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Ben Aston You freeze your junior designer who somehow just snuck into your meeting, has just opened their mouth, and started talking to the client about changing the design. You feel the cold sweat dripping down your face, panic sets in. What are they going to say? They didn’t know the scope, the budget, the timeline. They’re going to ruin everything.
But are they? Well, if you like me, you are a bit nervous about getting a team in front of the client. Keep listening because on today’s podcast we’re going to discuss how we can make it work and the benefits of having a team in front of our clients.
Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Digital Project Manager. Welcome to the DPM podcast. We are on a mission to help project managers succeed, to help people who manage projects delivered better. We’re here to help you take your project game to the next level. Check out thedigitalprojectmanager.com to learn about our training and resources we offer through Membership. This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise projects and portfolio management software. Visit Clarizen.com to learn more.
So today I’m joined by Michael Luchen, and Michael is one of our resident DPM experts.
He’s a product coach at Crema and they’re a digital product agency and they create web and mobile apps. And he works at DC. He works remotely helping people collaborate, analyse and solve complex problems and work with clients like CallawayGolf, Tilla and a top global consulting firm as well. So, Michael, so good to have you with us today.
Michael Luchen So good to be here.
Ben Aston Now, I was actually just talking to him before we started recording this show, and I did warn you that I’d been stalking you on YouTube. And if you haven’t stalked Michael on YouTube, go ahead and do it. It’s fun. But in one of the videos is it gave an I think it was in an overlay, it said, Michael speaks Greek and geek and he’s a good dancer. So tell us about these three things. Obviously, I believe that you’re a geek. That much I can manage. I can believe. But tell us about speaking Greek. Is this is this true?
Michael Luchen Yes. Well, say those three things. To have two of those three things are true, but it’s not. Oh, yes, I am definitely most. Most absolutely a geek. And I do speak a bit of Greek, but I am I’m not a good dancer.
Ben Aston Oh, no, that’s disappointing. I was hoping maybe another feature we could have a little dance, something better. They’ll have to wait for another time. How did you get to learn Greek? It’s a family thing.
Michael Luchen Yeah. My wife is Greek. Her whole side of family’s Greek.
And my wife, my life is basically like the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
Ben Aston I know I’ve not, but I’m all I’m aware of it. Good luck with that then. Is that. Yeah, sure it is. So tell us, apart from Greek, where do you go to get in spot and know you produce a lot of content for Krammer inspiring other people. But where do you get your inspiration from?
Michael Luchen Yeah. So I’m a huge RSS junkie, so I have a feed-in account where I subscribe to a bunch of various DPN blogs and sites and just general tech news newsletters. Subtract is really taking off right now. To subscribe to some newsletters over there. And then of course on Twitter, I like to follow any product leaders like I can find and it’s just being able to take all of that. It’s a lot. But taking in all of that has really kind of given me a way to kind of tap into like how our field is always moving forward and where I can help innovate next.
Ben Aston Yeah. Is there any in particular that you’ve enjoyed at the moment?
Michael Luchen I really like the Silicon Valley Product Group. Great. Great newsletter from Marty Kagan is putting out on a pretty regular basis right now. And then I also like following John Cutler on Twitter with his insights.
Ben Aston Nice. I’ll just say, one thing that I always enjoy reading is The Hustle. Have a newsletter. I don’t if you follow that. But it’s more kind of like macro insights just on how the world is evolving, changing. But often technology is skewed. But it’s they have lots of analysts who produce very readable insights on how the world is changing and evolving. So if you haven’t checked that out, take out the hustle. Yeah, it’s a fun read.
And tell us how are you trying to get better? I know in a podcast recently we talked about you taking on this role as a product coach. What what are you personally trying to develop and get better and how are you doing that?
Michael Luchen Yeah. So specifically within that realm of coaching is it’s about trying to find that right balance between being a guide and a leader, but also like being able to step back from those that I’m coaching to kind of maybe fall down on their own a little bit so that they can learn to pick themselves up. It’s especially in like client services that are such an ambiguous grey area. He has, though, so tough to navigate. But I’m convinced that if that is something that I can get better at, that there’s something really, really unique value there.
Ben Aston Mm-hmm. that’s cool. And have you found, you know, maybe if your coaching or just as you’ve just been discovering and getting inspired, if you found anything that is making your life awesome, maybe that’s in the remote project management space or discipline or through your coaching. Have you discovered any? You’ve been able to apply? Something that’s really working out well for you.
