Deadly Project Planning Mistakes

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 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.

- 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 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 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.

Your opportunity
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 seize it.

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.