Project Action Principle #2: Enable Customer Value, Interactively

Following on from the article outlining my five Project Action Principles, this article expands the second Principle:

Project Action Principle #2: Fulfill Customer Value, Interactively

Project Action Principle #2: Fulfill Customer Value, Interactively

Any activity, resource investment, or outcome that does not service a customer value proposition is waste and probably avoidable. The definition of value must be obtained directly from the customer, not an intermediary. Project deliverables must be repeatedly and directly validated with customers.

Also see “Additional Resources” at the end of this article for detailed strategies and techniques.

A project delivery problem?

Some have said a fanatic is “someone who, having lost sight of their goal, redoubles their efforts”. This quote is often on my mind when I see projects facing difficulties. The problem is that teams rarely step back and re-orient themselves against the end-goal. Too frequently, project goals evolve as teams progress: customer goals become system goals, then system goals become departmental goals and so forth. These disconnects drive customer assessments further and further from where the work is being done..

In some cases this separation happens quickly, even before early decisions are made on project outcomes and delivery strategies.

I once told my VP that many of the project delivery problems he was seeing in our large portfolio were actually project selection problems.  We were managing projects that had little chance of succeeding, were technically flawed, or did not service a customer value proposition. He flatly disagreed and continued to direct our efforts towards process and methodology solutions to perceived project management problems.

But I was right: many problems that appear in project execution are actually problems in project selection and definition, and the most common problem is not being aligned with a customer value proposition.

Projects rapidly evolve to operate in in terms of its system structure (an engineering framework)  and the delivery process (. a project management framework). This often throws up conflicts or unexpected options that can be hard to resolve

These  system or delivery conflicts can be resolved by reference to a well-defined customer value framework.  How does that work?

Definition of a customer

It is not useful to differentiate between internal and external customers, as is common in many discussions about value.

The differentiation is between customers who makes a choice to invests resources to obtain  an outcome that enables something in the customer’s environment, and those who do not: who perhaps receive outcomes based on operating budgets or otherwise do not have to invest in the outcome.

In order to solve a real customer problem, the customer has to value the result: to have “skin in the game”

Definition of customer value

It is amazingly sad how many projects talk about creating customer value, without actually engaging customers.   Almost everyone expects that a project will be delivering to customer needs, but it’s a lot easier to write that into the project documents than to do it.

Projects so often base their objectives on indirect sources of customer views, out of date information, and assumptions

This create enormous problems for projects attempting to deliver a product.

Even projects that do focus on customers and their problems often fail to fully understand this concept.  The principle danger is to accept at face value what customers tell you without seeking the bigger, higher or deeper purpose that truly identifies what the customer is looking for.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

Whilst that may have been literally true, and a cute quote, it was Ford’s job to unpack customer demands and find what problem the customers wanted solved, not what they stated on the surface.

The value proposition for customers is not framed by the deliverable of a project or even what they do with the deliverable.

The definition of customer value is what the product will enable the customer to do or do better. It’s critical to your project success that you understand the purpose of the deliverables; This will provide you with the strongest guidance to shaping project activities.

What do customers want? It’s not features

A few years ago I was managing a major mobile app product development. The product manager’s existing documentation was mainly high-level market research and long lists of application features.  All of the initial scoping and planning discussions were framed by the feature list with practically no considerations to target users, their specific problems and / or their intended usage.

At the initial meeting with our User Experience (UX) Architect, again this feature list was the centre of the discussions, until the UX guy asked them  “What user problem are you trying to solve?” There was a fairly blank look from the Product Managers and a prolonged silent pause until one managed to blurt out, “Isn’t it obvious?”  And back we went to the feature set.

Customers don’t want a product because of what it can do; they want it because it helps them do something that that’s important to them.  It helps them solve a problem in their lives, or enables them to be great at something that they like to do.

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Theodore Levitt

In reality, even a quarter-inch hole doesn’t enable anything in people’s lives.  What they want is what they can do with the quarter inch hole, like putting up shelves or hangers; and so on.. You can expand this thinking further, looking for a higher value context, and I will provide more detail on that technique in a separate article.

Many product managers still think in terms of features: faster performance, cleaner interface, or richer features.  Don’t fall into the trap of talking about “customer value” in a solution language: get to know the problem, understand your customer, and discover what they are trying to solve.

Direct customer contact

Direct customer involvement in the project is a must-have for success.  It is the foundation upon which all subsequent outcomes are based.   This concept is core to Agile, Lean development and related methodologies, but many projects still believe that they can do this at a distance from the customer.

Getting direct, sustained and interactive engagement with actual end-customers is typically hard to achieve. Key team members may feel that it is not necessary, that it is time-consuming or that no new information will come about.

Direct customer involvement can be challenging. It can generate information that doesn’t match our desires or expectations, or may be hard to interpret. Alternative sources of information are easier to obtain: prior market research, individual domain expertise, and “branded” Industry research (e.g. Gartner).

As a compromise, many projects use “proxy customers” (e.g. product managers or SME’s, market research, industry studies, etc.). But beware of this approach, even “proxy customers” need to get their insight from actual customers. Considering caring for a sick child: should the doctor give medical treatment to the proxy (i.e. parent or guardian) or the child?

There is no substitute for direct, interactive customer involvement.

Embedding a Customer Value perspective into your project

You should consider one of the earliest outcomes to achieve is agreement on “what customer problem does this project solve”.  Don’t let the project move past this outcome under any circumstances, no matter how often someone tells you that they know better.

Never stop engaging the customer, or encouraging your extended team to build their understanding of the customers in bigger, higher and deeper contexts. Your processes and plans need to ensure the engagement of customers in your project delivery.  Never mind what this is called: “Lean” or “Agile” or whatever. Customer validation activities need to be built into your end-to-end project plan. You need to have a strong User Experience architect involved in your project, at some level.

If you ever lose sight of these two “commandments” of customer value, then your project is headed for some bumpy roads ahead.


Never forget two fundamental lessons about customer value:

  • Customers decide what is valuable to them, not individuals in the product development company or any other participant in the product value chain; and
  • Customers are not interested in your product. They are interested in what your product enables them to do or accomplish.

Bring these two core lessons to each and every day, every interaction, and use them to drive every aspect of your project management planning and execution.


Additional Resources