Last year we lost a good project contract three weeks into the effort. It’s possible it could have been avoided, but perhaps it was inevitable. The project, a web-based rewrite of a successful desktop product with a very large feature set, was right up our alley. Straightforward, right? Migrate the feature set in phases while simplifying and improving the user interface along the way. The path would seem pretty clear. Apparently not. We were well qualified to do the work, having completed many similar projects, and had already made good progress defining requirements and phases. So why cancel the project?
Finding The Product Visionary
Every project, whether in software development or some other discipline, requires a clear product vision for the end result. While there may be multiple people on the product team, in my experience there is one individual who has most of it in their head. This is the person that you need to connect with early in the project. They will have the answers when the path forward is ambiguous and you need decisions and direction. Understand that you cannot expect crystal clear, definitive answers to complex issues. But, you can expect to get a direction to head, along with a list of pertinent questions that, once answered, will light the path forward. The visionary will consistently help you narrow your focus and keep the project on the right track.
I call this person “the visionary”, but don’t get a picture of someone dressed in flowing robes who lives on a mountain top. Rather, the visionary is a member of the team who has a strong, vested interest in the end product. And they spend a lot of time thinking about it. They’re also a person who can, as I like to say, “see around corners” to avoid pitfalls others might not foresee.
Vision Established, Sort of…
In the case of our short-lived project, we had the right person in the room with us and thought we understood their vision for the new product. But looking back at the requirements gathering sessions, the visionary did not display a clear confidence in the direction and scope that we documented. Coupled with the newly defined scope for the project, some residual heartburn over the potential cost of development remained. Nonetheless, our customer gave us a clear green light to proceed with the project. Perhaps we were blinded by enthusiasm, but we assumed any concerns would be alleviated once we began to deliver tangible results.
Just three weeks into the project the customer called me and explained that the requirements we worked out together did not match his vision for the new product. And that he was still not confident in what that vision should be. He admitted that he may have jumped the gun by hiring our firm before he had a clear idea of where he wanted to go with the new product. I have a lot of respect for this customer in seeing that they were not ready and ending the project before it went too far. Our mistake was not recognizing that the product vision was incomplete, and no amount of effort on our part could hurry it along. We assumed we had helped develop a solid vision for the end product, but in reality we had a coerced confession.
Developing 20/20 Product Vision
How can you avoid a similar situation occurring with your customers? Here are some questions you can ask along the way:
- Are we talking to the visionary? – After meeting the project team, if it is not obvious who this individual is you may have to ask about the project stakeholders. It may be someone behind the scenes. In some cases, the project visionary may not be available directly and you have to settle for their proxy.
- Have we agreed on a clear vision for the project?– This is a high level view and should not be a significant effort if the product vision is clear. Gain clear agreement on this with the stakeholders before diving into more detailed efforts.
- Is the budget acceptable?– Budget can be a big part of the vision. Make sure you are playing in the same ballpark. As you develop more detailed requirements, the budget will likely change. It should be a warning sign if budget expectations are not aligned early in the project or if the preliminary budget is already on the top end of their comfort zone.
- How are we doing?– Touch base with the vision holder at regular intervals during the project. They may not be involved in the daily/weekly agile development process and it’s best to ensure they are in the loop and continue to agree on the project direction.
Granted, these questions are fairly obvious to anyone who has completed a complex project. The point is to evaluate feedback objectively and pay attention to your gut instincts. During the early stages of a project, ensure you and your customer are ready to move to the next phase. The scope and details will always change, but the original product vision should remain and serve as a solid foundation for the end product. Stay close to the person who has that in their head and you will greatly increase your chance of success.