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Radu Ghelmez | 15 August 2016

How wonderful it is to be (a)live

How wonderful it is to be (a)live

As I am getting ready for yet another steaming hot Go Live, I stop and think about those times when I missed all this fret and fuzz, and the blinking red "Emergency, Urgent, Critical, Emergency" statuses all over the dashboard of my project mind. Years ago, when I first joined the LS Retail team, I was doing mostly partner training and highly focused sales or design missions with high complex goals, but low duration of engagement. Don’t get me wrong: there is something almost magical in showing up somewhere, working for a week or so on the most interesting topics a project has to offer, to then wave goodbye and good luck, and go on your merry way towards your next challenge. Nevertheless, I always felt that something was missing, that I was robbed of a finality I deserved to be part of. Every time our partners were kind enough to send me some note or pictures from the Go Live, I treasured them with bittersweet melancholy.

That magic moment
For us, software consultants, the Go Live is as close as we can get to being heroes. Let's admit it, here, amongst ourselves! We are no surgeons; we do not cut into someone's bleeding heart or brain. We do not push the boundaries of human knowledge towards the limits of the universe. We are no soldiers. We are the bureaucrats of economic efficiency. Only on the eve of Go Live can we partake in the wondrous feeling that upon our shoulders, upon our wit and skills and speed of action, rests the success or failure of a joined effort. An effort bigger than any of us, which will change lives we do not know and we will never get to know. We act under the immense pressure of all these fires burning white around us, and in the cooling hours of the late nights in the office, we tend to look first and foremost towards what we know and can control: the binary, the black and white of code and numbers. We are technical people, "computer people", so it is only natural of us to restrict our role to fixing software and leave the other realities to unfold unto themselves. However, there is another side to the story, and we must strive to be mindful of it in order to be successful, and to bear the title of consultant with justified pride. We must think of the people who will use our software, all of them humans with complex and hard-to-understand emotions, with unpredictable reasoning and many biases and conflicting interests.

The human side of Go Live

The Go Live is just one second in the project, but it is the second that matters the most. It determines how the teams, the work done and the overall solution will be remembered and talked about in the years to come. The thing is, we can deliver the best solution there is, under the shortest possible timelines and under the harshest conditions - and still fail to win the long-term war with feedback. On the other hand, we can also generate an immense amount of goodwill, which can propel us over our unavoidable problems, to live and fight another day, and to succeed against the odds and challenges.  It is up to us, but it requires us to raise our eyes over the upper margin of our laptop lids, to look around and understand how people feel, and what we can do about it. Our users are humans (for now) and, as all humans, they judge based on what they see from where they stand, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with the way things actually are. Our users are also social. They communicate for the sake of communication, even when there is nothing valuable to share. We are likewise, but there is an asymmetry of information between us and the cashiers, or the warehouse receivers, which makes the situation drastically different.

Perceptions and reality

It is crucial, thus, to understand and control the perceptions of the people around us when it comes to our work and software, and to step in when this perception is turning detrimental to our goals. It is not enough to deliver quality and expect it to be recognized. We have to act to make it so. The week of Go Live, three days before, the very day, and three days afterwards, are fundamental: they set the baseline for the expectations and criticism we will receive for as long as our software is in place. These moments are even more critical for retail store implementations, where it is common to run a pilot store and swiftly follow with the rollout. Store managers will chatter and prattle as soon as there is change around the corner, and bad news travel fast. A single manager who has had a sour trip will taint the understanding of all the others who are still planning their switch. Take this from someone who has been doing retail projects for more than a decade across continents oceans apart: once somebody forms an opinion, it is an uphill battle to change it - no matter how substantiated the opinion is, or on which basis it was formed. Furthermore, there is no good project where some users won’t hate the solution — and if they intend to prove you wrong they will, no matter how airtight your code.

So how to make a project work, to the satisfaction of all (human) users involved?

It is not hard, but it requires a certain level of mindfulness and smart display of empathy.

1. Be professional and cool

If you do not know what you are doing, don't wonder and explore in front of people: get somebody there who knows what to do right away. If a consultant making a good living out of implementing software sweats panic by the POS, what can be expected of a cashier when faced with the same issue?

