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Template Tunnel Vision

Most organizations have templates for creating project proposals, project plans and other project deliverables. There’s no doubt that templates are a useful starting point when creating documentation. They help ensure consistent presentation and in theory, prompt people into thinking through the different issues relating to the project.

Unfortunately, in practice templates sometimes have the opposite effect. Rather than prompting people into thinking, templates sometimes lead to a pattern of behaviour I call “template tunnel vision”. Template tunnel vision occurs when the person filling in the template simply fills in the blanks without doing the thinking part.

Examples of template tunnel vision are unfortunately all too common. Sometimes I find people making stuff up in order to fill in a section of a template when it really doesn’t apply to their project and sometimes I see documents that are missing critical information simply because the template didn’t ask for that information.

Another form of template tunnel vision occurs when teams just repeats the same information in different parts of the template. One team I was coaching recently illustrated the problem. They had written a proposal for a client who wanted to upgrade a tool used to administer a website. The proposal could be summarized as follows;

Project goal – The goal of this project is to implement function “x”
Scope – The scope of this project is to implement function “x”
Out of scope – Anything not required to implement function “x”
Assumptions – It is assumed function “x” will be implemented by this project

With such a stark summary, the lack of thought becomes very clear. The person who originally created the template had wanted the template’s users to think through why the project was being done, how the boundaries of the work could be defined and what the associated issues might be. In practice the team had become fixated on implementing function “x” and had failed to think about the project in its broader context.

This case is a useful illustration because once some basic questions were asked the team realized that their intended approach made no sense. While implementing function “x” was estimated at $100K, they realized that given how infrequently the function would be used, the return on investment was likely to be in the order of 25 years. After fifteen minutes of discussion the team realized that a change in the procedures used to manage the website would alleviate the problem the client had without costing anything. A quick call to the client confirmed the alternative procedural arrangements made sense and the project was dropped.

Fifteen minutes of thinking is a very small investment and the team certainly had the brain power to do the thinking themselves. Now some may say that the team missed out on the opportunity to secure a piece of work. Of course such attitudes are the unprofessional approach and are akin to a car mechanic who claims a piece of work is necessary when in fact it is not. As with any business if you provide professional advice to a client you will win the client’s confidence and once you have their confidence a mutually beneficial relationship can be developed.

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