Remember: Your Goal Is to Solve Your Customers' Problems
One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is to begin with the end in mind. The book’s website describes this second habit in the following way: “Begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.”
Covey’s advice applies as much to our work as software developers as it does to other aspects of our lives.
Programmer Michael Nygard reminds us how this applies to defining a process. He suggests a list of questions that can help you to “create a process that includes signaling, delivers good (i.e., usable) outputs, and doesn’t have any gaps.” This is a good reminder that having a process is a valuable way to get to a result but isn’t as valuable as an end in itself.
A useful process will help you work with a customer or client in a way that helps solve problems. Dan Millstein of Hut 8 Labs explains why emphasizing estimation is of limited use when requirements are unclear. He points out that when the conversation focuses on getting a definitive estimate, you take the focus away from the more important issues of managing uncertainty and risk and solving a business problem.
One reason that it’s hard to get people to step back from demanding an estimate is that clients believe that what you are estimating is a particular solution, rather than a resolution to a problem. Millstein points out: “It usually takes a considerable bit of effort to get beyond the proposed solution (e.g., the report), to the actual underlying problem.” This article provides some useful advice on turning these conversations into a more productive direction. But Millstein acknowledges that you can’t always be successful; sometimes, the right solution is to walk away.
It takes more than just technical skill when you are having conversations in which you need to be less than totally agreeable with your clients in the short term in order to help them in the long term.
Over at Fast Company, Neil Baron gives some advice on getting in the right frame of mind for constructive conversations. He suggests being in the moment and not being judgmental—two useful things to keep in mind. These are not easy to do and they take practice, but in the end, both you and your client will accomplish more.
While estimation, process, and technical skill are essential to delivering value to a customer in a cost-effective way, they are just means to your primary goal of solving problems. Keeping Covey’s second habit in mind can help you achieve that goal.