Consider a hypothetical. It’s lunchtime, you haven’t had a satisfying breakfast and that 9:15 coffee is no longer doing its job. You promise yourself you’ll definitely get to Bourke Street Mall this time to scope out all the options, but that miso distracts your nose and you end up ordering your lunch from Sushi Hut in Equitable Place… yet again! You decide you are hungry enough to eat three sushi rolls. There are plenty of options but only one left of your favourite, so you quickly snap it up along with two others you're indifferent about. In what order do you eat your sushi?
I often use this hypothetical as a litmus test of strategy to learn how someone makes decisions. In my informal tests, carried out over lunchtime conversations, I've found that people have a subconscious routine they follow. Some leave the best to last, some start with their favourite, and certain people don’t bother with any specific order – apparently, some people only eat for sustenance. If you dig deeper, people often tend to reveal the logic principles that dictate these innate patterns. In economics, we’re taught that these logic principles can be quantified into something called a utility function, which maps an individual’s preferences to their decisions. I believe understanding the nuances of these preferences is a skill that is imperative for consultants to conduct an effective needs analysis.
Implied needs are the real pain point behind a requirement. Going into a new project, clients often have a preconceived solution in mind. If this preconceived idea doesn’t align with the most effective solution, an analysis and presentation of the current state usually allows for homogeneous thinking. In this process we often tend to ignore why our client asked for this solution. Underlying pressures, personal working styles and company values are some of the hidden factors that influence these proposed solutions. Decoding this utility function ultimately leads to a happier product owner and, just like a thoughtful act from a loved one, thinking critically about our clients’ needs helps us to build meaningful relationships.
In the case of someone who devours their lunch and starts with their favourite (spicy tuna, obviously), this could indicate that a proof of concept will be most effective. Rather than just indicating impulsiveness, starting with a bang could signal a need for further buy-in. Managing up can have its challenges, and a simple proof of concept can often lead to the lucrative signature on the dotted line that gets the project approved.
In the case of someone who leaves the best to last (clearly the best option), delaying validation might be an indication that the client is happy with the project team taking its time for a ‘perfect’ solution. While this can be an indication of a comfortable budget, it also allows the team to set and understand the reciprocated expectations.
In the case of no preference at all, this is a clear indication that delivery is the utmost priority. This might mean we suggest a waterfall methodology for delivery to align with the customer’s expectations and provide a robustly estimated timeline.
While I’ve used sushi to essentially define the project management triangle – balancing time, budget and quality – I want to highlight how our needs and decision-making processes are intertwined with the way we approach every situation. While I don’t recommend buying a three-pack of sushi, placing it in front of your product owner and demanding answers, I believe there’s merit in taking notice of what makes the people you work with tick. It allows for foolproof collusion, better working environments and valuable relationships.