Formal, Written Sign Off: A Simple and Powerful PM Tool

A few years ago I was contracted to build a two-week long technical course for a major high-tech client. A fairly large effort, our project’s finished deliverables included self-study materials, job aids, studio-produced video case study scenarios and instructor guides — in short, we were building a complete, integrated training system with a lot of moving parts. My team of independent contractors consisted of five training developers (instructional designers), a print production coordinator and a video production subcontractor.*

After several difficult weeks of interviewing the client’s in-house SMEs, gathering information, brainstorming and welding together a cohesive course design, we rolled out our first major deliverable, our Blueprint (an integrated training design plan).  My contract stipulated that our Blueprint would be formally approved by the client, in writing, before we moved on to the next phase, which would be developing our fully fleshed-out first drafts of all materials and video scripts.

Love Is In The Air! … Maybe …

On Blueprint approval day we sat down with our client project representative, a big, friendly bear of a guy who had been truly supportive of all our efforts. One by one each designer presented his or her portion of the Blueprint, while the video producer presented the treatments for the matching scenarios. The client was delighted!  After each team member’s presentation, he praised their work, noting his appreciation of specific challenges they had overcome or creative leaps they had made. It was a project manager’s dream! Love was in the air!

At the end of the day the contractors were each sent home with a hug and a pat on the back. And there we sat… just the two of us. Beaming, my client told me how I should be really proud of my team and how he was looking forward to seeing the course come alive in the next iteration.  In turn, I told him how much we appreciated his stalwart support throughout.

Still smiling and feeling confident, I reached into my briefcase and pulled out my Blueprint Sign-Off form. It stated 1) that the client approved our Blueprint in its entirety, as presented, and 2) the the client understood that any further changes, additions or deletions to our design could result in increased costs (i.e., more fees billed) and schedule extensions.  And at the bottom of the form was a big blank space for the client’s written signature, just above his clearly printed name and job title.

Actually… A Chill Is In the Air!

Studying the form, my client’s smile faded. When he finished reading he laid it down in front of him, placed both hands on the table and sat up straight. His brow became furrowed and his jaw muscles clenched a couple of times.  The love that had been in the air was replaced by a slight chill and a cool silence.

Finally, he spoke, “I can’t do it, Mike.  I’m sorry. The engineers are still making some changes that could ripple through most of the training design. And the guys at legal still haven’t approved two of the video scenarios.”

I swallowed hard. This was a big contract and I didn’t want to lose it. On the other hand, I was paying each of my team members a lot of money and I couldn’t afford to pay them extra for “do-overs.” Besides, as first-rate independent contractors they had each scheduled other projects when they completed this one. They certainly couldn’t wait around while the client’s stakeholders delayed their decisions.  Sighing (and trying to ignore my heart pounding in my ears) I told my client all this.  Then I said, “I’m sorry. But unless you can get these issues resolved and give me a formal approval for this phase, I’m gonna have to release my team. I can wait a couple of days, but after that I’ve got to cut them loose.” He nodded slowly and said he understood. Then I went home.

That night I was really scared. I had cleared my schedule for this big project, so nothing else was in my hopper. Worse, I had to call each of the team members and tell them to stop work until they heard from me. What a nasty conclusion to an otherwise triumphant day!

A Crystallizing Moment

Late the next afternoon my phone rang. My client was on the line and he informed me that he had been able to get clear, “semi-final” specs from the engineers and these didn’t seem to impact our design substantially. In addition, he had got the approval on the video scenarios from legal. So he would sign my Blueprint approval the next morning and the project could continue on schedule.  Whew! We had dodged a bullet on that one!

Almost a decade (and many shared projects) later, I attended a holiday party with this client. Warmed by the glow of the season and a couple of cups of holiday cheer, we were reminiscing about some of the challenges we had overcome together. I recalled that fateful (and truly scary!) moment when I had walked out of his office without my Blueprint Sign-Off, leaving him facing a potential project cancellation.

I said, “Man… I hated doing that. But the contract called for formal Sign-Off , so…”

He interrupted me, looked me straight in the eyes and chuckled, “Mike, I gotta tell you that was the best thing you could have done. When you did that, you empowered me to go back to those guys and tell them the project was now on hold and that it was time to get off their butts and make some decisions! I made it clear to them that they were the ones who’d be blamed for bringing down the whole project. So it was great! The formal Sign-Off forced us to get all our stuff resolved.”

Wow! I suddenly felt like I had simply been an actor in a big play. And by courageously playing my part, as scripted, I helped move the plot forward toward a sensible conclusion.

Lesson Learned

The lesson I learned here: There is a huge difference between verbal approval and formal, written approval via a legal signature. Though words of praise and approval may be accompanied by smiles, handshakes and hugs, they are still simply ephemeral sounds and gestures that evaporate without a trace.

On the other hand, when clients, sponsors, customers or SMEs pick up a pen and write a personal signature, it is not only a kinesthetic event, but a public and lasting declaration — on the record — that they stand firmly behind their decisions. In this way a formal, written Sign-Off can be a powerful, crystallizing moment in a project’s evolution.

So these days I tell the PM newbies in my classes, “You will have to pry my Sign-Off out of my cold, dead hands!” A little too dramatic? Perhaps. But you’ll never catch me working without these powerful, energy-shifting tools.

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* The events as described here are 90% accurately recalled. Some details may have been distorted by the years, but it’s mostly a true story.

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