Acceptance Criteria – How to Define Your Finish Line
One often overlooked aspect when starting out a project is, ironically enough, defining what your definition of done looks like. There are lots of discussions around your scope, how you’ll provide the deliverables, risk mitigation and communication plans, but not a lot of discussion about what is the measure of achieving completion for your project in the eyes of your customer. This week we’re going to talk about how you set that finish line if it’s not already set for you during the contracting phase.
Define Your Deliverables
If extracting your deliverables (i.e. what you’re on the hook to deliver) from your contract or statement of work is a challenge, stop here and have a frank discussion with your sales team (or whoever authors your contracts). Deliverables should be very clearly stated and understood by all parties to a contract, and downstream, the project manager. Understanding what your project is scoped to deliver is the first step in drafting acceptance criteria for your project. List out each deliverable and ensure that the scope of your project is clearly understood.
Define Your Criteria
The best way to start putting language around what constitutes acceptance is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes. What would you as a customer expect out of each of your deliverables before you’re ready to sign off (or ultimately pay an invoice)? Start putting down bullet point ideas and refine your language until you have a firm checklist of items defining the meaning of “done” to the satisfaction of your customer. Be as quantitative as possible when defining this language – try your best to remove all subjectivity – language like “to the satisfaction of the customer” should never be used. Any subjectivity in the terms of acceptance criteria can expose your project to prolonged delays or budget impacts by way of stalled deliverable acceptance, especially if the relationship is strained during the execution of the project and the customer does not feel that the deliverables have been met. Removing the ability for a decision maker to decide when something is done is vital in establishing solid acceptance criteria that has a firm finish line without satisfying the opinion of any specific stakeholder.
Work with your Customer, not against them
It’s vital to engage your customer as early on in the project as possible to vet the acceptance criteria for your project deliverables. As with most things in life, timing is everything and it’s always easier to negotiate terms like acceptance criteria while the relationship is strong and the trust levels are high. If there are issues during project execution that put a strain on the relationship or begin to erode the trust that the customer has in you, it makes negotiating acceptance criteria infinitely more difficult.
Acceptance criteria exists to protect both you as the project team and the customer alike in that expectations are set early on that define the meaning of “done”. It gives you and your team the marker that you strive to hit for the entire life of the project and enables you to firmly plan to meet those stated objectives. Deliverables exist to indicate the “what” of your delivery, but the acceptance criteria exists to ensure that both you and your customer know exactly what it is to be complete to the satisfaction of the project.
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