This podcast is part of an article published on The Digital Project Manager.
You can read the article here.
Ben Aston: Thank for tuning in, I’m Ben Aston a this is the Digital Manager Podcast. This Podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise project and portfolio management software. Visit clarizen.com to learn more.
We spend a lot of time talking about project initiation, about kicking our projects and how we can make them sing right from the start but, finishing projects can actually be just as much of a challenge because at the start of a project everyone’s interested in it, everyone’s excited about it, everyone’s buzzed, but by the end, actually everyone kind of tends to be a bit bored of it and isn’t really that positive about it anymore.
If we’re not careful we get sloppy and lazy. We can stop caring, our team stops caring and then the client just keeps on asking for more and more. So if we don’t end up with it right, we can end up missing things, we can end up going over budget, pissing off our team, pissing off the client, and not learning from the project at all. So we can lose a lot of value just because we take our foot off the gas right at the end.
Today I’m talking to Patrice and we’re going to talk about how we can end projects better. We’re going to talk through a checklist of what to do, and what not to do that’ll enable you to end your projects well, with some momentum, and set yourself up for success on your next project too. So hi Patrice.
Patrice Embry: Hello.
Ben Aston: So it’s been all of a couple of weeks since we last spoke, but is there anything, tell us about, in fact I know what’s exciting that’s recently happened to you, you’ve just been on your road trip adventure, would you recommend road trips?
Patrice Embry: I would recommend road trips to people who enjoy driving and like looking at the same thing for a while if you’re going to pass through some of the bigger states, but yeah we drove from where I live, outside of Philadelphia to Colorado Springs. We drove through Pennsylvania, through Ohio, Indiana, we shot up to Chicago real quick for dinner, went to Iowa, ate lunch in Nebraska, we drove all the way across South Dakota. Stayed a night in Wyoming and went down into Colorado and flew back, because after that much driving nobody ever wants to see a car again.
I don’t really think I’ve left the house much since we got back last Friday.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. Tell us in all that time, were there any funny instances that happened? What was the funniest thing that happened along the way, something funny or disastrous must’ve happened?
Patrice Embry: Well, it’s funny and disastrous, yes. So one of the things we really wanted, the reason why we went up as far north as we did, into South Dakota was to see Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. They’re very close to each other, wonderful monuments, things people aspire to see on a bucket list when you grow up in the U.S., and the day that, the only day that we had to do that it was a complete and total fog, white-out.
You could see nothing. Literally nothing. It wasn’t even like, oh you could see like the shape of it, but you can’t really make everything out, you literally couldn’t see any of it. So we drove to them anyway on the off chance that maybe the fog would lift. Did not. So, it remains on the bucket list and I don’t know if we’re ever going to do that again. So it just, it might not be in the cards for me.
Ben Aston: That is the worst isn’t it when you make a special plan and it’s a disaster. That’s disappointing.
Patrice Embry: They have nice gift shops though, so.
Ben Aston: Very nice, very nice.
So tell us, so now you’re back from your epic road trip, what are your kind of projects that you’re working on at the moment? What’s carrying you through the summer?
Patrice Embry: Well, I’ve got a little bit of a light load through the summer actually. I just finished something that was long-term, you know a two-year plus contract and I’m a freelancer so that’s a really long time. I’ve got a little bit of a lighter load for the summer which is fantastic because I’m, it was a rough few months there closing stuff up. So I’ve got a couple of things that I’m going to keep working on for some maintenance stuff for some of my non-profit clients and then I’m going to see where everything takes me. I got a couple of irons in the fire and we’ll see what comes up but I’d be totally fine if I, you know were just as I am now for the rest of the summer, so we’ll see.
Ben Aston: So if you want a kick-ass remote PM for September, Patrice is open for offers but, you know I did, you do have something coming up in September. I know you’re speaking at the Digital PM Summit, now I’ve never been to it, but for those who haven’t been to the Digital PM Summit, tell us what it’s about.
Patrice Embry: It’s basically getting to see all the people that you would love to meet in real life if you could because they know all of your struggles, all of your pain. It’s like reading any of the articles that you read on your site Ben because you can really relate to every, literally everything that’s happening in the conference, you can relate to. There’s lots of conferences where you basically go and you’re like okay, these four things apply to what I do, you know if it’s a technology conference or a leadership conference, it doesn’t always directly apply to you, you know part and parcel, but this does.
It’s nice to be able to meet people. I’m interested in meeting a lot of the folks that I’ve met through Slack, your Slack channel because some of the folks will be going. I’m really looking forward to seeing them in person, so it should be a good time. I’m doing a very short talk on Project Retrospectives. It’s just sort of a trial run to see if I can speak in front of people without having like full-body hives. So we’ll see how it goes.