Michael Luchen Yes. So right now, I’m a huge, huge fan of the collaborative whiteboard tool Miro just for everything, right? Especially right now as we’re recording this with the COVID crisis and everybody’s forced to be remote. It allows my team and I to feel like we’re actually in the room collaborating together. But it goes beyond that, too. Like you just thumb on one project I’m on right now. We’ve been having ongoing design collaboration discussions on a shared mural whiteboard for the last few weeks, which is a huge productivity gain from the once a week only design meeting that we would have. So it’s awesome on so many levels.
Ben Aston Nice. Yeah. So we’ll stick a link in the chain notes, but it is Miro.com. Right. And you can. I think they do free trials and stuff, you know, it is worth checking out. So let’s get back to your post on this topic of having your team talk directly with the clients. And I think this is an interesting one because so often in my experience, having the team in the client or directly liaising or talking with the client can be a complete disaster. And in fact, so much so that I’ve written Rules of Engagement, a guide to managing your team and client meetings that you can find in our Membership area. So if you find that your team just isn’t toeing the line, check out the rules of client engagement.
And we said this as a case study on the digital project management a while back, but I wanted to circle back around and talk through it philosophically and practically with Michael just to kind of get his take because I think we’ve got maybe opposing views on how well this works. So I’m going to start with my beef. The things that I’m seeing go wrong when we do this. And then you can tell me why you think it’s still worth it.
And I think where I am is that I’m usually not confident enough in my team or the client to do or say the right thing. And I find that in my role, I’m this kind of delicate glue that actually helps keep people together, but also apart enough so that they don’t hate one another or torpedo the relationship. Because what’s I often see is that the team forgets that they’re actually representing the agency. They can’t just say whatever they like. They when they’re saying, you know something, actually, they’re representing the agency. They can’t just say, “Hey client, your brand totally sucks” or they hate you. You know, I hate your idea. Often I find the teams unprepared for the meeting. Maybe that’s our team’s not very nice because they’re bitter about client’s feedback. When a client says, “Hey, that design really sucked” to do the design. It really sucks and they get bitter about it and they can’t let go of it. Maybe the team is unrealistic. They make commitments that they can’t keep. All they talk about mistakes that we’ve made that maybe they shouldn’t do or they start talking about scope and budgets and timelines. But in your post, you kind of assume that this is a good idea. And philosophically, I think I agree.
But let’s start with why do you think this is a good idea?
Michael Luchen Yeah, well, it’s simply I think it helps the clients achieve results much more efficiently and effectively and when they’re directly collaborating with the team. And I totally, you know, coming off of your point there. I believe that. I hear what that is. Honestly, those those those same points or something. I held close to my chest for a few years for the kind of looking at this way of like, well, what if we really did trust the team and allow the team to help lead the client and lean into that trust by default.
And going down that path for me and still is to this day incredibly hard because, you know, as APM, I want to be in control. I have any drive to my role is specifically around like that aspect of it. But it’s all its kind of ironic in a way is that by giving up control and focussing not on the people, but more the environment that they collaborate in inclusive of the client, then those points, this does those problems as potential problems become you.
Ben Aston Right like I said Let’s talk about that in real terms, what this collaboration that for you. So, I mean, I again, I think you have the crux of this comes down to control and whether or not we can, I guess, trust our team-mates, trust the client to say the right things, to be nice to one another and to. For the benefits of that to outweigh the cost of potentially torpedoing everything. So in your experience, how you’ve made this collaboration work? Is that sending one another emails, calling one another in Slack together, just in meetings together? Because I think the intensity and the frequency probably matter here in terms of we don’t waver at where we’re giving a lease along with lease and where we’re kind of raining things in a bit.
Michael Luchen Yeah. Yeah. So just from a very foundational perspective, using Scrum as kind of a guideline framework, we generally operate into EXPERIENCE, which means we’re going to have a Sprint retrospective, a product backlog review in a Sprint kick-off planning session. The client is involved in all of those. It’s something that we ask really and strongly recommend for the client to do. And the reason for that is because as we’re actually going through the retrospective and the team is saying things which could include sometimes things that maybe the client doesn’t necessarily want to hear. There’s value in getting that conversation out and being able to have that that trusted safe conversation and the product backlog. Our view and if the client is asking to prioritise a massive new feature without any discovery or ideation or exploration into it, the team is able to say, well, no, like this is no why. Why should we go about this right now? We need to consider technical discovery. We need to consider maybe making a design prototype to validate this with the user and allows those conversations to be had.
