Defining Realistic Perfect Outcomes for Your Project

I often say that imagining perfect outcomes is a useful step in defining project scope. I ran across two things this week that say this message is misguided. I still think I’m right. Let’s work through it.

If you haven’t seen a post from me on imagining perfect outcomes, here’s the idea. We often miss opportunities to achieve benefits on a project because we focus on controlling scope and risk. At the start of a project, I want to be sure we imagine perfect outcomes in terms of getting what we want; and getting it in a way that helps the organization and its people grow. These opportunities should be included in our scope. I think using the word “perfect” helps make this happen.

Here are the two things I ran across this week:

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The NPR story describes a study that shows that people who use skinny models as their motivator for dieting fail more often. The picture of the unattainable perfect body demotivates.

The TED talk by Q Marcus shares the all too true story of imagining the perfect day so filled with perfect behavior that you just go back to bed or spend the day on Facebook. Here, an immature and unrealistic expectation for magical transformation gets in the way of taking realistic steps and accepting that we will still be less than perfect after each one. We hang on to destructive behavior because it’s habit and it’s easier. The way to progress is to take regular small steps with positive reinforcement.

I really like these stories. They ring true. I try to get really fit and fall short. I imagine changing the world or getting rich. All these perfect outcomes are hard and require persistence and acceptance that we will fall short in some way. And, they may not be good definitions of perfect outcomes. They don’t ask why.

If you want to lose weight, first you should ask yourself “why?” If the answer is to be more attractive, you ask what will make me more attractive, and to who do I want to be attractive? If you can make the why specific and real, even if it smacks of perfection, then you can take realistic steps to a realistic future. You go from being a dreamer to being a realistic doer.

Back to the question: How do I reconcile this information with my advocacy for imagining perfect outcomes on our projects? I think I’m trying to say that we need to put what we want to do in context with why we want to do it. “Perfect” is the dream, reality is what we do. We are better off if what we do is in line with the dream. We are even better off if what we do is realistic and achievable; and in line with the dream. Sometimes we pick realistic and achievable instead of the dream.

This happens a lot on IT projects. We start with “customers are unhappy with how slow we get back to them” and the answer becomes “we need a new system.” Then the project becomes about how to get the new system installed on time and on budget. So, we tightly define project scope, schedule, and budget in terms of what the system has to do. Then we build it and it doesn’t help much.

If we imagine perfect outcomes for this project, two come to mind. One is that customers are really happy with our service so they become more loyal and profitable customers. The other is that our customer service people enjoy how they are able to make the customers happy. They find new ways to build relationships with customers that lead to mutual satisfaction. Imagining these outcomes and talking about what they would look like and what would go into getting there casts the project in a whole new light. With a perfect outcome in mind, we choose the right path. Then the challenge is planning the trip so we take each step within our capacity, and that each step makes us stronger so we can keep going.

The IT system is part of the solution, not the whole solution. Imagining perfect outcomes for the business helps the business people frame the project in their context, not in the context of a new system. It identifies the right “why” – the one that is meaningful to us. It keeps “why” before “what.” But it doesn’t fixate on “why.” Once “why” is understood, then we define “what” and “how” one step at a time.

I’ve written enough, so now I should go work out. But, it isn’t so I will look like Ryan Gosling. My perfect outcome is so I can keep up with the grandkids or go walking on the beach with my wife this summer. And for as many future summers as possible. One step at a time.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2013 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

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2 thoughts on “Defining Realistic Perfect Outcomes for Your Project

  1. Brilliant. Really well thought out. The example of building a system is right on. What you’re talking about is vision, but also with your unique slant on that vision, which is to imagine the perfect outcome for the people working on the project as well. Vision juices the team. There’s a reason for that. When we’re on fire, and aiming for that perfect outcome, we’ll course correct as needed and work it all out. When we’re focused on somebody’s idea of a solution, we can slog along, digging the hole, digging the hole and end up six feet under.

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