Ben Aston: Will you be wearing your customary pajamas?
Patrice Embry: I probably will be, yeah. We’ll see how that goes. I might be wearing a turtleneck, just to like cover, because I really do, I break out into hives when I get in stressful situations. I’m really good at handling it in front of clients but that’ll be a whole nother level, we’ll see how it goes.
Ben Aston: Yeah, in person, live, it doesn’t get scarier than that. Cool so, and if you are thinking about going to the Digital PM Summit and you haven’t yet, have books yet, well Patrice has got an offer for you, have you not Patrice?
Patrice Embry: I sure do. If you use my first name, Patrice, P-A-T-R-I-C-E at checkout, you get $100 bucks off and it’s in Memphis, so you know that $100 is going to buy you a lot of fantastic barbecue.
Ben Aston: Yeah, so, it’s in the beginning of September, isn’t it?
Patrice Embry: Yes.
Ben Aston: September the 2nd I think?
Patrice Embry: Yes. Yep.
Ben Aston: Beginning of September so if you like Patrice and you want to meet her in the flesh and listen to her lightening talk of Project Retrospectives as long as a whole line up of interesting talks, then head to the Digital PM Summit site, which I think is bureauofdigital.com. I love the way that you say P-A-T-R-I-C-E, for your $100 off. Yeah, and you will get to see Patrice as well as a few other DPM favorites if you’re heading over there. I think you’ve got some other people talking there as well who make appearances on the DPM site. There’s also, Suze Haworth is giving a talk. Who else have we got that’s giving a talk? I’m just browsing through here, Kelly Sutter as well, so there’s some good peeps. Good peeps going, so check it out.
Cool, well let’s talk about the article that you wrote for us, which wasn’t about Project Retrospective but it was about as I eluded to, in the intro, about project closure, about how we can close projects better. I think projects can totally unravel in that last stretch as I said in the beginning, as we just take our foot off the gas because we think we’re there, we think we’ve done it but somehow that final like 2% of the project can just seem to last for weeks, and weeks, and weeks. It can be really hard to get a project actually done.
So let’s talk about how we can do this better, how we can stop our projects slipping away from us at the last minute, creating this world of pain for ourselves, for our team, for our clients. How do we do that? So, … let’s talk about the realities though of ending projects. When we get to the end of a project, putting in effort is kind of the last thing that we want to do. We kind of got other projects on the horizon. What’s your kind of, how do you stay engaged in a project when it’s right at the finish line, when to be honest you’ve kind of lost interest in it and everyone else has lost interest in it, what’s your kind of motivation? Where do you draw that motivation from?
Patrice Embry: I basically for myself and everyone whose on the team, I’ll say look, this is literally the last thing we have to do and then we can totally never talk about this again, or we can talk about how great this was the next time depending on how the project went. But it’s just reminding everyone that there’s just a small amount of work to be done at the end. A lot of it is, you know for the project manager to do so you really only have to motivate yourself for a lot of it and you can get yourself into a good spot knowing that the line item on your timesheet for this project can finally be removed.
Ben Aston: Yeah. I think that that’s a motivation in itself, isn’t it? It’s one less thing to have to add to your timesheets. But you kind of capped this off at the end, and lets kind of start with it, like the, often at the end of the project, the reason, one of the reasons we’ve become disengaged from it is because it is almost over, we’re going to run out of budget for the project and so we don’t really want to put much time on it. So what do you do? What’s kind of your, what’s your way of, we need to do it properly but we don’t have the budget to do it, what’s kind of your approach for trying to find a way to end it properly when there’s no budget or time allocated for it?
Patrice Embry: Well when you look at all the different things that you need to do to close a project and you don’t have a lot of time or budget, you know to be doing everything on there, you just have to decide for each project, what’s the most important thing. If it was a really big complicated project with a client that changed their mind a lot.
One of the things you’re gonna wanna make sure that you do, is go through plans and timelines for anything you might have missed, look at your notes. The first couple of things that I mention in the checklist. Because that’s really where you’re going to get strung up later on if your client goes back and says, “Didn’t we say we were going to do this? Whatever happened to that?” You wanna be prepared, even if there’s no more budget and you wouldn’t be able to do it even if you found it. You wanna find it before they do and raise the flag. So if there’s no more budget for it, you at least need to talk to someone to say like, “Well, how are we gonna handle this one?” I would say if you’ve got limited time, limited budget, figure out the most important things to do and just do those. But it’s a good practice to try to do all of the things on the list.
