The Unanswerable Question

One of the most-asked SharePoint questions has absolutely
nothing to do with technology: How do we get started? Whether I am
presenting on managed metadata and taxonomy, social computing,
governance, or migration planning, someone in the audience
inevitably asks this unanswerable question. It happened again this weekend while
presenting my session ‘How SharePoint 2010 Stacks up to Your End
User Social Media Requirements’ at the 3rd annual SharePoint
Saturday Los Angeles event. I shared vignettes into a SharePoint
environment where search is optimized, where taxonomy management
and proactive governance take center ring, and  where end
users have been trained on how to use the platform and how to
request changes.

And for all those who don’t use SharePoint, but possibly a
competing knowledge management or collaboration platform, these
same issues apply.

I shared my ‘best practices’ for how social should work within
the enterprise, and hands popped up with questions. The first
question asked: how do we get started? Of course, I watched as the
other hands automatically slid down, as the first question seemed
to capture the gist of their queries. I call it the unanswerable
question not because it can’t be answered, but because the answer
needs to be personalized for your company and your deployment. By
breaking my advice down to something consumable by the entire room,
it may have come out sounding like a bunch of project management
platitudes, but the fact remains that these pearls of wisdom really
are the key to getting things rolling with your SharePoint
planning. I don’t care what you’re trying to do — deploying
SharePoint for the first time, migrating to the latest platform and
re-architecting your farm as you move, or planning to “turn on” all
of the social features — these things should be taken into

  • Make the process transparent and continuous.
    Always start your projects by outlining exactly how you plan to
    manage them. If you give people a voice, they are more likely to
    participate. As they see their feedback being taken seriously, see
    changes happening to the project based on their input, a funny
    thing happens — they provide more feedback, they provide better
    feedback, and they become advocates for both the project and the
    process. Think of the best project manager you’ve ever worked with,
    and I’ll bet they were completely transparent with their
    communication and documentation. In my experience, the number one
    reason why projects fail is due to a general lack of
  • Understand the business gaps to be
    .SharePoint is not the end state, but a way of
    helping you achieve that end state. Work with your team, your
    business units, and your stakeholders to understand the business
    needs that are driving your SharePoint projects. What processes can
    be sped up, what costs reduced, what redundant systems shut down by
    using SharePoint? Have a specific, targeted list outlined.
  • Use metrics and feedback to prioritize, cut through
    personal agendas
    .The next steps is to prioritize those
    business requirements, and understand where the highest value and
    quickest returns will be realized. Agree on the measurements,
    thereby removing the politics from the prioritization process. Be
    able to defend your decisions through data wherever possible (usage
    analytics, time and expense reductions, etc) to keep these
    decisions as neutral as possible.
  • Come together with users and management on the
    .Once you have your business issues prioritized,
    figure out how you will resolve them. Have the end state in mind
    for each, know what can be accomplished out of the box, with more
    advanced configuration, and THEN look at customization. Having
    clearly defined solutions (what we’re going to build) will help
    inform your planning activities, possibly causing you to
    re-prioritize. That’s perfectly normal. If you’re transparent about
    the changes to plan, how one priority might conflict with another,
    or where you can accomplish more, and in a shorter time, with a
    change in your priorities, people are more willing to accept that
  • Ensure a cultural fit.You have a good
    communication plan, you’ve identified the business gaps, you have
    them prioritized, and you’ve gotten buy in from your key end users
    and executive stakeholders. You can build it, but should you?
    Outside of your project team, is the rest of the organization ready
    for this new platform? What I mean by this: how much of a departure
    is the new solution from the way people work today? It’s something
    to consider. It might be the best technical solution to your
    problem, but if the change is too dramatic from the way people work
    today, they may not readily adopt. Consider this as your
    ‘environmental impact’ study before you move forward, and adjust
    your planning as needed to ensure that what you build out takes end
    user adoption into consideration.

What I’ve just outlined is nothing new to any experienced
project management team. This is the same approach for any
technology or business problem. Understand first, define it clearly
and comprehensively, and set up strong feedback loops so that the
process is transparent to all involved. It’s the secret to project
management success boiled down to a handful of steps.

Of course, not every organization is the same, and not every
SharePoint deployment looks alike. I often illustrate this point in
presentations with a picture of a carton of milk, telling people
that there is no such thing as a homogenous deployment. You cannot
expect to install the basic functionality, and then walk away. You
might be fine for a few days or a few weeks, but once people begin
to understand what you can do with something as powerful as
SharePoint — and the need to more closely align the platform with
the nuances of your business — the vanilla version of SharePoint
just won’t cut it. You can plan on your end users getting smarter
as they get more productive. So plan accordingly.


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Christian Buckley
was a speaker at the European SharePoint Conference 2011. Check out
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