And simply put, I approach it from treating our clients in that world as the product owner role. And sometimes they may get that right away. Sometimes it might take time for them to understand, like what that means just through experience. We’ve had that experience definitely the past, but always at least a little bit into those engagements that really starts to take root. And then that’s where in addition to those standing beatings. We also use Slack with our clients and we create shared channels where our clients are actually in those channels with our team so that we can really lean into that value.
Ben Aston So I will bring up you know, I think what I think will be a classic scenario, and that will be that the creative director and the design team have come up with the design that they think is perfect. And yet maybe it has been validated in some way through insights or testing that you presented to the client and the client-side. No, I want this classic. I want my logo bigger or I want this. I want that. And ultimately, the client’s paying for it. And so how do you balance doing the right thing with the clients paying for it and therefore they get to decide what happens? How do you balance that aspect without the client turning around and saying, look, I’ve asked 100 hundred times, now just do what I want.
Michael Luchen Yeah, that’s a good question, and it’s definitely one it’s a scenario that I’ve had happen repeatedly. I think the immediate thing to do is and this is something I have conversations with my team members about, is to take a posture of education for the client.
So in the design example, it might be explaining, well, this is why it’s been validated by users. This is why this is going to mean results for what we’re actually building for you and thus results for your role to the client and really being able to take it to lean in that posture of education for the client, telling them why, showing them why not necessarily backing down right away, which is hard to do. But when you with practice like it with that idea of I’m really hired to help educate and teach the client to make a good educated decision, you can. Now there are times where the client is going to have forces behind them that might be moving that they may not necessarily for one reason or another make visible. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but to be flexible with that. If they continue to want to push forward, then, yeah, you can go forward with what they’re suggesting, but only after you have that conversation so that you can consider it later and look down the road in the backlog to come back to or revisit as a good learning experience.
Ben Aston Cool. And so you told us about it. Yeah. You know, having the team engaged in this discussion with the client, challenging the client when they’re making bad decisions. But what would this kind of stuff? You guess, took your team through in order to prepare them for doing that in an appropriate way without people getting upset or without, you know, torpedoing the relationship. Were there any did you have any Rules of Engagement? Like I do in terms of, hey, you can come to this meeting, but here are the rules. How do you how did you train and prepare your team to engage with the client in a, you know, kind of white-glove way where you kind of maintain the relationship, but also are real with them about what should be done or one should not be done?
Michael Luchen Yeah. So I can definitely go really deep on this one. But I think simply like the simple takeaway is asking the team just to be transparent with their thoughts and share them even if they feel has intent or on that. And from there comes opportunities to force fine-tune and grow your team on how to continuously engage with clients and potentially heated discussions or what might feel like heated discussions. But really just point by saying like take a posture, like say things, you know, make sure we’re not like leaving these until after meeting can just open up so much value.
Ben Aston And you talk it’s about, you know, your team being apprehensive about it. Now, obviously, like PMS, we can be apprehensive because we’re like, hey, team, please don’t say something stupid in the meeting because this is a really important piece of work for us. This is what important clients. But likewise, from our team’s perspective, they can adopt a similar perspective in so far as thinking, hey, I don’t want to have to talk to the client. I don’t like this client. They are annoying. They don’t speak my language. But why? I mean, you’re talking you asked about that changing over time field team. So how did they transition from this apprehensiveness to, I guess, more confidence in being a director with the line?
Michael Luchen It takes time and just comfort and experience, I think, to move on from that. And just a little bit of form like a Scrum master perspective, like the Scrum master, serves as a coach. And I love that metaphor. Any project team. And so if you take that perspective and you’re like, you know, you might want to suggest this to the clients, just normal conversations, then that can be really great experience. So often in our roles, we have conversations every day with our team where they’re like maybe bringing up an idea or maybe even frustration about how a client is perceiving something.
