November 3, 2010

Use the Four Dials Exercise to Understand Direct Project Priorities

The four constraints of project management

Every project has four dimensions to manage: scope, cost, schedule and quality.

  1. Scope: For software projects, scope is the project requirements list. Typically, this includes performance requirements and a set of features. To increase the scope, add features or make existing features on the list; to decrease the scope, remove or simplify features or reduce performance requirements.
  2. Cost: For software projects, cost is primarily contained in resources needed for the project.
  3. Schedule: The schedule for software projects is typically prioritized using the desired release date. If interim dates (alpha, beta, feature freeze, code freeze, etc.) are determining factors, these dates may be prioritized separately.
  4. Quality: Many models prioritize based on the previous three dimensions only. Unfortunately, what usually drops is the quality of the product or at least the testing time. It is important to realize that the quality of a software product is directly influenced by the other project dimensions. Occasionally the product quality is of lesser importance than other dimensions – for example to meet the deadline for a demonstration or marketing event.

Not only do you have to establish the goals within each of these categories, you have to prioritize the four dimensions. These priorities establish the constraints on the project.

Setting priorities

Working on a big software project involves managing risk, handling unexpected tasks and absorbing competing priorities from external influences. These influences include investors, management, and customers.

Successfully navigating such a complex task requires that you understand and steadfastly follow your most important priorities. Even more important, your team needs to be as resolute about these priorities as you are.

Here’s what often happens. The project sponsor makes the priorities clear at the onset of the project. It might be schedule and cost, or quality and scope, or some other pair of project dimensions.

The members of the team nod in agreement about these priorities and the project begins. Then, at some point, it becomes clear that different members of the team have a different understanding of the priorities. Although there was a lot of head-nodding at the beginning, the team hadn’t fully internalized the constraints on the project. How can the project sponsor and project manager help the team to follow critical project priorities?

The Four Dials Exercise

Here’s an exercise that we use at Waverley to make sure the entire team understands and stays focused on the top priorities that will determine the project’s success.

In a team meeting, explain the four project dimensions to participants and discuss the purpose of setting the guiding criteria for the project. Then ask each team member to vote on the two dimensions that he or she believes are most important.

Record the votes for each person’s top two dimensions and tally the votes. For the exercise, treat every vote equally.

As a sponsor or program manager, you probably have already decided the outcome you or your management feel is necessary to guide the project. If your expectations disagree with the voting results, discuss these differences. This discussion provides an opportunity for the project sponsor or the project manager to walk through the reasoning that was used to set the priorities. It also is an opportunity for team members who understood the priorities differently to voice their views and for the group to reconcile these views.

Because the project hasn’t started yet, it’s safe for people to have different views and for these views to be discussed. The goal is to make clear to everyone what dimensions are most important to the project sponsor, for alternative views to get an airing, and to reconcile differences.

All other decisions made during the course of the project relate back to the constraints that are established at the beginning of the project. The Four Dials Exercise increases the probability that the entire team will internalize the priorities and make decisions that support them.

Fighting overconfidence

Why does this exercise work? Chip and Dan Heath, in their book  Made To Stick, explain that one of the ways to make an idea stick in a person’s mind is to introduce an idea that is unexpected, if the answer surprises us. One of the best ways to create surprise is with a mystery, a gap between what we know and what we don’t know. People generally want to solve a mystery and so it’s easier to keep their attention.

But often people are overconfident about how much they know. If, at the beginning of the project we told the team to remember the top priorities of the project and then reminded them of the priorities, the tendency would be for team members to be overconfident, to say to themselves “I already know this”, and to tune out.

By taking a vote at the beginning of the meeting, we are asking everyone to commit to their answer. The Heaths explain that this simple act of committing causes everyone to be “more engaged and more curious about the outcome.”