The problem, the balloon and the four bedroom house

This article first appeared on A List Apart

Let’s start at the beginning. Before a single document is written, before a Gantt chart is drawn up, before a copy of Project is opened or Visio has sketched out any process, the project manager has to figure one important element of the project…

The problem

Without a problem, there is no project. Where there is a problem, however, there is a stakeholder who is desperate for a solution and who has a delivery deadline — which is normally sometime yesterday.

The mistaken methodology

Many project managers believe a project has a beginning and an end. Everything that happens within those parameters can be dealt with by a methodology and a good framework of processes. What they forget is the emotional core of a project and the questions that need to be asked: Why does this project exist? What benefits will it have? What features will express these benefits? How will it make users more efficient, effective, and happy?

The normal reason given for undertaking a project is that it will (say it with gravitas) “have a direct effect on the bottom line of the company.” This may be great feedback for a CFO, but not for a project manager.

Take, for example, a piece of software. It helps to know if it’s being produced to be used by the Marketing department or the IT department — or a small design firm where the number one fashion color just has to be black.

This knowledge allows an experienced project manager to make judgments on various elements of the project.

healthy project lifecycle

Inflate the balloon

75% of the work of every successful project is completed in the initial stage. In other words, every project has a balloon phase. And if it doesn’t happen at the beginning of the project, then you may get into some serious trouble.

The “understanding” phase needs to provide you with the framework for the project. It should be assembled with all major stakeholders. And its purpose is to define the problem so you can design the solution. The 4 bedroom house.

On 13 March, 1999, Habitat for Humanity in New Zealand made the Guinness Book of Records. They constructed a four-bedroom house from scratch. It took a mere 3 hours, 44 minutes and 59 seconds. (I’m sure there’s a reality TV show in there somewhere, but I don’t believe we need another one of those.) An incredible feat. The significant fact is that it took 14 months of planning to achieve.

The balloon was inflated at the correct end.

Where did that stakeholder come from?

A few years ago, I was part of a project for a large Australian company. The project’s aim was to convert an aging monolithic website into something more manageable.

It was to progress over a number of stages. Our client briefed the company, allocated project, and commenced. The client asked us to develop an interim design. “Something nice, just for now,” they expressed casually. This was not scoped, but was quickly completed. All seemed to be going well until…

One fine morning, the sun rose and traveled gently across its arc. Birds chirped away in the trees. The view was spectacular from the 30th floor of the client’s building. It was a “stakeholders” meeting intended to introduce the work to date. This was the first time we had met any of these people. It was the first many of them knew of the project.

Matters started off pleasantly and went downhill like a snowball out of control. There were issues discussed that were never in scope or expected. There was heated discussion about the colors used, text on the page, images. Every one, even the cleaning lady, had an opinion.

Not so healthy

There was a mistake by both parties. We had taken on an area of the project we assumed was an interim measure. We knew we never should have touched it. We didn’t ask the right questions at the beginning. We only partly inflated the balloon.

The cruelest lesson? We never got to Stage Two.

Don’t ever be afraid to hit the “STOP” button

As the project manager, you are the King of the Castle. If you have inflated the balloon at the beginning, you now should have a lot of ammunition at your disposal:

  • You have documentation everyone has agreed to
  • You have all agreed to the scope and vision of the project
  • You have all agreed what should be done
  • And now you want me to make what change?

When the scope starts to run out of control and new requests are asked for, the best tactic that you have is to state the truth.

Please repeat after me: “What you are asking at this stage has changed the project considerably from the documentation and the scoping process that we undertook and has been approved. We could continue, but I believe it would jeopardize the quality and the integrity of what needs to be delivered. If what you are suggesting is vital to the project, and cannot be handled as a phase two, then I would like to stop the project now so that this new addition can be properly scoped and integrated, rather than tacked on. To continue without re-scoping, may cause unforeseen problems later, which could be quite costly. However, you must understand that to stop now will affect timelines and budgets. How would you like us to proceed?”

I have done this, and believe me, most clients want this kind of honesty. You will not win any friends if you continue dealing with scope creep and allowing it to defile the project. You will become the scapegoat. You will not go past go. And you will not collect the $200.