XIV. The Good, the Bad, and the Unspoken

Initiating a project with unclear success criteria
Dr. Albert Künstler
When criteria are unclear, move gradually step by step: First, find out what is good and what is bad. Then validate the requirements. And finally, construct a measurable metrics of success.

hat a miracle it is when the quest giver can concisely explain their needs and define the explicit success criteria. Such clarity may usually be found in Delivery work orders, but not in Discovery research missions. At the beginning of the quest, don’t be surprised if you’re assigned a very abstract and specific task right from the get go.

It is not uncommon for a quest to have many stakeholders whose goals are not always understood and agreed upon. There may even be discrepancies in knowledge and expectations, or even disagreements about goals, means, and who owns the budget, is held responsible, and receives credit for success. You may receive contradicting directives from several different sponsors.

Even a single quest giver may be unable to formulate how to evaluate success exactly, as it is hard in highly uncertain endeavors to define a quantified desired outcome. When asked, the sponsor’s answer will be, “I trust your mastery, so at your discretion, do it well and not poorly.”

But that doesn’t mean you are free to do whatever you want.

The expectations do exist, they are just indistinct and unspoken, and given little attention at the commencement of the quest, they can ruin the whole endeavor. Failed expectations, even unspoken, will entail the second and the third EVIL contentions, the disagreement around the validation of progress and the willingness to invest, when the time comes for acceptance testing and the subsequent milestone go-no-go decision.

By fortune, there is a remedy for this occasion: the Good-Bad-Unspoken technique.

Tool: Good-Bad-Unspoken

Best for: Interviewing the sponsors in defining the success criteria

Required time: 15–30 minutes

Main result: Criteria-Question clarified — How do we know that our solution is good?

Your whole quest is an act of Discovery, which means that incomprehensible success criteria are also an uncertain item that awaits to be discovered. If you see that the sponsor has a hard time formulating the quantified expectations, step back and ask a simpler question.

Despise timidity and ask the quest givers directly what is good and what is bad, which factors, events, or consequences are most advantageous and which are most undesirable.

The stakeholders may regard the answers as trivial, do not be afraid to inquire; the first three factors will be obvious, but the fifth and sixth will be a revelation. Ask “why” or “can you give an example” questions to populate the list.

Remember that there are always unspoken wishes that, while generally accepted in the business environment of customers, are not at all so evident for your crew. If missed, they will grow painful at the end of the journey. Thus, bring out the unspoken with utmost diligence.

As you research, you will upgrade the good and bad aspects into validated requirements and, afterwards, into measurable criteria. This “Level-up” technique will be discussed in one of our next chapters.