Sign-offs need not be dread-filled events

Although I’ve never seen it published, I’m sure that the question from managers “Did you get them to sign off on that?” leads to a sense of dread right up there with public speaking for most. As a manager myself, I see the dread all too often; and to be truthful, unless it’s to sign off on a positive note (e.g. Project closure on a project delivery 20% under budget), it often fills me with dread too. Having said this, through the years I’ve learnt that sign-offs can in fact be a positive experience and one of the best ways to avoid pending doom as opposed to just a “backside covering” exercise as many would believe.

I am a solid believer in wanting to know issues upfront as opposed to being blind-sided down the track. Issues raised and addressed early on whilst often painful are less painful than those that have “aged” and the problem has become one that will consume multiples of the original time to resolve than had it been raised earlier. Milestones (and associated sign-offs) in projects are a way to bring to the table any issues that people may be hesitant to raise.

While it may be true that some are flippant in signing their name away, for most applying their moniker to something they feel is risky may be the first time you hear from them. I’ve been in projects (as a member and as a manger) where silence in the room over months is shattered the moment a sign-off page and pen hits the table.

I’m not a psychologist by any stretch, but psychologically speaking the act of putting pen to paper creates a far greater importance than responding to an email.

The best way to handle sign-offs

So, what is the best way to handle sign-offs? I tend to follow a straightforward approach rooted in open and (preferably) face-to-face communication as follows:

  1. Communicate in advance that a sign-off point is approaching, noting the importance of sign-off in ensuring the project commits to a common view on where things are truly at.
  2. Provide Clarity as to what the sign-off means, in particular:
    • What the sign-off means in terms of next steps or the “gate” that is passed due to this sign-off
    • That whilst sign-off is important, it is rarely the case that sign-off is a career-ending move whereas “stalling” for no good reason maybe
    • Mistakes will happen post sign-off… this is unavoidable and again signing or otherwise will not avoid failure; taking time to formally review provides a consideration point to really think about the risk going forward as opposed to simply hitting “Reply All” in an email.
  3. Offer that you are open to hear any concerns related to the sign-off in confidence.
  4. Document any concerns or caveats. Sign-off does not have to be black or white in most cases. People often believe that they cannot sign off because of a concern they hold, e.g. they have only executed 2 instead of 3 planned runs. As ultimate sign-off is generally held by management or a project stakeholder, it is important that they are aware of these concerns, so capturing this information may actually not impact their decision to go through a sign-off point and in fact it leaves “for the record” clarity on how sign-off was reached.
  5. Walk through the document to be signed off in a group with all the key people so that they have an opportunity to openly talk about their concerns.

Whilst many sign-off processes involve online electronic sign-off process not requiring a physical signature, particularly for critical milestones – even if there is not physical signoff – going through the roundtable process will help ensure that everyone has had an open chance to challenge the sign-off as opposed to passive sign-off.

Avoid the temptation to address sign-off through passive methods such as a “Do you agree email” or a show of hands in an undocumented meeting. Time taken to bring everyone together and truly feel out the sign-off as opposed to treating it as a “I just need to do this” task will additionally bind the team in their commitment and decision … which is much more important than covering one’s backside.