Ben Aston: Yeah. Let’s talk about, I mean, that thing that you … In your checklist, there’s nine items on it. We’re not gonna get through every one of them because you could just read the article. But you talk about going over then plan and the timeline. Then, I guess, in concert with that, the second item is scouring your notes and messages to track down these out of scope, or these parking lot items, so that you get this, I guess, an insight into what we said we’d be doing versus what we’ve actually delivered. I guess trying to identify where there’s some risk in the client being able to turn around and say, “Hey, we said we’d have a contact form on this page and it’s not there.” So, trying to get ahead of that. How do you typically log all those things that you found? Or how to keep track of those things and then manage that process of explaining to the client, “Well, the project’s done, so you’re not gonna get them now.”
Patrice Embry: Yeah, that’s always the tough thing. If during the project, and I think that you’ve got a lot of great information on your site about how to make sure that you’re capturing everything at the beginning of a project and during a project, and so if you’re employing some of those things, like making sure you’re taking good notes and maybe even have a separate list where you’re keeping some things that you know you’re not gonna be doing that are out of scope that once were in scope. So you’re not removing them from your mind altogether, even though everybody wants to do that, but you’re putting them off to the side and you know where they are, a parking lot if you will, or however that you keep track of things that you decided not to do. And not just stuff that you’ve decided not to do, things you’ve decided to do that might have, like you said, just get lost along the way.
You find those things, step one is to make sure that they’re really not there and there isn’t something that you can say, “Well, we didn’t do that because we did this, and there’s a reason why we didn’t do it.” Sort of follow each one up as best as you can. Depending on what your rapport is with the client, you may wanna say, “I found these things. We’re done the project and we’ve launched already. Did you wanna do a phase two to work these back in?” There are clients out there that’ll say like, “We totally get it. We did everything. We launched, we said we were fine. There’s these extra things, we should do a phase two.” Some will say, “Well, when do you plan to do those for us and not charge us?” The biggest thing you need to take away is find them because the worst thing is for them to find them for you, and then you’re already on the hot seat. Find them first, then you can figure out what your tactic is gonna be.
Ben Aston: I think that’s solid advice. Going through and getting ahead of the client, because when they come back to you a week later, when you’ve ramped down the team, and when they say, “Hey, you said you were gonna do this.” Actually, one of the things that I think is a real classic example of this is tracking. After something goes live, is usually not until something goes live and the client’s beginning to see the results come through in Google analytics, whatever that they’re using. It might be that we haven’t implemented the funnel tracking properly, or the tag thing for event tracking, or whatever that might be.
But that’s one of those things that’s a classic example of the client’s not gonna realize until after the fact that it’s not being done properly, so we need to get ahead of all those things. I think this is why status reports and keeping a log throughout the project and all the key decisions that were made can really help in providing the ammunition you need to have that conversation with the client. Say, “Yeah, well, we didn’t do the event tracking because, do you remember? We did this other thing instead that you said was actually more important.” That status report and having a log of the decisions you make could a useful tool when you do that.
Patrice Embry: Absolutely.
Ben Aston: I mean, are there any other things? I mean, I just mentioned tracking, but what other things do you find get missed off at the end of a project in those closed in phases when we tend to get a bit lazy?
Patrice Embry: It’s basically anything where you’ve gotten to the end of a project and you’re like, “All right. We have to figure out what the MVP is, the minimum viable product, and we’re only gonna focus on that, and we’ll worry about the other stuff later.” So this is the other stuff later. Things like, I know that I got caught on a project once not having any ALT tags on images. It was such a little thing, but at the time, the client didn’t have them ready, and we just needed to move on, and I did write it down, but I didn’t notice it by the time we got to the end of the project, and the client actually called it out and said that they had failed an accessibility audit because they didn’t have the alt tags.
It’s stuff like that. It’s stuff where you were like, “It’s ALT tags, we don’t need to to worry about it.” We do need to worry about at some point. And maybe you don’t need to worry about it later, but you at least need to know that it’s there. You might decide even later on that it’s not a big deal, but you have to … You just at least need to know about it so you can make a better decision about it.
Ben Aston: The other thing I just thought of was content is a big one. Yeah, ALT tags. Also, when developers have a tendency sometimes to use … Like place all the images in the layouts. Numerous times I have gone live with sites where someone had just forgotten about a page that everyone had got used to the cat picture that was on that page, and then you go live, and you’re like, “Hold on a second, that’s not the image it’s supposed to be.” Be wary of placing all the images. And dummy content as well. Looks like ordinary text if you’re not reading properly. Content, images, tracking, ALT tags, those kinds of things. Is there anything that in the QA process, I think, is really important that we have a proper plan for our QAs so that those kinds of things don’t get missed out.
