Have you ever been a major stakeholder in a project before? If so, the following might sound painfully familiar…
“We were thinking it would be great if we could just add about 10 more pages to the site,” said the enthusiastic client.
“Great, I think that will extend our timeline quite a bit, though,” said the concerned project manager.
“Oh, shoot. If we skip those 10 pages do you think we could be done next week?” the client asked hopefully.
“Well, we originally agreed on a launch date of 4 weeks from now. We could look into adding additional resources to speed things up, but that would increase our costs quite a bit,” replied the PM.
“Oooo, that will be tough, I’ll need to run that one by finance. Okay, let’s stick with our original plan.”
Managing the triple constraint — a project’s timeline, budget, and scope — is the primary responsibility of a project manager. Did you know that large projects tend to fail more often than small projects? That’s probably because scope creep is the one of the leading causes of missed deadlines and budget overruns. Keeping things smaller and leaner means it’s easier to see the best path to complete your project.
Coincidentally, we don’t say the word “project” very much at DT. Our vernacular is filled with mentions of clients, products, and engagements. Our Lean UX-inspired working process called Objective-Based Design is a whole new approach to digital projects. We like to start small and constantly improve and believe in doing the right work.
But first, let’s cover how “traditional” project management works.
The Triple Constraint: Time, Budget, Scope
Anyone who has worked on at least one project is likely to have heard discussions about timeline, budget, and scope. Defining and controlling these factors is the crux of effective project management. The Triple Constraint is also known as the Project Management Triangle. The triangle illustrates the notion that time, budget, and scope are intertwined, and that changes to one will impact the others.
The Project Diamond is a helpful adaptation that can be used to facilitate day-to-day decisions on how and what to work on. It introduces “quality” as a fourth tenant of project success and requires project team to force-rank what aspect is most important. For example, if you are just initiating a project, it may be acceptable for your prototype or wireframes to have less fidelity in order to save time or budget. Throughout all phases of the project management lifecycle, teams are faced with decisions about what work to do, when to do it, and how much time to spend on it. Clear priorities reduce lag-time and keep teams moving by making decisions easier.
Pick Two: Fast, Cheap, Good
Speaking of priorities… another way to think about what matters most is on your project are in terms of Fast (time), Cheap (budget), and Good (scope).
If your project was to “have $5 a hamburger for lunch” you could take a few approaches. McDonald’s will serve you a cheap, fast burger, but it’s probably not very good (certainly not good for you). In-N-Out has better quality burgers, but they take a bit more time and cost more (especially if you want it animal style). You could also go to Whole Foods and get organic grass-fed beef and make your own patties; this would yield you the best possible quality and would cost less (per person) than In-N-Out, but it takes a LOT more time & work.
It’s sad to say… but getting everything you want is sometimes just not realistic. You may need $7 to pay for the gas to get there or the fries on the side. A small shift in focus from can take you from “$5 hamburger for lunch” to “protein rich nourishment by noon”. Opening your midday menu to a broader set of ingredients to fit the bill.
The next time you’re faced with a difficult decision, consider which aspects of a project are fixed and which are variable. Pick one corner of the triple constraint as your anchor, and pick one to sacrifice. As projects progress, new information becomes available and priorities may shift. That’s okay. Risk response strategies can and should be situation-specific.
Reduction of scope is never an easy conversation. But scope is often one of the most flexible items if you really get down to it. In many projects there can be “bloated” (shhh…) design and technical requirements that are not necessary to achieve a Minimum Viable Product. “Good” is as much about setting expectations as it is about meeting every item in a BRD (business requirement document). Perception is reality, after all.
Timeline negotiation should be a give-and-take amongst all stakeholders. Speeding up to finish a project may actually cost more money. Have you heard of the Mythical Man Month? Adding another developer or designer may not be a viable option. Slowing down probably isn’t ideal either.
The almighty dollar (or euro, peso, or yen) is, in my opinion, probably the most sensitive aspect of project management. The phrase “change order” is one that I shudder to say to my client because I know incremental funds are usually not easy to come by. Additional budget may require steering committee meetings and buy-in from finance or other corporate departments that may not otherwise be involved.
The best project teams work collaboratively to find creative solutions. Consider this next time your project is at risk: Cutting scope is effectively accelerating the timeline and reducing costs. Getting something out faster and cheaper allows the business to realize their investment, validate the concept, and make iterative improvements that are backed by live data and real users.
A Better Way to Define Project Success
In today’s landscape, long-winded scope statements and massive capital expenditures are a recipe for missed business objectives. Success is better defined and more frequently achieved when based on delivering business value rather than producing a pre-defined “thing.” For example, what good is Product X if it’s delivered on-time, on-budget, and meets all of the requirements — but isn’t adopted by a critical mass and therefore yields no ROI?
It’s probably not a coincidence that modern business is making heavier investments in digital while agile practices are becoming widely adopted in agencies and enterprise businesses. Lean has become a mantra for a focus on learning through iteration, and accepting failures as part of the road to success. Building something quickly (and cheaply) to test its viability in the marketplace allows nimble businesses to rapidly iterate more fully experience the joys (and challenges) of building products.
Focus on results, not scope. That’s the theory behind our Objective-Based Design process which we have honed over time while building our products. Perhaps you’ve heard of SlideDeck, HelloBar, or our newest addition, Filament, which is our suite of digital apps that make websites better. With objectives at the center of our process, we do our best to avoid the bermuda triangle of project management.
Our retainer clients benefit from our innovation practices, and our amazing company culture that keeps us healthy, inspired, and productive. As a growing group of passionate and creative technologists, we’re committed to building a better web and strive to reach our arete.
Make It Work, Then Make It Better
The sooner a project moves through the lifecycle, the better. An interactive prototype is a much better measure of effectiveness and product-market fit than a rough design concept. Following lean practices can help businesses prove (or disprove) a product is desirable on significantly less budget while also allowing real-world users to influence the product roadmap.
Being lean is easier said than done, however. Executives must trust their project owners even though early stage deliverables may only offer a fraction of the “ideal” product. Project owners must stay focused on delivering value to the business rather than creating a product that meets all of the requirements that were dreamed up in a strategy session. Building products can be a joy, but it may take you a while to find your secret sauce… so try selling a few burgers along the way.