Categories: Our Methodology


Sam Bayer


The power of a party with a deadline

My wife and I have a technique we use to ensure that we stay focused on completing our household cleaning list. We throw a party.

COVID has forced us to modify this practice, but the principle still holds.

Several years ago, when we bought our present house, we knew that if we scheduled a party for two months after move-in day, things would get done. We would never allow ourselves to be embarrassed by a half-painted kitchen, unpacked boxes, unadorned walls and a “sound system-less” house. Without the scheduled party we could, and would, always find something more interesting to do.

Party deadlines have a way of focusing our efforts in tidying up. And that principle has powerful implications for IT projects.

Driving motivation + limiting scope

Throwing a party addresses two key problem areas in house cleaning: motivation and scope. First and foremost, the party positively motivates us to get things done. Somehow, the mountain of tasks before us seems less daunting when we have the excitement of a party to look forward to.

Secondly, having an immovable date on the calendar helps us control the scope of our efforts. We know that we can’t get everything done within the allotted time, nor can it all be perfectly done within the allotted budget. Given the constraints, we’re forced to make the best possible decisions and move on.

And then there’s the day of the party. With glass of wine in hand, music in the background, and enveloped by the cacophony of conversation, we always find a moment to appreciate what we’ve accomplished to date and get a clearer vision of what has to be done next. We relish our moment of tranquility within our chaotic world, even if it is only for a moment.

The lesson for complex IT projects: Throw a party!

On the day you kick off a project, the number of tasks that have to be defined, coordinated and accomplished before you declare victory can be overwhelming. The checklists are many and varied.

It starts with all the people and meetings required to get agreement on the product’s goals and requirements. Development has to manage the myriad tasks of designing, developing, testing, and managing change requests and version control. Marketing has to produce all of the literature and communications to support the rollout of the product. The training, customer support and services departments have to make sure that they’re ready to support the client once the product ships.

The tasks are many, complex and intertwined.

From the moment a project starts, we find ourselves fighting against the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says that systems which are left alone tend to migrate towards a state of maximum entropy. Every department tries to optimize their own performance and minimize their dependency on the others. Like the game of musical chairs, no one wants to be left standing when the music stops. Somewhere along the way the collective goal of delivering something of value to our customer was replaced by, “Make sure you can always blame the project’s delays on someone else”.

Chaos reigns. What’s a project manager to do?

Throw a party.

Welcome to the party (the Customer Focus Group)

Schedule a Customer Focus Group that will unite, align and motivate your project team to rise above their individual perspectives and rally around the customer. A Customer Focus Group (CFG) is a facilitated event where actual customers (not customer surrogates) react to a working demonstration of your whole product.

Everyone benefits by preparing for, and attending, a Customer Focus Group.

The host (project sponsor) gets to see how effectively his development dollars are being spent, and most importantly, observe the customer’s reactions firsthand.

By viewing a scenario-based demonstration of the proposed solution, the project manager gets to gauge real progress against the project plan. Did we deliver everything we said we would? If we didn’t, why didn’t we? Answers to these questions give the team the tools they need to identify their highest priorities (and then act on them).

What the Customer Focus Group means for each project stakeholder

The development team has a meaningful event to prepare for. The CFG isn’t a contrived vehicle designed to update management while “wasting” precious development resources. It’s a chance to engage with real users who can validate the development team’s assumptions and directly answer specific questions.

Members of other support organizations (marketing, training, customer support etc.) get to test their deliverables and get client input to steer their pending efforts.

Last, but not least, customers love participating in CFG’s. Why wouldn’t they? They’re the center of attention for a change. They’re treated like royalty, as opposed to victims. And they get to do what they do best: voice their opinions in a penalty-free environment.

The impact of the Customer Focus Group

The magic of the CFG is in watching everything come together for the event. For an all too brief moment in time, what appeared like an amalgamation of disconnected and chaotic efforts coalesces as a team effort with a collective purpose. “Customers are coming in to view a demonstration. We all have to prepare and make sure that their time is put to good use!”

Once you’ve set the date for your CFG, things start to resemble our house party scenario. The project team has to make a decision about their equivalents of every unpacked box. Should we unpack it, put a cloth over it, hide it in a closet, throw it out, or be prepared to make excuses for it? You can’t just leave it hanging around. By the end of the CFG, you will probably even uncover a couple of boxes that were missing as well.

And through it all, you can always count on that quiet moment in the middle of the CFG itself, when you come to the realization that you’ve pulled it off. Everyone came together, focused on what mattered, and produced a pretty smooth show. Your customers have confirmed that you’re on the right track and have gladly given you the inevitable suggestions that put their signatures on the overall project. Everything is under control. Until tomorrow morning that is, when you have to start planning for your next Customer Focus Group.

Moving forward: FREE case study

Want to see the power of the Customer Focus Group in real life? Download this case study on LORD Corporation. You’ll learn how this leading manufacturer launched eCommerce integrated to SAP without missing a single milestone.

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