And it can be an easy knee-jerk reaction, I think for us as PMs to say, oh, cool, like let me dive into that with you and then I will take that to the client and then come back to you. And that creates a bottleneck and a translation issue potentially, too. And so rather than go down that path, I love to always lean into those discussions like, hey, why don’t you actually reach out to the client on Slack about that? Or why don’t you bring that up on this call? And what I always like to do along those lines, too, is offering the team member I’m talking to a crutch of, hey, I can help you facilitate that conversation if you like because I understand that it might be a little challenging for them. More often than not, I am not taken up on that offer and they move forward with engaging in that discussion with the client.
Ben Aston Okay. So practically, though, then on the flip side of that. So that’s kind of a best-case scenario. How do you keep the client than from bugging the team about things, interrupting them? Oh, you mean you’re talking about encouraging the team to go while the team starts getting around you then? So how you keep if you’ve got a big team, you’ve got us talking to the client design dev. Everyone’s having this conversation as though they were the product Tune. How do you maintain any sense of control when these conversations are happening around you and you’re not? I guess in the center of that.
Michael Luchen I think it comes down to a facilitated alignment. Like the metaphor I’m really thinking about is just kind of like a silent guiding hand. I’m not a controlling hand, but rather a guiding hand. And so it’s about me. It’s about setting up each sprint, each release around in a shared align the vision of what is the outcome that we’re trying to generate.
So for each sprint that might be setting a sprint goal and aligning around that for writing user stories, it might mean not diving into the weeds of how very specific design acceptance criteria should look, but rather focussing on outcome-driven acceptance criteria to give the team a little bit of room to find the best solutions and collaborate along the way. It’s about finding in general that it’s about finding that kind of that vague grey area of having control but also having being comfortable with a certain amount of control that you don’t have. So that ultimately you have control getting those results. It’s very weird, but it’s a very challenging concept even for me every day like constantly those results have been proven by leaning into this anxiety and doing path that that does lead to these amazing outcomes for the team.
Ben Aston And so have you found that it’s worked better with some clients and some team members than others? I think what you’re talking about is this utopia, in my mind of, you know, just kind of let them at it and release them. And, you know, everyone starts playing nicely together. But is it the case that this is what is across the board?
Michael Luchen You know, there are definitely going to be challenge clients in interactions. And I always say like challenge clients and clients are challenging more. So just like misalignments with personalities, members and clients, et cetera. And again, I think that goes back to like kind of where that like guiding coaching team member role that we play comes into into into comes into play that you’re having these conversations and you’re going to have frustrations of the clients just not understanding it or even the client might be saying these things to you about your team. It’s about that in turn, taking a stance of, well, let’s dive into that. Like why do we feel this way and how might we move forward have more productive conversations, all without going back to this kind of a stance of saying, let’s only have the PM role in the client, collaborate and silo from then on out, but instead, rather, how might you help those relationships grow from the problems that might be occurring?
Ben Aston Yeah, I think I would also propose one reason why I know or why I think this works in your scenario so well is the underlying engagement model. And that is that the way that your top clients are typically engaging with you relies on a certain amount of trust in the first instance. Right. Because you typically sell and engage with clients on you know, you’ll buying a team for a set number of sprints and the deliverables are often quite loosely defined.
So even within the engagement model, there’s a level of trust that’s implied in the first instance. And maybe that helps trickle down to the workings of the project because the client trust that the team has their best interests at heart. The team knows that the client is trusting them because things are, you know, everything’s up for grabs. Maybe that helps with the client not being worried about the team taking advantage of them in some way. And conversely, the team thinking, hey, this client is giving us a lot of leeway and scope. Nothing has been fully defined. Everything’s up for grabs rather than a more tightly defined project with a kind of fixed budget fix scope, fixed timeline, and everyone’s just kind of struggling and pushing to deliver to that and because everyone’s trying to make as much profit as they can, all get things done as cheaply as they can on the client-side. People are then more, I guess, incented to cut corners or approach things in a less collaborative way.
Michael Luchen Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Good model. The contract model that we have Duration and Price does play a role in helping create kind of the structure of the environment to have this kind of organic means of a client and team collaboration. We definitely have challenges from time to time where, you know, the client might try to treat it as if it’s a defined scope engagement. But again, those conversations are enabled by that framework. And what I love about it, two choices as being up to them within that role, within that type of contract engagement is it really, truly does allow me to lean into the posture of being a coach and being a mentor to the team members. And also the client of this is what idea collaboration looks like. How can we get there knowing that each engagement, each personality is different?
