Thinking SharePoint Part 3 – A tale of two clients

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My third post on "Thinking SharePoint" for reproduced here.

Hi all

[Quick reference: Part 1 and Part 2]

If you have followed the first two articles in this series, I have been attempting to talk about SharePoint "head-space". In other words, SharePoint success is so much more a people issue than a technical or architectural one. As a result, it can be a little difficult to write about!

As a MOSS2007 product specialist and architect, I have slowly developed a kind of spider sense that allows me to pick out likely problematic implementations fairly early in the process. This spider sense is most definitely not along the lines of "oh these guys know nothing about application development/security/collaboration/[insert word here]". Often there are excellent, really knowledgeable staff on hand with exemplary credentials. It is instead a feeling that I previously described as "organisational maturity". Want a better explanation than that? How about something like the "oh they are *so* not ready for what they are getting themselves into" factor.

In Part 2, I’ve touched on the potent combination of differing personality types and the different stages of learning along with all of the new SharePoint features and options at your disposal. If you did not read part 2, then I strongly suggest you do so before continuing with this article because I am going to revisit the learning types stuff here.

Another way to describe the "unconsciously incompetent" stage of learning (that sounds much less insulting 😉 ) can be summed up as "you don’t know what you don’t know". The "Ikea guy" example in the last post is a perfect example of low organisational maturity. In my example, the poor unloved Ikea guy turns up at a house to install an Ikea modular storage solution and has to satisfy the conflicting requirements of a family so dysfunctional that the Simpsons seem pretty tame by comparison. It is clear from an outside perspective, that they have called in the "Ikea guy" way too early in the piece and in fact he is completely the wrong guy to call anyway! Wrong guy? Who should we be calling then?

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Who you really need is someone like Carson and the boys from "queer eye for the straight guy" – Either them or Doctor Phil. They might come on a bit strong at first, but they work by winning your trust, building your respect and slowly but surely give you the confidence to change your old, bad habits. Before long the dysfunctional family have turned a corner, to the amazement of yourself and those around you. As an added bonus, you had a lot of fun along the way and your dress sense has improved as your stress levels have dropped 🙂

You still need the Ikea guy, but at least now the family no longer argues so much over which drawer your socks should be stored in!

Of course, the ultimate SharePoint consultant is this mythical person. can deal with your emotional issues *and* install the system! 🙂

philTheIkeaMan (2)

Workshops, workshops!

Where possible, I always undertake SharePoint engagements in an advisory capacity before any time and cost estimates are made. Why? Because invariably, many/most clients start from a position of unconscious incompetence. Not just in term of the product itself, but in terms of a shared understanding of the problem with their colleagues and co-participants. Anyone who has been to a Microsoft sponsored SharePoint seminar and thought that SharePoint is the answer to their prayers is definitely in the first stage of their learning. In fact, when a client wants to skip the advisory stage and get straight into the "just tell me how much it costs", my spider senses tingle…

Thus, I run *plenty* of workshops. I don’t believe that "IT Integrators" who, for example, specialise in Exchange, Cisco networking and firewall type security are overly well suited to perform SharePoint implementations. Equally, I’m not convinced that a "Web Design House" is also particularly suited either. Yes, there is a big technical/architectural component (Ikea guys), but most of the work is in the facilitation, dialogue and requirements gathering stage of the process (Carson/Dr Phil guys). In other words, getting people from that "unconsciously incompetent" phase to "consciously incompetent" stage of learning.

I tend to keep the workshops to no more than two hours in a single day, with a break after an hour for everyone to recharge their brain cells with a jolt of caffeine :-). I also keep the workshops to 4 people or less and split into multiple workshops if there are more than 4 participants.

My goal in these workshops are threefold.

  • Teach some product basics, answer common questions and set the scene
  • Get participants thinking talking about what SharePoint means to them, and what they want to get out of it
  • Assess the personality/competency/maturity level among participants ("unconsciously incompetent" versus "consciously incompetent’)

Achieving these goals usually takes two to three workshops and it is unwise to pack all of those goals into one workshop anyway. The first workshop is all about the product basics (goal 1 above). I do not go into massive detail, just enough so that participants are not flying completely blind with their understanding of the product. Signs of success of this workshop are the shared realisation from participants of the huge potential of the product in certain areas, and an appreciation of the fact that there are a lot of organisational issues that will affect success, and thus it is much more than just whacking in the CD and running SETUP.EXE.

