Monday, 14 July 2014

Struggles getting sign-off

On most projects there will be some kind of document produced that states what work will be undertaken, how and when. As always they take different forms, it might be a Statement of Work, Test Plan or Charter. Once the testing work is being defined in terms of implementation specifics and then executed, there could be other documents such as a Technical Definition, Schedule or at the end a Test Summary Report.

At each stage, especially in consultancy deliveries, you're going to need sign-off at some point. This sign-off is often defined as a milestone delivery.

- Commence Analysis
- Signed-off, proceed to Planning
- Signed-off, proceed to Execution
- Signed off, proceed to Wrap-up
- Signed-off. job done!

As much as we'd love this step-wise, gated approach not to be the case, it often is due to the nature of the engagement and the tie-in with delivery milestones and payment milestones. There needs to be a way to recognise work delivered is 'done' and an invoice can be sent in. In my experience, whatever shape the Test Plan takes will need to be signed-off.
Now, sign-off is notoriously hard to get even for internal test teams, in client vendor engagements it can prove even harder. So what do we typically see when chasing sign-off?
Excluding no sign-off at all, I'd say there are three common scenarios:

   * Complete and full sign-off
   * Partial sign-off
   * Sign-off by silence

Complete and full sign-off is of course the easiest to work with. All stakeholders required to review and sign-off do so in the time requested. The next stage of work commences with a common agreement in place and the document is archived for future reference, This is a rarity (...he said cynically).

Partial sign-off is more common. In any project team, there are those that will engage more than others. What can happen is the same few review the documents, send in their comments and then provide sign-off. The remainder are never heard from or appear to partially engage and/or never get around to giving clear sign-off by the date requested.

Sign-off by silence is the more complex. This in essence is where sign-off is assumed, as the stakeholders had sufficient time to raise issues, yet failed to do so. In law you would say you have sign-off by acquiescence. The silence and lack of objection being taken as approval.

It goes without saying that complete and full sign-off is what's best and in some cases you'll have no wriggle-room and have to push for it. In this case the situation is simpler, though no less frustrating. If you don't get sign-off, you don't proceed with the next step. Whomever is not giving sign-off is then the bottle-neck and the one pushing the project time scales and costs out. Escalate, make it clear, point the finger, whatever you need to do to get things moving again. Be careful with your due diligence and awareness of your blind-spots.They may have legitimate reasons for not signing-off in which case you need to address them quickly and well, so you're not the one pushing time and costs up!

However, what can you do when you can't get sign-off, despite all you good natured badgering and gentle escalation? My recommendation is to work to get agreement for following a combination of Partial and Acquiesced sign-off. But getting that established is a two step process and not something you can just impose yourself. 

Establishing the sign-off Process 
First step, make sure you take the time to explain to the project group, especially those who you need to get a sign-off from, the issues you're having and why sign-off is important. Assuming you've had this conversation before the project commenced, they should all be aware now of the original need and that it's been an issue. As with all process changes, you need to take people with you, not do it to them.

Secondly, get agreement on the idea that all stakeholders have a responsibility to review the documents and give feedback. These documents and other artefacts are statements of intent or reports of what's been done. As such they are of importance to the stakeholders because the testing work will impact them. If they deny this, stating the work you're doing has no impact on them, allow them to leave the room and take their name off the signatories list. Now the only people left in the room are those that do care, reiterate again the need for them to sign off.

With buy-in achieved you'll need to agree the process for sign-off. I suggest the following can be used as a template, tweak it to your own needs:

1.  The test team complete the artifact as fully as possible, clearly highlighting any areas needing more information or clarity

2.  A first issue is sent to all stakeholders and the missing information requested

3.  Feedback and corrections are added to the document, then a final issue is sent out for approval

4.  If not all feedback is received by the date set, call a 2 hour* document review meeting
Issue the final version and set a date for sign-off

5.  If about half way to the sign-off date there's anyone not done so, invite them to a 2 hour* document walk-through and sign-off meeting

6.  Get sign-off and issue the artifact out!

Wow, heavy-weight... but what's your options if everyone has to sign-off? Well, you can change at step 4 at least:

4. If not all feedback is received by the date set, assume acquiescence and the document is signed-off and issued

You will of course need senior management agreement on this!

People are busy, lazy, confused and a whole bunch of other things you'll need to deal with. If you have a contractual need to get sign-off you have no choice but to define, publish and follow a process. It would be great to be more agile and silence equals sign-off is the least best way of continuing with the schedule in the event of no feedback. Don't under estimate the power of 2 hour document review meetings. No sane person wants to be in these meetings and it often prompts feedback. If they attend and give so much feedback it can't be incorporated before the planned sign off date, then a) you did a crap job on the initial copy or b) you need to ask why, if there were so many problems, did they not come to you before the meeting? Hey, some people like to look smart in these meetings and 'cause problems', don't let them get away with it. Likewise, most people feel sign-off via acquiescence undermines their authority and/or view and will get feedback to you before the cut-off date. If anyone goes for the silence as sign-off approach, ask why you need them on the sign-off list.

All too often, what should be a simple and beneficial activity can all too easily turn into a frustrating time sink. Whatever the needs of your environment and engagement; define the approach, communicate it out, get senior management buy-in and then stick to it!



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