Surviving the First Ten Days on the Road to Success

Most failed digital technology projects fail within the first ten days.  Misaligned expectations, misunderstood objectives, over-committed resources and an implementation team willing to take the hill can be a recipe for expensive failure.  Getting key stakeholders on the same page with the same expectations and aligning the team to those objectives can be a challenge, but is a critical step on the road to success.

Write Down the Definition of Success

What is the initiative supposed to accomplish?  What key aspects of the business will be improved?  What new capabilities will be created?  How will all of this be measured?  Often different stakeholders have wildly different points of view.  Most agree that we need a new system, but what this system will do and how it will do it may vary wildly from stakeholder to stakeholder.

Often it is only once the sprints start delivering working code that the team finds out a key stakeholder needs significant adjustments to the approach in order to consider the effort a success.  Agile helps mitigate the risk by providing an early feedback loop, but these discoveries can still dramatically impact the timeline and budget.  Having a clear definition of success established early in the initiative can help focus priorities on the minimum viable product (MVP) and provide guidance to the team on prioritization so that they can ensure the hill they just took was the right hill.

Create the Blueprint for the Future

After defining what success looks like, it is time to take the first steps in architecting the solution.  Let’s face it, most initiatives start with pre-conceived ideas about what the future state will look like.  Developers have already started coding in their head, business users have visions of dashboards and automated workflows that make their lives easier or provide innovative features to clients.

Creation of the future state blueprint takes the definition of success to the next level of detail and asks the question, “What must be true?” to achieve success.  What new capabilities do I need?  What third party products might help?  By defining the blueprint that enables success, the team clearly understands the target sate and can begin to assess the work needed to get there.

Know Your Starting Point

So far we have defined success and created the blueprint describing that future state.  We still don’t have enough information to assess the work needed to get there.  To figure that out, we need to conduct a thorough and sober assessment of the gap between the capabilities identified in the blueprint and the current state of the system.

Getting a factual assessment of the current state can be harder than it sounds.  Organizational dynamics and politics often play a big role in eschewing perceptions of current state one way or the other.  Tribal knowledge of system limitations may be well understood or it might be known by only a few key organizational heroes.  Getting past these challenges to a real assessment is key to understanding the amount of work required to achieve the blueprint and therefore the definition of success.

Create a “Monday Morning Actionable” Roadmap

One of the most challenging steps to take in any significant initiative is step 1.  Once you understand the definition of success, the architectural blueprint of capabilities to achieve success and the gap between those and the current state, you must create a meaningful, actionable plan.  In order to be meaningful, the plan must be “Monday morning actionable”.  This means that the plan not only lays out the phases to be executed over the next set of months but includes specific steps to be taken immediately (e.g. “Monday morning” ) to start making meaningful progress.  The plan doesn’t have to be a task-level project plan but should include enough detail to define some short-term milestones that will create momentum towards achieving success in the initiative.

A Small Investment to Set Up for Success

Launching a major initiative without understanding the definition of success, the blueprint to enable success, the gap to get there and an actionable plan creates tremendous risk to any significant initiative.  The team may take the hill only to find it was the wrong hill.  There may be agreement on the definition of success but limited agreement on the resources needed to get there.  Even with all of that understood, it is easy to fall into analysis paralysis trying to rally the troops to get started without an actionable roadmap.  Without these things understood in the first 10 days, the team may take off in earnest and not realize the challenges they will face until much later in the project when the impact is already being felt and costs are increasing.

This process doesn’t have to take a long time.  A small, experienced team driving a well-defined process can usually achieve all of these goals in only a few weeks.  A few weeks invested in setting up the first 10 days of the project can avoid many downstream problems and set the project down the road to success.