November 12, 2013

Seven Rules for Project Success

Intraprise Solutions has spent the better part of the past two decades successfully designing, developing and implementing several hundred innovative technology solutions in support of the financial services and technology industries as well as other vertical markets. During this time, many other technology companies have come and gone. What has given Intraprise Solutions its longevity and success? An informal survey of our own systems architects, software engineers, project managers, and executives provided interesting and valuable insight.

As the U.S. Constitution guides and ultimately governs the laws (i.e., rules) of the land, the seven rules below are guided and governed by four key principles:

1.  Do the right thing for the right reason; choose honesty over expediency.

2.  Good communications is our most valuable asset; leverage it.

3.  Things change; adapt and improvise.

4.  Mistakes happen; learn from them.

These principles are more than words, more than posters tacked on an office wall; they serve as guideposts directing decisions, particularly the difficult decisions that might otherwise be viewed through the lens of blurred priorities while undertaking a complex project. For Intraprise Solutions, the rules that follow are bounded by these four key principles on which all decisions made and actions taken rest securely.

1.  The Mission Rule: Before embarking on a project, whether truly innovative in nature or an existing system upgrade, understand the mission and by extension what defines success. Outside pure research and development, the goal of any project is always to use technology as a tool or agent of change to enhance the ability to achieve a larger, more comprehensive objective – a.k.a. “the greater good.”  Examples include, improving customer satisfaction and productivity or possibly opening opportunities to enter new, previously inaccessible markets. This means establishing a clear scope of work with an unambiguous mission statement.  While things do change, necessitating adaptation and improvisation, the mission must remain clear as the impact resulting from any change is assessed and acted upon. It’s not complicated; the mission must be clear as it serves as the singular focus against which all project decisions and actions are measured.

2.  The Force Multiplier Rule (a.k.a. The Special Forces A-Team Rule): Use a small team of cross-trained personnel to accomplish the mission (e.g., skilled software engineers that can step in as effective project managers, if necessary). A highly skilled, cross-trained team of good people with a clear understanding of the mission and appreciation for the rules discussed here will accomplish more quality work in a shorter period of time than a much larger team of personnel whose skills are highly compartmentalized.  Such rigid, large teams result in a disproportionate amount of management overhead, and lack flexibility – ironically, by design – because of a strict division of labor with arbitrary boundaries that cannot be crossed. A team of six, or fewer, cross-trained team members with one leader can accomplish a great deal and serve as a force multiplier for any organization.  Bigger is not always better – in fact, with respect to technology solution development, the greatest gains are produced by a relatively small number of well rounded, highly skilled, creative thinkers.  “Real. Powerful. Thinking.” trumps team size every time.

3.  The Incremental Approach Rule: Voltaire wrote, “Best is the enemy of good,” a famous quote that has been used in the world of technology solution development and deployment to suggest that “perfection is the enemy of good enough.”  Very wise words, indeed.  Since nothing is perfect, seeking perfection will result in no useable solution – a trap into which many organizations fall.  The result is a three-month project that lasts three years before it is scrapped for lack of “perfection” while technological innovation passes by.  There is tremendous value in delivering solution features early and often to solicit feedback, implementing the solution in manageable steps, obtaining measurable value rapidly, and perhaps most importantly establishing credibility with those who have a vested interest in the success of a project – the stakeholders.  As a solution unfolds incrementally, new paths open, only made manifest through experience with earlier versions..  There is no substitute for knowledge, and the best source of knowledge is experience.

4.  The Flexibility Rule: Plans are important. This rule is not a license to avoid planning. There is no substitute for discipline and rigor.  Just as a highly trained, very disciplined elite distance runner might incur a sprained ankle and have to resort to alternative cross training during rehab, don’t proceed with  an information technology project assuming everything will unfold precisely as originally planned.  Be prepared.  Consider multiple paths of execution, and continuously assess progress. Do not fear a change in plans. Consider rule number two above, an A-Team ALWAYS has contingency plans.  Be rigorously flexible. Doing so requires “Real. Powerful. Thinking.” and better ensures there will always be a path to success.

5.  The Refactor Rule: The Incremental Rule above must apply – as Bill Gates once quipped, “Shipping is a feature.” It is equally important, however, to recognize that an early version of a solution will not be the final version of a solution.  Technological innovation and new solution deployment is an evolutionary process – embrace it.  It is therefore important to include time in a project schedule to refactor the solution to improve performance and usability, reduce system complexity, and carve out reusable software components into shared libraries to enhance scalability and ready the system for further enhancement and innovation.

6.  The Facts Rule: Be careful not to imply a level of precision that cannot be known.  When possible seek facts. Language is important. Avoid hyperbole and shortcuts when facts are available or can be ascertained. Hyperbole and unnecessarily (i.e., poorly) formed assumptions on which decisions are made will almost always cause re-work, or worse, hobble credibility. Perform the legwork necessary to find and rely upon facts that are available.

7.  The Assumptions Rule: Assumptions are a necessary input into and by-product of any new solution development approach, because we don’t know what we don’t know.  When facts are not available or are impossible to glean, assumptions must be made to move projects forward.  Recognize and track every assumption and its corresponding rationale. Tracking assumptions and their rationale is critical as systems are tested and undergo initial production use. To accomplish any endeavor that seeks change for the better, we  must be prepared to change our assumptions based on new feedback buttressed by improved rationale.  As with any theory that is eventually proven valid, eventually some assumptions will evolve and take shape as fact.  But, this requires time, experience, measurement, and refinement.

There is no “secret to success”; rather, the path to success is paved with lessons learned from experience. The rules discussed above are the result of experience gained over several hundred information technology projects ranging from the very simple to the extraordinarily complex.  While these seven rules and the principles on which they stand serve as guideposts, the experience that gave rise to these rules renders clearly what may not be obvious to the inexperienced. “The secret of all victory [success] lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” ~Marcus Aurelius

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