Patrice Embry: Right. But it could be things more like we had thought we were gonna use a Widget for this thing. It’s not necessarily something that QA would pick up on, like ALT tags or the wrong images, but literal thing that you had talked about at one point where you like, “All right. Well, we’ll take care of that later,” or, “We can’t focus on that now.” And then you just never focus on it. Could be a feature that your QA person would never even know was a thing, so they’re not gonna pick up on it. You have to keep your eyes open in all directions for things.
Ben Aston: Let’s assume though that we’ve wrapped that up then, and we’re trying to actually close the project down. This can also be one of the tricky things as well. I mean, there’s one side of the coin which is, “Oh, there’s still things that need to be done.” And there’s the other side of the coin which is, “We need to stop this thing because we’re just burning money on the prefect.” While that pot is still open in timesheets, people will still keep logging their time on it because they can. I mean, what do you do to ramp down the team and shut things off and close it down, and try and draw a line in the sand. What other kinds of things that you need to make that happen?
Patrice Embry: Well, if you write a wrap-up note to your team, that’s a really great place to say, “And by the way, since this is over, there’s no more billing.” If you have a billing system like Harvest or something that would allow you to not give them the opportunity to bill, that certainly will remind them as well. You wanna do a wrap-up note to your team anyway just to say like, “Hey, we did a great job. If you have any client feedback, even if it’s just the client thought the launch went smoothly, or the client was really pleased with the outcome. Anything you can pass along to the team from the client that says that they did a good job.” But just to acknowledge everyone, maybe talk about one or two things you know were hard, and just keep … But wrap it up, say like, “It’s been a pleasure working with everything. Shout out to this person for this thing. No more billing.” Then send that out and you’re done for the internal for the team side until you do your retrospective if you’re able to do a retrospective.
Ben Aston: Well, let’s talk about retrospectives, as this is your topic, your light, and talk topic, so don’t give it all away. One of the things you talk about is anonymous surveys. We’ve talk about a lot recently, actually, about project retrospectives. I don’t think anyone else has actually mentioned anonymous surveys. I’m interested in how you make that work? What do you ask people? If it’s anonymous, how do you get people to answer it? Do you know if they’ve answered it or not? Tell us about making anonymous surveys work?
Tell us about making anonymous surveys work.
Patrice Embry: Yeah. They worked really well for me because people feel more inclined to say something that they might not say in person, or even if it can be directly attributed to them, they’ll be a little bit more candid, which is what you want. You want to know the good and the bad. You need to know how it went so that you can do something better later on. You won’t be able to do that if you don’t have real honest feedback, not just lip service that you might get if you’ve put someone on the spot in a meeting.
I use anonymous surveys to just … I ask three questions. What went well? What didn’t go well? And what should we do again? If I feel like I’ve got a really nicely engaged group, I might ask a few more questions, but … you know, If I know that they’re already waning, I kind of just …
And with the surveys what I’ll do is when I ask questions like “What went well?”, you know If you just ask an open ended question, a lot of times people won’t be inclined to do it. So what I do is I try to think of things that I think went well, or I would think they think went well, and I’ll add them in as a multiple-choice, and then there’ll be a write-in answer. They can either choose something that I’ve already kind of put together, that I know might be an issue or I know went well, you know and at least I’m getting some feedback and not nothing at all. But that might spur them to say, like, “Yeah, but what about this other great thing that we did,” and that will motivate them to write it in an answer. So take all that information and I synthesize it, and when I give the retrospective … People generally can tell from what area feedback will have come.
Ben Aston: The design was awful.
Patrice Embry: Yeah, I know. We soften it a little. I tell people that … You can write whatever you want. I will not take what you said word for word and put in the retrospective. I just need to know, you know? And people have been really good with being honest, and even their own part and why something didn’t work, so the anonymous surveys have really well for me.
Ben Aston: Yeah. I really like that idea of pre-populating the responses because people … Yeah. People tend to have major blanks, brain freeze, particularly actually when you’re sat around trying to do a retrospective on a project, and you know, I find that you can have everyone sitting there, and you go … You know? You ask that question: “So guys, what do you think went well?”
Patrice Embry: “I don’t know.”
Ben Aston: And it’s just stoned silence.
Patrice Embry: “We’re done.”
Ben Aston: “I guess it was all right”. Yes.
Patrice Embry: Right.
