The Thing About Milestones

I just celebrated a birthday, which makes me another year wiser, I suppose. The older I get, the less I care to make a big deal out of birthdays. But whether or not I throw a party, I can’t escape the fact that birthdays represent significant milestones in my life.

For those of us who live in the GRC consulting world, birthday milestones are a bit like project milestones. Some are big events. Some are barely noticed. Some are cause for celebration. Others are simply a jumping-off point for the next big thing.

The Project Kickoff

The first major milestone of any project is the kickoff. Preparing for a project kickoff isn’t much different than preparing for a new baby in the sense that a LOT has to happen up front. We GRC consultants aren’t test-driving strollers, installing car seats or trudging through Babies ‘R’ Us in search of the perfect rocking chair. But we are preparing for the “big day” in our own ways. Work can range from evaluating client requirements and identifying key stakeholders to sketching out preliminary process flows and even figuring out where to grab a quick bite to eat near the client site. Though a consulting project won’t last the average human lifespan, let’s face it, this project is our (and our client’s) baby, and we have the opportunity to mold it into something great.

Takeaway: Yes, this is only one out of many meetings to come, but this is the first meeting. Even the seemingly small decisions (PowerPoint or Visio, Panera or Chipotle) could have an impact on how well the project plan is received and the overall success of the project. Don’t neglect the small stuff when it comes to the project kickoff.

Project Checkpoints

There are many birthdays (and project checkpoints) in between major milestones, all of which are important for different reasons. Just like each new year of life, each project checkpoint comes with its share of surprises. It’s important to pay attention to what’s going on around us, to watch for signs of change and to keep the lines of communication open with our clients and colleagues. (Friends and family, too.) If we fail in this regard, our next milestone may not be a cause for celebration.

Takeaway: It is our responsibility as consultants to facilitate communication and flush out project changes, updates and problems early on. Getting out in front of a potential problem, responding to that problem and thoroughly documenting our actions could be the difference between success and failure.

Test, Test, Test

Most of us probably remember our 16th birthday as one of the biggest milestones of our lives. Finally…the chance to get behind the wheel of a car and experience a new kind of freedom! In the consulting world, our clients often approach the “Build Complete” milestone with similar excitement, eager to take our solution for a test drive and see how hard they can slam on the gas before the wheels start to fall off.

Before we hand over the keys to our clients, we have to ensure that we’ve completed our 50-point inspection. “Has the solution been properly serviced?” “Have the users been adequately trained?” “Do they know the rules of the road?”

Takeaway: Without a working solution our clients can test drive, they aren’t going to get very far. And who knows what they’ll find under the hood? Uncovering issues in the testing process can lead to a world of hurt for consultants, but often, these issues have more to do with training than technology. We can’t expect clients to read our minds. We have to train them on the solution before we let them loose to test its limits. After all, software solutions—like cars—are useless if our clients don’t know how to put them in gear.

The Big Finish

In consulting projects and in life, all good things (and most difficult things) come to an end. We often look back on “big finishes” as our most memorable milestones. Graduating from college. Selling our first home. Leaving one job to start another. Saying goodbye to another decade. And yes, even closing off a major consulting project. The way in which we approach endings—and our attitudes about them—can make the difference between a prosperous future and a regretful past.

Takeaway: The end of a project is a crucial opportunity to leave the right impression and ensure all deliverables are in order. By meeting (and hopefully exceeding) our clients’ expectations, there’s a good chance they will come back for repeat business or be a great referral source. Remember: Always finish strong and never burn your bridges.

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