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Managing 18F Projects in Distress — When to Pivot / Pause / Stop

Introduction

Meeting partners where they are

Working through complex constraints is a big part of 18F’s work. Our job is to help our partners work through internal challenges with empathy and creativity. At times, these challenges can hinder 18F consulting teams from being able to perform the work that we originally agreed upon with the partner. In these cases, the team can still add value and work towards partner goals by seeking additional support or pivoting strategy. In rare cases, it may make more sense to pause a project or end a project prematurely.

Managing distressed projects

Challenges on projects are common and expected. Teams can often work through these challenges by drawing on team members’ skills and expertise, looking to peers or sources of organizational learning, or requesting support from leadership. Here are some tools and strategies to help your team navigate these situations.

The project health tracker provides insight into some of the common areas where projects struggle. The data collected allows teams to understand trends with the project, and identify areas to address. In addition, others in 18F are ready to coach, provide supportive feedback, and help validate your experience. These folks include:

  1. Your Account Manager (AM) has seen a broad range of projects at 18F and can provide useful calibration and insight into 18F standards. Your AM also understands the context of your project and your team, and knows the players at the partner agency.
  2. Your Supervisor or Facilitator/Lead knows a great deal about your discipline or domain, and they know you and your professional goals. They can be a great person to bounce ideas off of and offer a second opinion on an approach to your project work.
  3. Guilds, crit groups, and chapter/portfolio meetings - these are all great avenues for soliciting peer feedback and troubleshooting challenges on your project.
  4. The #c-consulting channel and office hours - get peer feedback on topics related to consulting.
  5. The #c-18f-project-leadership channel is another great source for peer feedback and troubleshooting for project leads and those interested in becoming project leads.

18F doesn’t really have “typical” projects; each of our consulting engagements is tailored to the partner, their needs, and their constraints. We encourage team members to bring their unique skills, experiences, and perspectives to each project.

However, there are some “must dos” related to legal and financial compliance, quality control, and our consulting practice. We regularly iterate on these practices in handbooks, guides, and other documentation. The folks and groups listed above can usually point you in the right direction.

Teams may find this pivot, pause, stop mural template helpful in identifying if a project needs to pivot, pause, or stop. It allows the team to collaboratively collect thoughts on different options and enable a decision between the different potential actions.

Sources for partner leadership and support for the team

  1. Your Account Manager is your first stop for helping to align your team with your partner’s goals and needs. Partners will sometimes share candid feedback with AMs, because they may see them as a neutral resource. Your AM is in a better position to help you strategize around alignment approaches, or even to take the lead on difficult conversations with the partner.
  2. Portfolio Directors or the Director of Account Management can be an escalation path for teams or for partners, and can provide the support teams may need to have difficult conversations with partners.
  3. The Deputy and Executive Director can provide another layer of top cover. This is especially useful when executive level stakeholders are dissatisfied.

Staffing changes

In some cases, a staffing change may be a necessary strategy for managing distressed projects. The options for changing project staffing are documented in the Staffing repo README.

Pivoting projects

Suppose that you have articulated what progress looks like to the partner, but for some reason, that no longer seems like the right direction. What should you do? 18F projects always have the option to pivot, by which we mean reconsider the project goals or plan of action.

When is pivoting a project appropriate?

Pivoting a project is appropriate when both 18F and the partner team still see a way forward that’s worth trying. This normally happens when the fundamentals of the relationship are still sound and the partner’s need is still viable for 18F to take on (i.e. we have the skillsets and it aligns with our service offerings).

Naturally, teams will be doing small course corrections all the time, but a more major reset is needed when:

  • Key stakeholders have changed or left
  • The goalposts have moved, either by the partner or by external circumstances
  • The agency and/or 18F team have missed milestones repeatedly

In fact, it is a good idea to take stock if any of these things happen, even if the original path might still be viable. Is it still the best way to achieve the partner goals? Is the project still a good fit for these particular team members’ skillsets?