Politics, politics!

I prefer to wait a day or two before the second workshops, as it gives participants a chance to take in the content of the first. When we meet for the second time, I do a quick recap on workshop 1, and then we start talking through requirements, issues, constraints and risks. One sure sign of organisational maturity among participants is how long this workshop takes. This is a factor of the scope of the perceived "problem" to be solved, but more importantly, often this is the first time the participants have actually *talked though* a problem together (aside from previously all agreeing that it is sub-optimal in the first place). It is very easy for these workshop to go over time, or to finish unresolved.

Additionally in this sort of workshops, you can fairly quickly assess the political dynamic of the group (goal 3). Participants always have different agendas or belief on what needs to be done to solve organisational problems. Often participants have locked horns with each-other way before SharePoint came on the scene, and it doesn’t take long to see where the dynamics lie. Understanding this dynamic allows you to tailor your facilitation and teaching approach and build trust and respect among all of the participants.

This can be a frustrating stage among participants, especially while a shared understanding is still being developed. But right here is the root of project failure – not just SharePoint.

What I will do now is tell you briefly about two different client engagements that I was involved in some time back. Both of these client engagements happened at around the same time, and each client happened to be in the same vertical market, although they had nothing to do with each-other. Both were ultimately successful projects in terms of delivery, but one was much more successful in terms of laying a foundation for future projects. If any aspect of these two tales resonate with you, please send a comment through at the end of this article.

Client 1

The first client was a tender that had a fixed time constraint (spider-sense goes gangbusters at this point). However the client had attended one of my seminars where we talked about how to approach a SharePoint project. (The subject matter being a more distilled version of my various posts such as this one). Thus, I had the chance to sit down and have a long chat with the client in an informal environment and felt the theme of our seminar had resonated with them and they had a solid appreciation why we approach SharePoint projects the way we do. 

Despite the very tight time frame I was able to conduct a couple of workshops in two groups and we were able to agree on deliverables that were realistic and achievable. However the workshops were an interesting experience. There were too many people and the group dynamic was clearly political in nature and there was open, sometimes rigorous debate, about specifics of the deliverables. The skill levels varied, as did the agendas. This client also outsourced IT support, so was somewhat light on the ground in terms of infrastructure and application development skills. Thus, we made a conscious decision to stick to SharePoint designer and go out-of-the-box for this initial engagement as we felt that the timeframe and process maturity constraints meant that we would be better served using tools that were easy to make modifications to. We had made this clear (or so we thought ) to the client when we responded to the tender.

By the end of the project two deliverables had expectation mismatches in their functionality. A couple of sticking points were actually how SharePoint was architected as a product and the miscommunication stemmed from a lack of understanding of how the product worked in particular regards. To change the behaviour would require disproportionate custom development work that would very likely be redundant fairly quickly, once users started using the product. Additionally, custom application development for SharePoint adds to governance and they were not yet ‘ready’ to make that leap.

Now it is important to note here that the client was not really at fault. You can hardly blame someone when they "don’t know what they don’t know". The failure was on my part, in that I did not do enough to ensure that we had a shared understanding and full awareness of the constraints of our approach. At the time I thought that we had achieved this milestone, but looking back, it as clear that principally due to the very tight time-frames that we had to operate under, we under-invested in this part of the project.

Fortunately in this case, we were able to agree on workarounds that got the project over the line on-time, made logical sense and did not have any major impact on either party. But the major "lesson learnt" from this project is that we never actually guided the client properly to the "consciously incompetent" stage of their learning.

Client 2

Client 2 was an interesting case. They attended the same seminar as Client 1, principally because a competing integrator had sold them the idea of using SharePoint for their Internet site. Upon seeing the high cost of the licensing, the competing integrator then showed them "all of the other great features" that they would get from investing in SharePoint and overloaded them on recycled Microsoft "6 pillar" marketing material. The client liked all of these new features of course, and thus broadened the scope of the deliverables to help justify the cost.