Ben Aston: “I guess the design looks all right.”
“Okay. Guys, here are three things that I thought up.”
And they’re like, “Yeah. That’s right.”
But, yeah, giving them a prompt or an idea of, “Hey, how about these?”
I think that’s really cool. I like anonymous as well. People are much more likely to tell you what they really think and that is how we’re going to improve, isn’t it? If people are honest rather than worried about upsetting the person who sat next to the window, they still have to, for us to have to work with them on the next project. I think that’s a really cool idea.
Is there anything about anonymous surveys that in your experience has not gone well ever? Has anyone somehow uncovered … You said you put a spin on the responses that you get?
Patrice Embry: The only thing that really doesn’t go well is that people decide not to respond and if it’s truly an anonymous survey you don’t know who they are that didn’t respond so you can’t follow up with specific people and you had to bug everybody so that can be a little bit of a bummer. Sometimes I’ll do like a quasi-anonymous. I’ll know who the user was because the email address will be something … But I would never, they trust me not to out them or whatever. They know that if I say that I’m not going to reveal who said what then I’m not going to actually do that. I have their trust. If you want to do it that way so you can follow up with people but generally, just in general, I’ll only follow up once. If you’ve got to chase people down for information for a retrospective, it’s not going to be super useful information because they’re just going to want to-
Ben Aston: Doing it from the heart.
Patrice Embry: Yeah. You don’t want someone to be like, ugh, whatever, here. You want real information.
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Patrice Embry: But that tends to be the hardest part of an anonymous survey is not being able to follow up specifically with people to do it.
Ben Aston: One of the other things in the checklist is having a retrospective with the team but then also asking the client for feedback too. Tell us how, do you normally do that informally? Or do you try questionnaire or survey with them as well. How do you draw kind of that information from the client particularly if the project didn’t go so well?
Patrice Embry: Yeah. I’ll generally say, “Hey, it would help us out if you can tell us just a little bit about this, this and this, what you thought went well, is there anything that we should take from this to improve.” There are some clients and some projects that have gone so poorly that you don’t even want to open that door.
There are some really great projects and great partners out there. We always tend to remember the terrible ones but there’s plenty of great ones out there too. If you’ve got a good rapport with your client, you can say hey, it would really help me out if you did this, this, and this. And they tend to want to respond in writing so they can think it through rather than talk it through but whatever they’re most comfortable with, if they’re able to give you even just a little bit of information, it’s good information to have. You can decide what went well and what didn’t all you want and it could be great internally but if that didn’t translate into something that the client thought was good then how valuable is it? Getting even just a little bit of client feedback is definitely helpful to make sure that you know what to do next time.
Ben Aston: Yeah. I think it can sometimes be helpful as well … It can sometimes be awkward if we are just asking clients for feedback at the end of the project and the end of the process, particularly if it’s bad.
Patrice Embry: Totally.
Ben Aston: We can also if it’s part of our ongoing discussion with them like once a month we kind of have a chat with them and say hey, what’s going well? What’s not going so well? How can we make this better for you? Having that part of as an ongoing discussion you sometimes get less of a reactionary response if something has just gone live that was terrible and then you’re like we know it went badly but help us here.
Patrice Embry: Also, if the client ever like during the project sends an email where they say something like “That was great,” I keep those in a special folder. I do.
Ben Aston: Put them in a frame.
Patrice Embry: And I look at them whenever I feel bad. That’s not a lie. I actually do look at those whenever I feel bad. I also keep everything that’s supercritical along the way. Even if it’s a bad project and I don’t want to even ask the client about something at the end, I can go back to those emails and be able to pull out obviously what didn’t go well if it’s a bad email or what did go well. If you can’t ask your client that, you can usually find something if you take good notes or keep good records, you can find out along the way what they thought worked and what didn’t work.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. Well, we’re going to end there because we’re out of time but if you want to read through the rest of the items on the checklist, head to thedigitalprojectmanager.com and you’ll find Patrice’s article on project closure there. Patrice, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been great having you with us today.
Patrice Embry: Thank you.
Ben Aston: As one of our DPM experts, Patrice will be making an appearance not only at Digital PM Summit but also on our upcoming calls that start in September as well. It’s called mastery digital project management. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about but you know you need some PM training, check it out. It’s a seven-week crash course that includes video lessons, it includes weekly assignments, group discussions, and also the option of coaching sessions too. Head to the DPM school.com and get yourself signed up before the course fills up. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation on closing projects better, comment on the post and head to the digitalprojectmanager.com to join our Slack team, head to the resources section there and you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on there too. Until next time, thanks for listening.