Note: If we wouldn’t accept a proposed project pivot through our current BD avenues, we shouldn’t pivot in that direction, and ending the partnership may be more appropriate.

How to pivot?

Sometimes the hardest part of a pivot is detecting the need for one. Something changes, and while you’re waiting to understand the consequences, the team can get into a new groove and miss the significance of the moment.

As soon as you realize, go back as far as you need to and then do what it takes to go forwards again. This may mean a re-kick-off. It will very likely be reframing the problem and generating a new vision for a solution, then taking the time you need to build a new shared understanding. Be sure to include your partner, and any key stakeholders, as this is a significant change, and your pivot will only succeed if it brings the partner along as fully empowered decision-makers. This pivot reflects new information and what you’ve all collectively discovered thus far in the project. Also, your partner’s feedback is going to be critical in determining the new direction for your project. Collaborating and aligning with them helps them buy into the new direction, and gain confidence in the change. Help them see that this change in direction comes from your and 18F’s desire to build value, and that the prior direction wasn’t meeting their needs.

You can also take the opportunity to reconsider your staffing, to ensure you have all the requisite skills on the team to address the project’s needs.

Remember, there is no “one size fits all” pivot, but it becomes easier to navigate this often difficult and stressful situation by including your partner, team members, and those involved with the project, including the Account Manager, Portfolio Director, and even supervisors.

Project Pauses (up to two weeks)

When is pausing a project appropriate?

While it’s an undesirable option, it can be appropriate for projects to be briefly paused (we can typically “hold” a team for up to two weeks, without needing to re-staff).

Some signs the project should be paused include:

  • No product owner: agency won’t provide dedicated resources for product ownership.
    • Unavailable PO: Partner PO cannot regularly meet or attend planned activities, or does not follow through on agreed-upon time commitments.
    • Disempowered PO: PO cannot make decisions or remove barriers; decisions are regularly reversed.
  • Lack of partner engagement: Partner expects 18F to act as contractor with little to no involvement by agency staff.
    • Disengaged sponsor/leadership – project success is extremely difficult if you don’t have an engaged and effective advocate to mitigate challenges and remove roadblocks.
  • Lack of access to systems or key people: Disallows access to systems, stakeholders and/or user groups.
    • Lack of access to key stakeholders: You cannot engage the SMEs, executives or other stakeholders necessary to advance project.
    • Lack of access to end-users: You cannot engage members of groups who will be using the products or services during user research or user testing phases of work.
  • Unable to work with distributed teams: not every agency is able to easily partner with distributed teams; however, that is table stakes for working with 18F. Your partner cannot collaborate; is unable to access data or necessary systems for the work, or share information using collaboration software. NB: Often, partners can’t use Slack or Google products because of security or IT constraints. We should default to working with the partner’s tools whenever possible. If we are unable to use their tools, they are unable to use ours, and we can’t find ways to add value, a pause may be needed.
  • Partner request: Partner wants to pause due to budget constraints, shift in legal mandates, government shutdown, etc. When this happens, we can communicate and try to mitigate risks of this approach.

Teams should consider pausing a project when one or more of the above conditions are present, but the partner is committed to unblocking them in a timely manner (within two weeks). If the partner is unable to address the issues in a timely manner, the team might consider a “stop and restart” (see below). If the partner is not committed to addressing the issues identified by the team at all, this would be a clear sign that the project should be ended early.

Stop and Restart (for project breaks longer than two weeks)

When partners are unable to address blocking issues in a timely manner, the team might consider a “stop and restart.” In this case, the project would likely restart with a different project team, since the current team will likely be staffed to other projects in the meantime.

