When it comes to tech projects, the tendency to work in silos still persists, even in self-declared ‘agile’ organisations and projects. The common symptoms are loss of velocity, fractious teams and setbacks.
In extreme cases this can lead to loss of stakeholder trust and even death by product failure! Why do we still tend to leave ourselves in the dark?
It’s a shame that the old methods die hard: Find a problem. Go away. Try to solve it. Come back. Test it. Go away again.
If you use these old fashioned ‘need to know’ ways of working, any project you do will be much harder to do well. You won’t get good solutions if development is stalled by everyone wearing blinkers. It leads to dead ends. It causes teams and suppliers to work against each other. It’s borne out of an old-fashioned habit of overselling, and not wanting to expose that you’re not exactly sure how you’re going to deliver.
The majority of large tech projects involve multiple vendors. This usually includes the client, the agency, vendor parties and suppliers. With so many layers of stakeholders, different worlds have to fit together. If we work in separate silos, you can imagine how quickly chaos descends.
Conversely, if you can get your team, your vendors, consultants and stakeholders around one table the effect is remarkable.
Agile ways of working, open source code, crowdfunding and open data are all part of a growing movement to share more in business. Because if you share a problem, you solve it much faster.
How we got it wrong too.
When we started Aqueduct, we made the same mistakes as everyone else.
At the time (the early naughties), digital development projects were split into silos that didn’t talk to each other. We fell into the trap too. Until we worked on a large digital project with Lloyd’s of London and our team of designers, engineers and a PM had to work in the Lloyd’s building because of systems security.
We discovered that if you mix resources and work openly as a team, with all the different stakeholders around a desk cluster, something magic happens. Things that would be a snarky group email become a discussion across a divider, and all of a sudden people are much nicer to each other. The project speeds up. Solutions are better in quality.
By a process of trial and error, and by being open about our reasoning, we developed transparent habits. And I believe that resulted in better relationships and better work.
What happens when transparency fails? Let’s look at a real example.
Case study: when transparency fails.
The European Tour is the governing body of professional golf in Europe. They issued a large sealed RFP (request for proposal). Suppliers had to bid against each other on a large specification job, and sign a contract to promise delivery in a certain timeframe. During the process, bidders weren’t allowed to talk to the client or divulge any details of the project to anyone.
In these cases the winning bid document effectively becomes a contract, and the client sits back and waits for delivery. They ‘know who to sue’ as one senior sports administrator once remarked to me. The tone is set at that point – essentially it is adversarial rather than collaborative. The contract only pertains to the outcome, but if the outcome is wrong it’s too late.
This set up inevitably leads to a lack of clarity between the client and supplier . The supplier in question, Sapient, delivered a solution that didn’t work.
The European tour had to face a pretty embarrassing public climb down when the new App and website didn’t work.
What does this show?
If the project team didn’t know the product wouldn’t work, the client wouldn’t either. This lack of communication and rampant lack of transparency led to the waste of an entire year, and probably a seven-figure sum.
Afterwards I actually wrote to the CEO to explain how and why we could help. We never got a reply.
How to fix the chronic lack of transparency:
1. Transparency of capability and reasoning
You are more likely to win a job if you’re honest and open about your capability. Don’t sell 125% of your available time. Don’t big yourself up when you know you can’t do something. Don’t start a project that ends up shrouded in fear. Don’t be afraid of criticism and openness.
Being transparent might be frustrating to start with. If everyone else oversells while you’re honest, you might not win the work. But in the long term you end up with better client relationships and more sustainable business growth. Your outcomes improve too.
You ought to be able to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it the way you’re doing it. You get more harmony on well-reasoned projects.
Explaining your reasoning, at every stage of the project, enables you to present the same agenda to everyone from the start. That’s why our strapline for the first 8 years was ‘simplicity and reason.’
2. Transparency of working practises
It’s common for companies to develop big digital projects in multiple locations. Tech build, UX, design and testing might all be in separate places. Communication between each is batched and hedged. This very often results in late, underdeveloped solutions.
If you bring functions into one place; communications improve and problem solving speeds up. In a world when things change fast, and technology and user behaviour trends are constantly disrupted, speeding up delivery is key.
People are loyal to those who are physically near them, as well as physically important to them. If your design team is in Cardiff and your product owner is in Leeds, they are not going to work together in the same way as if they’re in the same room.
We learned this lesson when we wrote communications for Network Rail, years ago. Network Rail’s 100,000 track workers were distributed all over the country in ‘track-teams’, each based in a railway hut by the tracks. When we went to observe behaviour, to understand how we could do safety communications better, we noticed the track workers loved the railways and were proud to work there, but disliked management. We couldn’t understand why bad practise happened if they were unsafe. Each job had two imperatives: do the job in time, and do the job safely. They always ended up prioritising getting the job ‘done’ as the track-team leaders told them to, despite head office saying safety was a priority. Proximity counts.
In business, the best team wins. Bearing this in mind, transparency of working practises can add a huge competitive advantage to whatever project you’re planning.
3. Transparency of progress
Sharing your exact progress with clients builds trust. We use live ‘burn-down’ charts that show exactly where the project is, in real time, and we encourage the client to look at them whenever they want. This builds trust to the point where clients start to help you overcome daily challenges instead of waving flags.
Perhaps in the bad old days, you’d not share this information, end up delivering late or overspending. But if you use transparency to expose your progress, you start off with more trust and build that trust as the project progresses.
Transparency within the team about progress also makes things go faster, problems are solved more rapidly, and there are fewer ‘hangover’ problems that re-appear. This results in fewer delays, less overruns and keeps costs down.
Why transparency works
Companies often want more progress for less money. We think that velocity comes from reducing team size and locating the project in one place.
Projects are faster, better and have less risk attached if we work openly. To find out more about how Aqueduct could help you create something amazing, get in touch with us today.