The Perfect Project Review (There Ain't No Such Thing!)

by Mike Aucoin

Cowboys like country and western music, but it's a little known fact that a country song can teach you more about project management than you'll find in most textbooks. That's because country music is noted for portraying the raw heartbreak of everyday life situations, just like those heartbreaks that occur in everyday project life.

In the many project reviews I've had the misfortune of presenting, I've never had one in which the customer was entirely happy with the deliverable. Our teams would always knock ourselves out trying to make the deliverable perfect so that the customer would say, "wow, that's great". But it never happened that way - I finally learned that it never would.

The late Steve Goodman was a talented songwriter and musician - among his many credits is The City of New Orleans. But he was best known for songs that had a humorous angle. He had written what he considered the perfect country song, You Never Even Called Me By My Name, a song about identity crisis. When musician friend David Allan Coe saw it, he disagreed´┐Ż

People have a natural inclination that when presented with something new, they find what is wrong or incomplete with it, and then want to dictate what will make it right. So, you can forget about that perfect project review.

What was missing in Goodman's song? As Coe tells in his rendition, the song didn't include the words "mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk". As the story continues, Goodman wrote another verse, and sent it to Coe, who approved and then recorded what he now calls "the perfect country song."

When you get to that next project review, expect to hear "I don't like this part", or, "Here's what's missing." But, don't get upset about it - go with the flow. Deliberately give the customer something - let's call it a throwaway - to change, and then be able to quickly execute the change to the customer's satisfaction. This way they feel in command of the situation, and take more ownership of the deliverable. And because this occurs at the end of the project, it will create a lasting, pleasant memory for your customer. All you have to do is swallow your pride a little.

There are a few key points to guide you in this approach.
  • Make sure you have nailed the key functional elements of your deliverable. You don't want to look like a complete idiot for leaving out the engine on the aircraft.
  • Be clever and or subtle about the throwaway. And please refrain from snickering when the customer finds it.
  • The best place for the throwaway is in some easily-changed, cosmetic portion of the deliverable, particularly something that is open for opinion - then ask for the opinion.
Look at it this way. You can work your tail off to make your deliverable perfect and the customer will still find something wrong. Or, you can merely work hard and purposely highlight something that is not yet complete and together finish it with the customer.

Steve Goodman's final verse had little to do with the rest of the song, but it became a classic, all-encompassing expression of the themes of pathos of a country song. It's a verse that is amazingly efficient for throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, and it's so cleverly tragic, it's hilarious.

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got run over by a damned old train.

Who knows, maybe he intended for this all along - to purposely leave out the verse that would complete the perfect country song as a way to call attention to it.

If you really want to satisfy your customers, let them tell you how to write the final verse of your project. If you do it with style, it could just be the ticket to the most memorable part of your project. By using an "imperfect" project review, together, you might even create that elusive, "perfect" project!

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