How to disappoint people

10–12th May 2017 at thestudio

A 90 minute Workshop by:

Neil Vass


Slides from session

The slides used for this session are available to download from here.

About this Workshop

It's been said that every project comes with a fixed amount of disappointment, and it's up to you to decide how to deal with that - either discuss it honestly, as it comes up and there's still time to do something about it, or save it all up for the end. Agile techniques give plenty of opportunity for the upcoming disappointments to be made clear and to help present alternative options.

In the first part of the session, I'll talk through the main learnings I've found from years of projects. There are several situations that come up frequently, and through trial-and-error or background reading I've found approaches that help:

  • Acknowledging feelings, and being aware of the stages of grief that people can be going through as they come to terms with the loss of their requirements - this helps both with finding the right things to say, and to help me not take angry comments personally.
  • Principled negotiation - focusing on outcomes that we all want and moving from opposing sides towards a single team looking for solutions.
  • The difficulties of estimation (especially with changing teams and new types of product), and how to stand by your estimates of what effort's needed when you may not be all that sure of yourself.
  • Setting ground rules and expectations for how the project will proceed - this can include describing the kinds of disappointment that may be yet to come, and letting people make the decision to go ahead with their eyes open.
  • Sidestepping the deadline: persuading people that being willing to accept less often means you'll end up with more. Try to get MVP as far away as possible from the 'can't move' end date.
  • As problems come up, keep the focus on the problems we're all trying to solve, and steer away from the promises made, expectations set, and whether this should have been foreseen - the answers to these can't change anything about what's possible now.

Following a discussion of the above points, we'll move onto groupwork - I'll ask the room to organise into groups based on how familiar and confident they feel with the situations I've described, and to write 3-slide lightning talks in their groups about ideas from their own experiences, areas they're still unsure of, and other sources of disappointment they've found.

After presenting these talks to each other, we'll finish with an overview of the issues raised in the session - I'm interested to find out how much my experience tallies with what the rest of the room has found, and whether there are other challenges that I haven't come up against yet.

About the Speaker

Neil has worked in a variety of roles on Waterfall, Agile, and Fragile projects, and is currently working as an agile project manager at the BBC. Previous project experience includes automating medical image analysis, specifying laboratory information management systems and building a motion-tracking toothbrush to study brushing technique. It's people problems that are the most interesting, though.


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