Result? Even more confusion (and at this point they still had not actually *used* SharePoint). So they attended my seminar for some direction and I was subsequently engaged in an advisory capacity to help them make sense of it all.

I used the workshop approach as described above, and the first workshop was heavy going, because it took a while to sort out all of the marketing fluff from reality. They had been the victim of one too many PowerPoint slide decks and thus jumped around from topic to topic. I answered as best I could, occasionally having to use geek-speak but mostly was able to keep it pitched at the right sort of level. The client then had to reconcile the reality of SharePoint against this overly broad scope that they had created for themselves. It was frustrating for them, and I really felt for them. I even went as far as to offer to discuss things over a beer. (It’s amazing how much more progress you can make over beer 😉 .

A week went by, and the client called me back in. That week they had spent a lot of time soul searching and debating where, when and how SharePoint should be tackled. In the end they had re-examined the corporate strategy, which was a high level, 3 year plan that had been signed off by the organisation previously. They then examined the IT department’s 3 year plan which was developed to support the organisational strategy.

They came to the conclusion, that their external web site was not the place to start, for various reasons. Instead, they identified a much smaller scope project that slotted in perfectly with both the IT department strategy and more importantly, the organisational strategy. They asked me for feedback and I was very enthusiastic in how well they had done, considering the hard-slog workshops from the week before.

At this point, the transition from "unconsciously incompetent" to "consciously incompetent" was well underway

I met with them a few days later. Since the entire team was behind the agreed project, they had talked to the organisation stakeholders, mapped out and documented the process before I had arrived. They also were eager to learn SharePoint, and since the scope of this project was not large and the shared understanding was high, we were able to use this project as the training exercise to learn various concepts from Farm Administration, libraries, lists and columns, SharePoint Designer workflow and InfoPath Forms Services. When we hit an obstacle, we collectively were able to find creative, yet simple ways to get around them.

That smaller scope project was successfully delivered, and the benefits were significant. The team now has a much better understanding of the product, its constraints and limitations. It was now much easier to plan for and tackle the more significant project of web content management (Internet site) as there was a much greater level of shared understanding between participants. They felt more confident in their knowledge of the product, and now feel confident that they would be able to manage the expectations of the organisation.

All in all, it was a great engagement and I came away with a huge respect for that client. More importantly, the relationship continues to this day.


I wonder if the story of the first client is a familiar one to readers, either as being and end-user or being involved in the project itself? 

Certainly the second client had frustrations at the start, as they realised that SharePoint was not the panacea they were looking for, they stopped, took stock and co-operatively reassessed the situation. Unconstrained from a fixed time deadline, they realised that more thought was required. That action potentially saved them a lot of stress and heartache which they would have experienced had they ploughed on ahead with an ambitions project. It has now given them a great foundation to build upon for the future.

Thanks for reading

Paul Culmsee

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3 Responses to Thinking SharePoint Part 3 – A tale of two clients

  1. Pingback: SharePoint Daily for July 25, 2008 - SharePoint Daily

  2. Pingback: CleverWorkarounds » Thinking SharePoint Part 4 - Lessons from Kung Fu Panda

  3. Share Your Point says:

    There are way too many clients using SharePoint just because, some one from there IT department,attend Microsoft Sales Ssession,and end up with the illussion of finding Utopia in SharePoint.I am not saying, SharePoint is a sub standard product,its just not fit in many situations,and that part is never communicated to clients in proper manner.Moreover,what client, dont know/dont want to know/dont care to know?? , is Microsoft is all or none solution,specially the clients comming from Lotus notes background,usually learn this in a hard way.

    I also want to point out,that SharePoint features are mostly advertised so heavily,that most clients think that if they are not using SharePoint they are commiting some IT injustice in there organization.From Document Managment to Bussines Intelligence , from Workflows to Search!. I want to see client making rational choices on,things that are more tangiable,more concreate.Why not Windows SharePoint Services are used as a trial method , yeah , there are features that are not available,but still,it have what most client requires to,leap from “wow,this priduct is THE solution for our problems” to “OK!,I am now getting a idea”.

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