Ben Aston Yeah. And so in your experience, though, obviously you’ve been talking about things going well, but where things do fall apart for you. Where what has happened when it hasn’t worked? What do you do? You’ll fail stories of this.
Michael Luchen Yeah. So, I mean, I can think of a lot of examples, of course, examples that have been resolved.
Ben Aston Right.
Michael Luchen Because again, it goes back to just how this is naturally set up. And so, you know, I can think of one example where things were going well and the client had grown away from maybe some old like Waterfall notions of expectations. And she’s more agile notions and then for whatever reason, do stakeholder pressures or other factors. The client reverted to and that frustrated the team that made the team feel burned out and not heard and wanting to check out and.
At that point, this is really where I think it becomes a whole kind of psychological component of it. I see these conversations happening in Slack, for example, and I might intentionally wait overnight to then engage with my team and say, hey, you know, on a Zoom call, what do you think? What was that yesterday? And just having that conversation to talk through it. And then also from my angle, provide a perspective of looking at the other side of the coin from the client’s perspective, then that allows the team to be rejuvenated. And then in this example, they were willing to re-engage in collaboration, move forward on a positive foot, and understand the other another perspective of that. And it’s challenging. But at the same time, like this just leads to so much better collaboration and so much better outcomes when you take that facilitation role of having an indirect but guiding hand in helping drive the team forward through these challenging scenarios to help keep things on track. It’s trying to build what the client desires.
Ben Aston Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s. It’s an interesting kind of how you frame it. And to me, what it sounds like is your role becomes this empathy coach. And it’s almost as if how you might actually work with your kids if you have kids helping people to understand maybe the other person’s perspective and how they might be feeling or thinking or why they might be doing what they’re doing, why they might be saying what they’re saying. And I’m rather than just taking things at face value, digging a bit deeper so that you can try to understand before you kind of react to it.
But to someone who’s kind of new to all this, who like me, maybe has got their fingers burnt in the past by having a designer start talking to the client about changing the design when there’s no budget or there’s no real scope for them to do that. What would you what would you recommend? Why do you think a good place to start is for beginning to get your client, your clients and your team engaging more directly with one another with a purpose and the intent really of speeding up the process of increasing the quality and value of the thing that you’re producing. Where would you start with that?
Michael Luchen So really focussing on leading with experiments and saying like, for example, like, hey, let’s take a more agile approach to these next couple weeks. Let’s take a more different approach where the client, you’re going to play the product owner role, and then the team you’re going to be collaborating directly with the client. I’m going to be here as a facilitator to help with those types of conversations if we need to do any sort of like design thinking exercises or anything like that during a sprint. We can do that.
But being able to set up that experimentation posture allows you in turn as somebody doing this for the first time to give yourself some grace, which is so important because there is going to be days where you’re going to start going down this path, you’re going to feel emotionally, b, you’re going to think, wow, this is really difficult.
And this is why I think as a side note, this is why I think so few product leaders do this is because what’s hard about our jobs isn’t to diminish it, but it isn’t always just like writing user stories and helping figure out like what are we going to build next? Those are tactics that can be learned. But I think what is truly the most difficult part of our job is when you lean into some kind of that empathy coach type posture, as you mentioned, that allows us to help multiply our team’s abilities and allows the results to be driven for more effectively and more efficiently and everybody to collaborate together really well. But it’s so hard to do that because you’re letting go of control. But at the same time, you’re not letting go of control because you’re creating and iterating on carefully managed like bumper lanes in a bowling alley. As I like to use it. It’s a terrible metaphor, but it allows that to happen. And if you give yourself that experimentation time and you even maybe tell your team and your clients, hey, this is an experiment, I think that can be a really good place to start and figure out how does this look like for you and your team.
Ben Aston Yeah also Well, Michael, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been great having you with us today.
Michael Luchen Thank you.
Ben Aston And I’d love to know what you think. How does having your team talking with client work for you? Does it work? Does it not work? Is your experience like Michael’s where it becomes this beautiful synergistic relationship, where beautiful things happen? Or do you end up in a complete disaster? I’d love to know what works and what doesn’t work for you. Tell us your file stories. Tell us your wins of this working order in the comments below. And if you want to learn more and get ahead in your work, come and join our tribe with DPM Membership.
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Until next time. Thanks for listening.