Create a restart plan

Before stopping, work with your partner to define a plan to restart. That restart plan should include at least:

  • Checklist of requirements to restart - what must change before a future 18F team can get traction and be successful?
  • Communication plan for partner’s stakeholders and the 18F Account Manager to check in during the pause and deciding how unpausing will be kicked off.
  • Weigh the risks of stopping and risks of continuing, so that everyone can make an informed choice and align on the way forward.
    • Note: a significant risk of stopping is that the original team may not be able to be staffed to the work when it restarts. Additional ramp up time will need to be factored into the timeline and budget after restarting.
  • Staffing plan for ramping down or rolling off, including timeline, and what, if any, billing will continue to happen during the work stoppage.
  • Clean up existing documentation about the team’s work products, decisions, and plans, and provide the incoming team with a “spin-up checklist” that will help them get oriented to the project and be able to get started with minimized re-start time.

The AM should brief 18F senior leadership (ED/DED, Director of Ops, Portfolio or Domain leadership if appropriate, and AM staff at minimum) on this stop/restart plan before sharing with the partner.

External impact of stopping work

  • May necessitate a different team picking up the work at a later date
  • Loss of momentum
  • May require redoing contextual ramp-up
  • Managing the above with the partner

Internal impact of stopping work

  • When a team rolls off a project unexpectedly, staffing representatives must re-staff that team. This may lead to lengthy periods without billable work depending on availability of project work.
  • Organizational revenue loss (because team members will likely be temporarily benched while awaiting reassignment) - each team member’s opportunity cost to 18F is about $10,000/week at current billing rates.

Ending projects early

When is ending a project early appropriate?

Not every agency team will need, be ready for, or be receptive to the services and ways of working that 18F coaches. It’s okay if sometimes we’re not a good match for what the agency needs, or if they’re not capable of working in the ways that we promote. The change we are trying to bring about is hard and a 100% success rate is not always possible. Additionally, we’re resource-constrained at 18F, there are a limited number of us, it’s exhausting for staff to continue to put effort into “failing” projects, and we shouldn’t continue to dedicate resources to projects that are unlikely to be successful. We should expect and welcome that a certain portion of our projects will reach a point where we need to tactfully end the agreement.

The following are reasons when ending a project early may make sense:

  • Relationship becomes toxic with our partner:
    • Someone is rude, abrasive, or abusive even after being given feedback and asked to change behavior.
    • 18F team members are receiving conflicting feedback or direction from the partner.
    • Teams or individuals are driven to hold to deadlines or productivity expectations that are not reasonable.
    • Teams or individuals are asked to engage in unethical or illegal activities.
  • Project scope is inappropriate: The partner is looking to have the 18F team work on tasks that aren’t appropriate for our skills, methods, or philosophy. Some examples might be exhaustively collecting requirements prior to development, coaching vendors, overly simple technical tasks (i.e. installing COTS software), etc.
  • Consistently contradicting and ignoring 18F advice: We don’t expect to have all of our advice and guidance accepted, but the agency must show that it is willing to engage, experiment, and try some new ways of working. Note that this is different from “pushback” or questioning advice, which is expected, but rather when the partner demonstrates a lack of good faith in our team and work.
  • Your team has tried restarting or pivoting and it is still not working
  • The partner wants to end the project

Who makes the decision?

Teams should make a recommendation to the Portfolio Director, if applicable, or the Director of Account Management, who are both accountable for both project impact goals and business goals and will make the ultimate decision. 18F’s facilitates change in our partner organizations, and our work, even in the best of circumstances, is difficult. Because we do not have control over many of our partners’ circumstances or decision-making capabilities, stopping prematurely isn’t a negative reflection of the team’s efforts, skills, or capabilities.

Ending an engagement responsibly

  • No surprises – 18F (including 18F leadership) and the agency partner have ample notification that the project will need to end earlier than expected.
  • Clear documentation of rationale - document the timeline of risks on the engagement and explain why the team wants to end the engagement.
  • Convenient stopping point – 18F supports the agency to a mutually agreed-upon point when 18F can roll off the project with as little disruption as possible.
  • Maintain a good rapport – ideally, 18F and the agency maintain a good relationship so if there is an appropriate project in the future, we can partner with the agency again.
  • Return funding in a timely manner - so it can be used for other agency needs.