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Combat Noise with Dedicated Project Focus

Focus is a challenge in our always connected and therefore always interrupted lives. Print software projects like web-to-print and Print MIS require long-term dedicated focus to ensure success. Project success is about getting live sooner and incrementally determining the next most important improvement to the implementation (forever).

By Jane Mugford
Published: September 22, 2014

Everyone is busy, really, really busy. Most of us don’t work 40 hour work weeks – we work 40+. All the responsibilities, tasks and challenges that come with our ‘real job’ keep us swimming upstream on any given day. It is very easy to feel like you are ‘starting everything and finishing nothing’. The thought of a new project can seem like a monumental addition to the pile that already exists. A project that is wide scale and that is intended to bring major change to your organization, whether it is along the lines of Print MIS or web-to-print is highly complex and has far-reaching touch points. In an isolated bubble, it is complex in its own right. Layering that on top of your existing responsibilities and tasks can feel overwhelming. Feeling overwhelmed before you even start is normal. Figuring out how to start and the ongoing steps it will take to move forward is where people can get stuck. They get trapped in the cycle of day-to-day tasks consuming them and the ‘big project’ never really gets addressed in a proactive manner. The noise of the ‘real job’ can become deafening. Quite simply, it can stop you before you can even start. The project feels paralyzed and drowned out by all of the day-to-day business. The noise never seems to go away. So, how do you move forward and fight for your project’s success? How can you ensure that the financial investment that has been made gets matched by a time investment to succeed? A financial investment without a time investment has a high risk for failure. A financial investment that is matched with a time investment will put you on a very clear path to success. That is often the differentiator between technology projects that succeed as compared to those that fail.

Going live sooner with a “minimum viable product” allows an incremental win and most importantly gets you into a situation where you can constantly be reassessing your priorities. You will never do everything you had planned for a project; the key to success is to keep doing the very next most important thing in a project.” – Jennifer Matt

So, how do you find the time? How do you lessen the noise and the distractions? It is a simple word but such a powerful one: FOCUS. Focus is something that often escapes us in the information age. Focus has a big enemy in our world and it is the world of instant expectation of response. Do you remember what it was like to go to work and really focus? Remember the days when the interruption was confined to things along the lines of someone coming to tell you that a press was down – a rather important interruption? Remember when people didn’t rapid fire off emails from all directions, customers, vendors, staff and my personal favorite, the colleague in the office next to you? Remember when e-mail felt productive? Remember what it was like to leave the office on Friday and really have no idea what was happening until Monday? The ‘old days’ allowed for a lot more focus. We weren’t invaded (and tempted!) by tiny flashing lights and noises on our smart phones. We actually went out without a phone and didn’t have a panic attack because we were disconnected. We had no choice – we didn’t miss it because we never had it. Natural human focus has been killed off by the information age. The information age has let natural human procrastinators always have a reason to continue to procrastinate. Focus it is still there – but you have to fight for it.

Fighting to allow yourself and your project team time to focus is imperative for a project to succeed. It is one thing to talk about it; it is another to make it possible to do it. Here are some ways to ‘ground’ the project to find focus:

  • Very, very, very early on before the project has officially ‘started’, establish preliminary milestones. What are the key deliverables of the project and roughly when do you hope to achieve them? Setting milestones helps to bring a reality to the size of the project and the effort required to complete it.
  • My colleague Jennifer Matt and I talk a lot about minimum viable product and what you must do to launch the project successfully. Trying to throw all modules, all integrations and all the ‘bells and whistles’ at a project for the initial launch can bring in such noise it becomes too hard to focus. Determining what absolutely must be included for an initial launch can bring incredible focus. You can have it all, but do you necessarily need to have it all at once?

Going live sooner with a “minimum viable product” allows an incremental win and most importantly gets you into a situation where you can constantly be reassessing your priorities. You will never do everything you had planned for a project; the key to success is to keep doing the very next most important thing in a project.” – Jennifer Matt

  • Have an open and honest dialog with all of the stakeholders about how they see the project and what their expectations are. See how aligned or NOT you are. Getting everyone on the same page early on is critical. You may have all of the intention of success but if other people are apathetic or don’t understand the scope, the organization won’t be aligned with project goals. Lack of alignment can often derail a project before it has a chance to start.
  • Once you have alignment with key stakeholders, you can start to discuss resources it will take to meet the milestones laid out. Who is ‘on the team’? What bandwidth do the team members have to complete their assigned elements of the project?
  • The bandwidth conversation will undoubtedly lead to resource deficit realities. In other words, the realization that in order to focus on the project and all of the deliverables, the project team cannot do their existing job plus a new project. Something has got to give. Unless you have figured out how to clone your team members (and if you have, you are definitely in the wrong business!), you need to have a brutal truths conversation about resource recovery. What can we do to inject capacity in to the project team? Can we backfill resources to help them with their existing jobs so they can focus on the project? Do we need additional external resources brought in? A real and honest conversation about human resource availability is key to assess the ability to focus. This does not always equate to hiring more people, what is more likely is that you have to stop doing something of the things you’re doing now because this project is a high priority.
  • To focus you must stay on task. To stay on task, you need to have regular and scheduled project status update meetings. They do not have to be long meetings every week or every day – who on earth has time for that? Some of the most productive meetings can be a 15 minute daily recap with daily goals discussed and current challenges relayed. However you decide to do project check-ins, they must be required and they cannot be canceled because of something urgent. On any given day, it will be easy to let something else become more important than a project that has a ‘go-live’ date months down the road. However, if you let the culture become one in which project meetings can get canceled or interrupted, you will lose focus and all of the momentum that comes with it.
  • Block time in your calendar every day for the next few months to work on your project. If you can, when these timeslots come up, plan to work outside of the office where you won’t get distracted. I am also a fan of blocking this time first thing in the morning when you are fresh and where you aren’t at risk of having other meetings and issues ‘bump’ your dedicated project time.
  • Focus your leadership team and your top leader. While he or she may or may not be involved in the tactical project implementation, without a doubt their ability to help focus the organization is one of the most critical components to ensure success. If your leader is allowing the culture to perpetuate where key project members are over-stretched, and where the project importance isn’t respected they can single-handedly be the biggest threat to railroading the project without even realize they are doing so. If you can focus your leader to help communicate the critical nature of the project, and have them regularly support in subtle and not-subtle ways the need to focus, they will lead the organization to success. You may do the tactical work but their support and ‘protection’ will prevent roadblocks.

Focus is not hard if you have the mindset and support to demand it on your project. Focus can be the defining factor in what will make your project an incredible success. While money can buy the technology, focus can bring it to life.

Jane Mugford is a contributor at WhatTheyThink’s Print Softwaresection as well the lead print MIS specialist at Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions.

 

Discussion

By Tony Hodgson on Sep 22, 2014

Jane, thanks for this useful article about the importance of focus and the concept of MVP. Printers that provide "solutions" to their clients and not just print "jobs" should take note. And your headline reminded me of my all-time favourite quote from the PrintPlanet forums which someone contributed 11 years ago:

"The only thing that matters is the application that brings value to a customer and helps them achieve their goal. Everything else is just white noise"

I've reminded myself of this whenever I've needed to "combat the noise"!

Tony
PODi Europe

 

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