Strategy

Shoot, ready, aim. Deadly project planning mistakes

This issue, we are moved to address one of the most common killers of projects, profitability and careers that we’ve seen over the last 10 years. It’s called the “Shoot, ready, aim” approach to Internet project management, and it usually starts like this:

“We have to have something live by August 31.”
– or –
“We need to get this up before next quarter.”

Of course, setting deadlines for your projects is a good thing. The problem lies in setting ambitious launch dates for major, complex initiatives without defining your project objectives and requirements, and without a plan to validate the timeline.

A disciplined approach to project planning and execution is what separates the winners from the strugglers and the merely present.

It’s like telling an architect that you want a new skyscraper built in downtown Manhattan before the end of the year, without knowing its purpose, the number of floors, what materials will be used or who’s going to build it.

This may be why, depending on whom you ask, between 50% (Gartner) and 70% (InfoWorld) of corporate technology initiatives fail. It’s a mistake we see over and over again in otherwise smart and successful organizations. And it’s mostly driven by the perceived need for speed.

The persistent myth of ‘speed-to-market’

The inherent value of “speed-to-market” (sometimes called “first-mover advantage” or “Internet speed”) is one of the great illusions of the Internet age. And it’s costing organizations millions of dollars in wasted resources and lost opportunity. Speed can bring advantage, to be sure, but not if you trade off too much quality, control and opportunity in the bargain.

Being fast is of limited value when you launch a poor product and alienate your customers. That’s hard to overcome. And you’ve given your competitors an easy lay-up. The industry is replete with stories of a late competitor knocking off the leader by launching a better product. Think of Google overtaking Yahoo!, Apple’s iPhone crushing Palm, or more recently Hulu leapfrogging Joost in the online video space.

A cautionary tale

Here’s an archetypal story from our own practice, with names omitted to protect the guilty:

A major technology firm decided to overhaul its corporate intranet, adding a significant amount of complex functionality, and mandating that the project be completed within six months. Objectives and scope of work were vaguely defined, project risks and dependencies were not identified, and there was no planning done to validate the timeline. In other words, nobody knew what they were creating or how. They only knew that it had to be done in six months.

Due to the tight timeline, the project team jumped straight into execution. Without agreed-upon objectives and requirements, the project became a protracted tug-of-war among competing stakeholders. As the work unfolded, it became increasingly clear that the project couldn’t be completed within the six-month timeline. Eventually, the project team moved into rear-guard mode, continuously resetting expectations with frustrated stakeholders and struggling in vain to get back on track.

Ultimately, the project launched over six months late, over budget, and still didn’t meet expectations. If you’re like most Internet professionals, this is a familiar story to you. But also one that is wholly avoidable.

There is a better way

The most successful online competitors today share at least one thing in common: a disciplined, iterative approach to project planning that resembles the following:

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Many business leaders feel they can’t afford the time to strategize and plan up front, so they jump right in instead. If you find yourself under this kind of pressure, take a deep breath and consider these measures:

  • Get the strategy right first. The best execution in the world can’t save a failed strategy, so do your homework up front to ensure that your business ideas are solid and feasible before you continue.
  • Execute in phases. You don’t have to do it all at once. With a solid strategy in place, you can identify and prioritize your most important product features and execute on them in progressive phases. This allows you to get your most high-value features out quickly and then improve the product over time.
  • Resist the urge to over-simplify. Most major Internet projects start off by significantly under-estimating the work involved. It’s less daunting that way. And it keeps budgets and timelines within a comfortable range. However, all you’re doing is pushing your risks and problems down the road, where they will multiply.
  • Insist on a project plan. If you give your team a deadline, ask them to validate it with a project plan before they start. If you’re given the deadline, create a plan to validate it first. If there’s no plan, there’s no launch date that you can count on.
  • Your opportunity

    In the digital age, almost everything you do is replicable. The only way to win consistently is by being best rather than first. Most of your competitors are practicing the “Shoot, ready, aim” style of project planning. This presents you with a tremendous opportunity if you have the courage to seize it.