Exploring Project Unknowns through Conversations

In this interview conducted on November 15, 2012, I explore with David Keller the need for exploring project unknowns through conversations before launching major projects.

David has extensive experience in complex trading systems and led technology projects in both start-ups and large corporations as Co-Founder, Data Symmetry, Chief Information Officer & Senior Vice President, NEW YORK MERCANTILE EXCHANGE, Chief Information & Technology Officer, Founder, EnergyNet® & EnerSoft® Corporation.

Alain:   David, in your experience leading major technology development projects both as start-ups and in large organizations, what would you say is the most critical step to ensure success?

David: It’s essential to have complete conversations upfront with all the relevant parties. It’s very important for the project leader to show humility and create a space for people to speak up. Listen and ask questions until you have a complete picture. Encourage people to say “I don’t know” rather than make up stories.

Alain:   Our clients often feel the rush to get to action and planning for it. Often there is a sense that having the complete discussion you recommend is a waste of time. We often hear “we don’t have time for it”; what would you say to these leaders?

David: You are better off getting your clients’ needs right than running along planning that will be off target right out of the box. There are always people who feel better when they start planning everything in minute details and others who think they have enough information and just want to get going. Resist those pressures. Getting into the weeds is necessary but it only works after the team has come together around complete conversations.

Alain:   What needs to be in these conversations?

David: Get the story straight; those first meetings are about getting the whole picture from the client. It is also good if you have been able to observe the client in their work flow to understand where the “pain” is. Often people are not able to verbalize the issue.

Alain:   People always want to have short meetings and get the information out in the most efficient way. Can you give us an example of your own experience with this upfront project assessment?

David: In one of the major projects I took on, I arranged for a 3-day meeting where all stakeholders had the opportunity to contribute openly. The agenda was “What we don’t know.” The meeting revealed numerous areas of potential problems. At the end, it became clear that the original plan has to be scrapped, that the organization would never reach the outcomes it had outlined. The whole technology strategy was changed with a better match of resources and desired outcomes that allowed results to show quickly. It is very important to show early wins in a complex technology change.

Alain:   What is the one most critical element to lead a project team?

David: Goals. Everyone has to know what the goals are. If the goals change, make sure everyone knows. Keep focused on the goals, if you try to define the details too much, you will not be so agile.

Alain:   Any other advice?

David: Yes. Define your scope narrowly to a minimum deliverable. Deliver, get feedback on that and move on to the next phase. It is about getting to first base, not about completing a home run.

Alain:   As a leader what would you say is the best lever to get your project to success?

David: Get a lot of people to understand the project in depth, so more people can think about solutions. You get a social network effect that delivers the most “bang” for the buck. Work on making things clear at all times, make sure the project information is available to all online, flow chart what is happening. Make sure people can ask their questions and speak up openly. With greater clarity, people are more activated; it becomes “leadership throughout the team”.

Alain: David, thank you very much for sharing your experience and insights with us.



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