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5 steps toward perfect project management - the TWIST memo

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Business tips
Friday, August 09, 2013


08.09.13 Blog EmailJoan was tearing out her hair. Her client was driving her nuts.

Every project with this client, it was some variation on the same thing — they took forever to approve anything, and then expected next-day turnaround from Joan’s team. Other times, in the middle of important discussions, they would just go silent, like a submarine avoiding the enemy.

When Joan tried to discuss the delays, or suggested charging a rush fee, the client would wig out.

I hear this a lot with my project-based clients — be they engineering firms, software, creative, construction, whatever.

And in a recent analysis of causes of how projects lose money, a few key drivers emerged as causing 80% of losses — the most common being client communications failures.

Why We Suffer

We allow projects to drift and run late for several reasons:

  • It’s hard to hold clients accountable for deadlines
  • It feels risky to confront a client
  • We want to keep the relationship “nice”
  • We imagine we’re purchasing goodwill by eating cost over-runs or waiving late fees and rush charges

Unfortunately, these rarely have the desired effect. Clients push because they are trying to get as much ‘free stuff’ as we’ll give them — and they won’t know how much we’ll give until we stop. It’s our job to set firm boundaries.

What We can Do

For Joan, we actually counted all the ways projects got side-tracked or became “un-smooth.” (A correctly estimated “smooth” project makes money. An un-smooth project nearly always loses money.) We found that 83% of the problems were caused by this same trio:

  • Client delays (client takes longer than agreed to do work or make a decision)
  • Client hiding (client stops communicating entirely)
  • Mis-communication (client and provider misunderstand each other)

For that client we devised what I now call the “TWIST Memo” — it worked for Joan and it very well might work for you.

The TWIST Memo

A TWIST Memo is a standard email you send to your client at least once a week in which you communicate with extreme clarity. This clarity leaves neither party any room to hide. It drives projects forward.

Here’s how to write a TWIST Memo.

Before you Begin

When you on-board your client or start your next project or re-launch a struggling project, introduce the TWIST Memo. Explain that you will regularly send them emails of this format. Explain that you’re doing it in order to make the project work. Show them an example.

This on-boarding of the client regarding TWIST memos makes it easier to follow through. Real accountability (not blame) is always front-loaded. (For a free assessment of your firm’s true level of accountability, click here.)

The TWIST Memo has five parts.

T = Thing I Need

In the first part you state exactly what you need — a decision, an approval, a marked up sheet, some text, whatever it is. Be super-clear on what you need.

Example: “I need you to send me back your choice of which of the attached three images we should use on the promotions page.”

W = When I Need It

Here you state the exact deadline, including the date, time, and even the Time Zone.

Example: “This decision needs to be in our hands no later than 3 PM on Friday of this week, 8/9.”

I = Impact of Missing It

Here you tell the client what happens if the deadline is missed.

Example: “If we don’t get your decision by then and you ask for an extension, the web page will launch late, or you’ll be charged a rush fee of $500.”

S = Silence Means What

Sometimes clients just go silent. They don’t approve anything, and they don’t tell you they’ll be late. In this section we handle that case explicitly by stating what exactly you will interpret their silence to mean.

Example: “If I don’t hear anything from you by the deadline and you don’t ask for an extension, I will select the image that I think is the best fit to the campaign theme, and we’ll move forward with it.”

T = Thank you

End by sincerely thanking the client. It’s short, and you must always include it.

Example: “Thank you for your business. We all appreciate your confidence in us.”

Moral of the Story

Clients will live up or down to your expectations.

For Joan, the drive to make every project be “smooth” led to a quadrupling of profitability. Meanwhile, stress and burnout went down.

Instead of letting your project get tangled and delayed, use a simple TWIST to keep things straight.

Tom Cox is a Beaverton consultant, author and speaker. He coaches CEOs on how to boost performance by building workplace trust.


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