Learning From the Way Ford Learns

Today’s NY Times describes how Ford’s designers went “back to the drawing board” to tune the controls on their new cars.

They didn’t use drawing boards. That was the first big step. They used video games and paper mock-ups and modeling clay.

There are some valuable lessons here for legal project managers.

The most important is this:

[T]he development team created guiding statements: To disappoint is worse than never making the promise. And: Unmet expectations negatively impact people’s perceptions.

These are simple enough… but how many project managers truly respect them? How about attorneys and legal project managers in particular?

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Explicitly explore client expectations.

How hard are these? Most attorneys — and project managers — get the first. Overpromising is best left to the province of marketers and TV commercials, and most attorneys are rightfully cautious around what they promise. Project managers, attorneys, and attorney project managers recognize that any statement may be heard as a promise, setting expectations, and so they invariably answer either “it depends” (attorneys) or “no” (project managers).  Those are not always the best answers, or the right answers, but they’re safe answers; I’ll leave discussion of applicability to another time.

The second statement, however, is one of the keys to success in Legal Project Management. Get client expectations out in the open — not just the “official” client, such as the attorney in the GC’s reporting chain who engaged your firm’s services, but her clients, the folks on the business side who have the real problem you’re trying to address. What are their expectations? Do you even know who they are? All of them? Do they have the same expectations? (In the corporate environment, that would be a near-miracle.)

Yet if you cannot meet their expectations, they will be disappointed, which will eventually hit repurchase intent (a/k/a client retention, a/k/a your profit in coming years). If you don’t know their expectations, what chance do you have of either meeting them or directing them toward more reasonable levels?

By the way, here’s a passage that stood out to me as a teacher of project management:

“We found we learned the most not from the average driver, but from the extreme cases,” said Iain Roberts, head of the interface group in Ideo’s Chicago office, who led the team working with Ford. “We want to get to the ends of the bell curve.”

I try to pull examples from all fields when I teach — from law, of course, but also from baseball, from software development, from construction and aerospace and more. I’ve also found, in managing projects, that the best ideas often come from the ends of the curve, ideas that seem off-the-wall at first but often are groping ways to express thoughts that are out of the mainstream. The best ideas are often expressed haltingly and elliptically at first; a good project manager learns to tease these out rather than reject them as nonsense. (Indeed, many do turn out to be nonsense, but you can deflect and discard later rather than at first hearing.)

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Explicitly explore client expectations. Good thoughts for project managers.

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