2. Be nice

Be helpful, considerate and forthcoming with everybody around you, no matter their job or rank. Our perception of things is driven by our perception of the people who share these things with us. The exact same technical glitch will be a minor nuisance, if explained by somebody well-liked for his or her eagerness to help; it will, however, be perceived as a tragedy if framed with the exact same words by a rigid soul speaking with the warmth of a proctologist asking you to spread wide whenever you have a doubt or a worry.

3. Adjust to the context

Honest explanations are essential, but they have to be smart too. We need to adjust our explaining to the level of understanding the audience is prepared, and willing, to do. If you are in front of a bunch of kids selling shoes to make money for a trip to a beach party which they cannot take their minds off (you know how that feels - we have all been there), don't go on listing 47 processes with indexes and counters and variables and integers and conflicting drivers as a reason for not being able to scan a barcode. They will just hear "Blah blah blah, complicated, complicated, omg, sooo complicated, ugh, must be complicated, why does it have to be so complicated, we only need it to sell some shoes, blah blah blah". All the while nodding and smiling knowingly towards you, whispering "Ah, you're so right, I never thought of that, ahem, I see now, well, good that you got this covered, good job". And when a kid from another store will ask how it’s going with the rollout — guess what your users will say. There is a time and a place for comprehensive explanations, and then there are situations when saying: "Pfft, this is peanuts, I'll fix it right away" is the best answer. Being able to discriminate between the two is part of what is expected of us, consultants.

4. Kill harmful rumors

People sometimes turn non-issues into issues just to have something to gossip about. A very minor thing, said to sparks some laughs, can end up shaping an entire narrative beyond logic or reason. Few years ago, a story started circulating about the EU regulating the curvature of bananas. This trivial, fake fact, which had a non-existent impact on the lives of banana eaters all over the Old World, still turned out to be very influential for historical events. When a rumor or complaint starts during your project, fight it. Shut it down right away, before it catches wings. Prove it to be so preposterous that it will make whoever mentions it look like a ridiculous person not worth listening to. Fight it also by providing positive gossip for people to share. Every project has its funny, harmless moments, which can be shared and will bring people together in their efforts towards your goals. Share the funnies which help and stomp on the ones which hurt, right away. You will get the added benefit of laughing together with your user base, which can be an amazing experience.

5. Help people out

Seriously, help. Whenever you can, whomever you can. Look at the occasions where you can help as opportunities to turn a decent project into a glorious one. Stay right behind your users, guide their hand, look into their eyes when they panic and smile reassuringly. Do not hide behind your desk or your title. Go out there on the shop floor and make it clear that their struggle is your struggle, and you can only win or lose together. Do not fraternize, but bind in a meaningful way. At the end of the day, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are in this together. If you behave as if their problems are your problems, they will respond in kind. If, on the other hand, you isolate yourself behind the "it's not my fault" shield, they will also mirror your attitude. Then their problems will become yours, but you will be alone in your attempts to fix them.   These are but a few examples of what could — and should — be tried during the Go Live. I agree that this overall empathetic attitude should be deployed throughout the project – still, at Go Live is when it matters most. And I do not want to present these points as golden rules, because they are not — there are no golden rules when you deal with people. These are just hints. In every new project, let your experience guide you without binding you in conservatism. Keep an open and perceptive mind to the reactions around you, and you will be able to deduct the “here and now” rules, which will always be superior to whatever it is written in books. Because I am a consultant, I tend to speak from a consultant’s perspective towards consultants, but, at the end of the day, every project has but one team, which brings together people from different organizations under the same goal. This common goal may be easier to achieve with a little care paid to the soft underbelly of things.

We can be heroes

There is no greater reward, for a software implementer like I am, than to leave through the back doors of the first store opened in the chill and fragrant air of the dead of night, and walk tired towards my car. Long after the customers of the first day of sales are sleeping in their beds, long after the project managers are dead drunk somewhere in an expensive bar, long after the cash is counted and securely stored in the safe and the day is closed even from the accountants’ point of view, I stop just before unlocking my car as I hear my name yelled by the store manager, who chased me down to thank me and to hug me for being there when it mattered. This warm handshake in the parking lot is not mentioned in any of the PowerPoint slide the project managers put together to list the success factors of the project. It is, nevertheless, a secret ingredient of victory and, in itself and by itself, it turns my work into a meaningful adventure. Aim for it! Aim for this warm embrace at the end of the Go Live! It is always worth it!   [hubspot id="11"]
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