Building a Work Life Balance
I am not, and have never been, one of those people who have had trouble drawing the line between where work ends and home life begins. I am a Management Consultant by trade, and I have generally believed that most of the skills and experiences I’ve acquired over my years managing large technology projects weren’t transferable to the projects in my personal life. I believed that the methodologies I leveraged at work were successful because they helped to open lines of communication, breakdown organizational barriers and document the views of stakeholders within organizations. In my personal life, I believed the contrary – with fewer decision makers, less politics and no one to answer to but my wife – I could cut corners, skip documentation and fly by the seat of my pants. At least this is what I thought, until the events of the past two years changed my point of view.
A little over 2 years ago after great deliberation, my wife and I decided to build our dream home. My wife was a couple of months away from giving birth to our first child, and our plan was to have one more child down the road to help us fill the three bedroom ranch we planned on building. We both understood that taking on two life events at the same time would be a big undertaking, but we were sure we were up for the challenge. We decided on the general design for our house, picked a location and after significant analysis decided on a builder. On the day we broke ground to begin building our home; we couldn’t have been more excited and/or relieved. We believed that a majority of the hard decisions had been made and expected that our next major step would be moving in.
The enthusiasm of getting the project underway was quickly tempered as issues began to manifest on a daily basis. Project timelines were never clearly defined and getting straight answers from our builder was a constant challenge. Costs started to creep as we began finalizing decisions that we had left until construction was underway, including electrical work, appliances, lighting, deck etc. The most frustrating experiences were the conversations with our builder that were not properly documented by either party, which, caused friction between us and our builder as we tried to revisit conversations that we had a month earlier. Luckily, we had done a large portion of our communication through email which left me sifting through old emails trying to find the ones relevant to our debates.
It was at this point in the project that my life was beginning to resemble a mismanaged project I had seen all too many times in the workplace. As a Management Consultant, I have been brought into numerous projects that were experiencing very similar symptoms to what we were experiencing building our house. How often had I seen projects overshoot their budget, because scope was not clearly defined? How many times had I been on calls with developers who misunderstood a requirement, because it wasn’t clearly defined and documented? How many times had I been involved in conversations where I couldn’t get an accurate due date, because no project plan existed? The more my wife and I thought about the process we followed, the angrier we were with ourselves for having taken a hands off approach when it came to managing the building of our dream home.
When the builder finally finished, we were thrilled with the final product but were also left feeling unsatisfied knowing we could have built the same house cheaper, quicker and with less angst had we leveraged some of the methodologies upon which I rely so heavily every day at work. In the end, we were moving into our dream house, and we were prepared to chalk up our missed steps to learning experiences and move on. Little did we know that we would be afforded (Pun) the opportunity to test our theories less than a year later when my wife found out she was pregnant with twins. All of a sudden, our three bedroom dream house would no longer accommodate our rapidly expanding family.
To be clear, we didn’t start a new home from scratch, rather we decided to have our basement finished with two additional bedrooms. The major difference the second time around would be that we would manage the project leveraging the Homebuilders Delivery Lifecycle (a close cousin of the Software Delivery Lifecycle).
Before we put our basement out to bid, my wife and I sat together and documented the scope of our project. We decided how many rooms we wanted in the basement, where we wanted each room and all of the other important high-level details.
When scope was agreed upon, it was time to clearly define and document our detailed requirements. Going through this exercise had me feeling as though I was at work. The requirements definition process, while often painful, is the foundation of the successful projects I’ve witnessed. We talked, negotiated and horse traded through every requirement until we agreed on nearly every detail in our basement. For the requirements where consensus was a challenge, a Steering Committee (my wife) was consulted, and decisions were finalized.
When requirements were finalized, we were confident that we had built the foundation of what was going to be a successful project. We had documented everything from the type of flooring we would use, to how many light fixtures we needed, to the type of toilet flusher that would be installed. Every detail that we could think of was documented and would be discussed with each contractor, builder and/or handyman that would submit a proposal to complete our basement.
Request for Proposal:
It was time to put our basement project out to bid. We submitted a request for proposal that included our scope, requirements and key project drivers to several general contractors, home builders and handymen. When we received all proposals back, we agreed on two finalists; a general contractor, whose work impressed us greatly, and our original home builder.
Now admittedly we lucked out when it came to the design phase of our project. My father-in-law, a civil engineer for 40 plus years with unparalleled attention to detail, decided to put off his retirement for a couple days to take on one final project. True to form, he completed a comprehensive detailed design for our basement on time and under budget. This document meticulously specified every detail of the new basement, where things should be placed and exactly how they should work. Going through this exercise helped us to understand what requirements had been missed, where we had over or underestimated and most importantly how the plans we had envisioned would translate when drawn on paper. After the detailed design phase, we went back and updated our requirements resulting in a comprehensive visual of what our basement would look like when completed.
Final Estimates and Selection:
When detail design was finalized, we went back to our two finalists with the updated specs (requirements and design) and asked for a final cost estimate and project timeline (this would be the basis of our project plan). Both the general contractor and our home builder happily completed this exercise. When all was said and done, the builders who built our home came in with the best price and the most aggressive timeline. After talking through the failings of our first project, we finalized a contract and signed on to have our original builders finish our basement.
Once all the paperwork was complete, construction began.. This time around, the build phase of the project couldn’t have gone smoother. A couple questions came up that were quickly resolved by revisiting requirements and/or design documents. We had one change request when we decided to insulate the ceiling to partially soundproof the basement, but with open communication and proper documentation this also went very smoothly. The final cost of the basement ended up coming in under budget and while completion date was a week later than expected, open lines of communications between us and the builder throughout the process made for an amicable conversation and an easy decision to push the date back to spare additional costs. Again we were more than satisfied with the quality of the work, and this time we felt like the project couldn’t have gone better.
In the end, we learned a lesson in our personal lives that I had learned many years earlier managing large and small scale technology projects. No matter how qualified the people, a project will fail in the absence of documentation, process and methodology. Budgets will be blown, relationships will be strained and often times the final product doesn’t meet the needs of end user. However, by taking extra time up front to decide on a methodology and properly create and socialize the necessary documentation, the same people and/or organizations that have failed to successfully deliver projects in the past can be successful in the future.