Guest column: If users complain, try these solutions

MANAGEMENT SPEAK: The project has hit a few snags.

TRANSLATION: We're comparing excuses to see who gets fired.

-- IS Survivalist Jim Elliott tells us how "snag" ranks in the project glitch hierarchyThere are two kinds of people in the world, according to a tired joke: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't.

I'm one of those who do. I divide the world into engineers and everyone else. Being an engineer isn't a matter of training or expertise, or at least not the way I use the term. Engineers look at every problem as a puzzle they can solve, so long as they're smart, systematic, and ingenious enough and look at it from the right angle.

The rest of the world looks at problems as, well, problems. Things that make their lives worse. Obstacles. Barriers. Something you call an engineer to take care of for you.

Engineers have a hard time working with non-engineers because of how much time and emotional energy the non-engineers expend bemoaning their fate and how hard it all is. Non-engineers have an even harder time working with engineers because the engineers display so little empathy. There's room in the world for both. For the non-engineers, let's reserve the Aleutian Islands.

Correspondence from an IS Survivalist brought this to mind. Following my suggestions on how IS can improve its relationship with the rest of the business, this scarred veteran described a situation that's all too common: end-users who are all too willing to complain but who aren't willing figure out what they really need.

How do we deal with them, Mr. Know-it-all Consultant?

Some problems require more extreme solutions than others. When asked how to fix the acoustics at Northrup Auditorium, for example, the great conductor Eugene Ormandy had a one-word answer: "dynamite." Recalcitrant end-users also call for extreme solutions, although not as extreme as Ormandy's. Here are some possibilities.

-- Extreme Technique No. 1: Make sure you aren't the problem. Because it's so easy to blame the users, ask a couple of the best analysts you know to review the situation with you. See if they can offer any suggestions or point out flaws in your technique.

-- Extreme Technique No. 2: Ping pong. In every meeting tell the complainers, "Here's what I need from you. When I get it, I'll build it into the prototype."

Every time they hit the ball back to you, put it back on their side of the table again. Use prototyping tools so you can do your part at great speed. Every time they are late, send a reminder via e-mail, copying your boss and the project's sponsor.

-- Extreme Technique No. 3: Assign a leader. According to legend (most of which he apparently authored himself), Wyatt Earp once faced down a mob by appointing a leader, pointing a gun at him, and saying, "Get these people out of here."

Look the biggest trouble-maker in the eye and say, "It's clear not everyone wants the same thing in this system. Fred, you seem to have strong opinions about it so I'd like you to be my point of contact." Then, ask Fred, every step of the way, "If I build it this way, will it be what you need?"

Not only will Fred have a hard time complaining, he will be on the receiving end of everyone else's complaints -- after all, you built it to his specifications and he was supposed to coordinate with everyone else.

-- Extreme Technique No. 4: Escalate. There comes a time when the chief information officer has to explain the facts of life to his counterpart in the end-user organisation: "For us to build the system you need, we need someone from your organisation to take responsibility for its design, and we need you to sponsor the project so there's someone with enough authority to resolve issues. Otherwise, we'll just have to guess, and there's no way we can get it right that way."

And then there's the last and most extreme technique: Look the complainers dead in the eye and say, "You have two choices: You can complain, or you can design. Pick one."

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