There are so many ways to measure if a project was successful, my preferred measure of project success is ‘redundancy’. Not the redundancy which spirals your life into unemployment and financial trauma, nor the redundancy of incumbent systems (although that’s sometimes desirable too!). But this redundancy surrounds the shelf life of the consultant and all the related project team/structure they arrive with – in an ideal world, at the end of a project, they should all be entirely inessential at project end.

From my experiences, successes and failures, I have learnt some recipes for success in reaching such redundancy. It comes from nurturing empowered users through each stage of the engagement in the following ways:

Find out what makes your Customer ‘tick’
This is not about Tourette’s Syndrome. Make understanding your Customer motivations and values as important as finding out their technological and business process requirements.  The key point here: satisfy your Customers motivations and values as part of your key deliverables. If you can’t produce systems and solutions that speak to your Customers values, project success is nigh impossible.

It starts with discovering why they do what they do – and being acutely aware that no two individuals are the same. Asking your Customer “Hey – what makes you tick?” is somewhat abrupt, confusing and a little bit awkward. Whilst asking “What do you do?” will uncover a job title, company name and who they report to or work with – you still have no real idea what they actuallydo. Try asking “If you were to describe your job to a 5-year-old, how would you describe it?” and watch the detailed and emotionally driven explanation unfold before your eyes.  By actively listening and respecting this Customer perspective, you will be provided with a big clue as to their fundamental ideals and purposes – setting you on a path towards delivering true quality outcomes.

Build a cheerleading squad, not a one-man band
Keeping the product owner happy is crucial, but a signed off project with a single happy product owner alone is as effective as a one-man band getting a stadium onto its feet. Some users will be enthusiastic cheerleaders from the word go – an easy win.  Others will not.

Pessimistic users have the power to bring a project to its knees if not handled with care and understanding, since negativity breeds negativity at a rate rabbits would be impressed with. It is imperative to create a safe environment for productive criticism to understand the cause of the apprehension. Realise that they are not doing this because they want to see you fail, but because they are insecure, or maybe don’t tolerate change. Communication and support through the period of change is absolutely key.

Remember too that he (or she) who speaks the loudest, is not always the wisest.  Neutral, non-engaged users are often the best observers and listeners – and it is fundamental to create a safe space for them to speak up and expose their knowledge. This is where most of the ‘aha, gotcha!’ and the ‘wow, we didn’t know anything about that!’ moments come from.

Such individuals are easy and tempting to ignore but are equally highly critical to your success. You must involve all ‘types’ of users in the journey from design to delivery in order to unlock valuable knowledge and insight, which will allow you to produce solutions which resonate with all your customers’ needs, motivations and values.  It is important to realise that there are many moving parts to any team and the influence of individuals can have a significant impact on project success of failure.

A quick chat is free, the benefits are invaluable
You need to make yourself 100% approachable and accessible to your Customer. The result is a much stronger feedback loop which will give you earlier awareness of problems; realization of concerns before they become issues; feedback (albeit positive and negative). Now you know exactly what is going well and what needs more focus – project success is looking much more achievable already.

Establish a conversation culture of regular dialog, reflection and feedback throughout the project. These conversations do not always have to be for purpose of work either, customers are people too.  Ask meaningful questions that show you care beyond the workplace script of “How was your weekend?”. Try something that demands elaboration – ‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’ or make it personal – ‘How’s little Jimmy getting on with his swimming?’. Don’t limit this discussion to meetings and workshops either – a chat at the coffee station or a brief conversation at the desk is quicker, easier and often more successful in getting what you need.  The end result is a cumulation of open communication, authenticity and trust.

Don’t ask Customers what they want, ask them what the problem is
People fear looking stupid and naturally avoid situations of feeling out of their depth – asking “what do you want?” is a sure-fire way to create feelings of insecurity. The result is likely defensiveness or avoidance because if they knew what they wanted, you wouldn’t be there as a trusted advisor, nor would there be a project to do.

I encourage you to step back and ask, ‘What is the problem?’, even if the Customer ‘knows’ what they want. They are experts in their business, but they are limited by their own experience and knowledge of what software and technology systems can do.  They don’t know what they don’t know.  You must take your Customer on a journey to really understand the problem, discover the solution they truly need and ensure they feel safe and guided by your expertise. The result of this is what sets a good solution apart from a great solution. And fundamentally, a good consultant from a great one.

You need them just as much as they need you
You and your Customer are both specialists in your respective fields. The knowledge of their business, industry and company is something only they know, whilst the experience and expertise you have in consulting is something they do not. Your wisdom alone nor your Customers sole insight can deliver a successful solution, otherwise you or they would have already done it already. Whilst it is the Customers duty to empower you with knowledge of the business and issues to design the solution, you must ensure the Customer has full understanding and confidence of what is being delivered. This journey from need to solution delivery must have context specific knowledge sharing throughout to ensure a Customer success for years to come.

The little things mean a lot
Small actions are often overlooked – being a mere 5ft3 I resonate with this on many levels (literally!).  But these small things combined roll up to make a huge difference in creating strong connections and empowering users.

  • What you say – make things personal that relate to earlier conversations, refer to things they have said in the past and adopt terminology they use to speak their language. Make every single user feel like there is something in the system that is just for ‘them’.
  • How you say it– be the most expressive person in the meeting to determine the mood of those in the room, ooze positivity and ‘good vibes’ to inspire a constructive, safe environment for collaboration.
  • What you dopay attention to the detail in your designs, solutions and documentation with the daily lived experience in the forefront of your mind. Adding in user-friendly icons or an easy to navigate site map is a small change that has a huge positive impact when it’s done well.
  • How you do it – bigger is not always better in a world when technology can do anything. It’s important to remember you cannot and should not try to make it do everything.

A consultant team delivering a project has a purpose for a period of time, but not forever. They should be leaving not because they are out of time, or unwanted, nor because the money ran out. A truly successful project ends when the consultant team have made themselves completely and utterly redundant.

This is by no means a tried and tested checklist, nor a prescribed method of how to be a consultant. It’s a way of life which has proven successful for me both in and out of the workplace. I have built stronger connections, achieved greater satisfaction from actions and realised a clearer pathway to success. I hope this can do the same for you.