It's time to address one of the most common killers of projects, profitability
and careers. 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.”
Setting deadlines for your projects is a good strategy. The problems
start when setting ambitious launch dates for major, complex
initiatives without defining project objectives and
requirements, and without a plan to validate the timeline. It’s
like telling an architect to build a new skyscraper in downtown
Manhattan before the end of the year — without knowing its
purpose, the number of floors, what materials will be used or
who is going to build it.
This may be why, depending on who you ask, between 50
percent (Gartner) and 70 percent (InfoWorld) of corporate technology
initiatives fail. It’s a mistake made over and over again in
otherwise 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. It’s also costing organizations millions
of dollars in wasted resources and lost opportunities.
Speed can be advantageous, but not if it means trading quality,
control and opportunity.
Being fast is of limited value when you launch a poor product
and alienate your customers. That’s hard to overcome. It
also opens the door to your competition. 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
leap-frogging 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 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 to validate the
timeline. In other words, nobody knew what they were building or
how — they only knew that it had to completed 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
could not 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 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 avoidable.
There is a better way
The most successful online competitors share at least one thing
in common: a disciplined, iterative approach to project planning.
Many business leaders feel they can’t afford the time to plan
up front, so they jump right in instead. If you find yourself
under this kind of pressure, take a deep breath and consider
• 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.
• 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 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 by significantly under-estimating the work that's involved.
It’s less daunting that way and it keeps budgets and
timelines within a comfortable range. However, all that really
does is push risks and problems down the road, where they
• Insist on a project plan. If you give your team a deadline,
ask them to validate it with a project plan before they start
any work. If you’re given the deadline, create a plan to validate
it. If there is no plan, there’s no reliable launch date.
In the digital age, almost everything you do is replicable. So
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 patience and discipline to
About the Author: Scott McDonald is co-founder and managing director of Modus
Associates, a digital strategy and design consultancy based in New
York City. A frequent industry speaker and writer, he has advised
global brands including Morgan Stanley & Co., Sony, Citibank
and SIRIUS Satellite Radio, among others.