
- Understood the current client situation
- Envisioned the after-project state
- Defined the technical solution
- Ensured that the solution is realistic
- Ensured that the solution can work within all known constraints
- Explored how far into the future the solution will be viable
- Considered whether the method of solving the problem is antithetical to the solution
The mechanics of alignment vary by project. Usually, it entails a combination of conversations and documents. As an IT professional, you will have to judge the appropriate balance based on the complexity of the project, the culture of the organization and your relationship with the client.
The Microsoft Solutions Framework prescribes a number of documents that are useful for ensuring alignment including:
- Project Structure Document
- Vision Document
- Functional Specification
- Master Project Plan and Schedule
- Risk Assessment
Discuss with the client the benefits and costs of using formal documentation, memos or status reports as methods of ensuring alignment. Then use your judgment to guide the level of detail to include in the selected documents.
Building and maintaining business and technology alignment represents one of the most crucial and difficult aspects of consulting. Doing it well will help you create long, productive and profitable client relationships and will help you avoid those surprise conversations that we all dread.
Paul Glen is the author of the award-winning book "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology" (Jossey Bass Pfeiffer, 2003) and Principal of C2 Consulting. C2 Consulting helps IT management solve people problems. Paul Glen regularly speaks for corporations and national associations across North America. For more information go to www.c2-consulting.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.