Working with the Client/Sponsor to get a good brief

Last week I was leading a workshop, mainly for training purposes, but we used a live organisation issue.   A recently appointed manager volunteered his organisation partly because he was planning to make some significant changes, partly because his organisation was hemmed in by a number of tricky constraints and he wanted to get some ideas and partly because his organisation was facing a major change in its environment.

So, after I had introduced to the group the concepts and tools that we were going to use, the manager gave us his brief. He did not have a formal presentation. So he started with some history.   Then he looked ahead at the changes in the environment. Then he started talking about the constraints. Interestingly, in all his opening remarks, he did not clearly define the problem or what he wanted us to do.

In the question session, the group got very excited about the constraints and asked endless questions about contracts of employment and flexibility in these contracts and constraints imposed by other departments and so on. This was familiar ground for them – so they were more comfortable asking questions about these aspects.

I let the discussion continue until the time was almost up, before I intervened with a question about the scope of what he wanted us to do and the deliverables.   I then used this “experience” as a lesson for the group, about the importance of getting the scope and the deliverables defined as early as possible in the briefing process.

It turned out that the scope was sufficiently narrow that many of the questions we had been asking about the constraints proved to be unnecessary: the constraints were not going to be challenged – at least unless we renegotiated the scope of the work.

Afterwards, I was reflecting on why less experienced managers don’t focus on getting clarity on the scope and deliverables. I have noticed this before, both in workshops and in real projects. A manager can leave the CEO’s office having been briefed about something without real clarity on what he or she is supposed to do. I do not have a clear answer to this ….. so please comment if you have an answer.

My supposition is that it is partly, that managers are nervous about asking questions on subjects they do not understand well, in case they expose their lack of understanding. But also, those defining a brief are often reluctant to define the brief too narrowly because they are expecting the person who is helping them to bring some of his or her ideas to the discussion.   Hence, it is not unusual for both “client” and “project leader” to dance around each other.   In my experience this is not productive. The most useful thing the project leader can do early on is to push the client to define what he or she wants.

After we had worked on this problem for a day and had a review with the “client” at the end of the day, the client gave us an even tighter focus for the second day of the workshop.   While our wider focus on the first day, had not been wasted (we had come up with some helpful ideas), it turned out that the problem which he did not have clear in his mind was even more limited than he had been prepared to express up front. He really just wanted help with defining the operating model of one department within his larger organisation. So why didn’t he say this up front? “Well I did not want to constrain your work too much”, was the response.   So clients need a bit of education on how to brief well!

With this tighter focus, we did some high quality work on the second day – and learnt a good deal about operating models and organisation design in the process.


About Andrew Campbell

Ashridge Executive Education Focus on strategy and organisation Almost retired!
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