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Lean project management

I’ve been involved in many, many projects over the last 30 years or so, everything from a few days of elegant efficiency to months of dreary dreadfulness. Project management is both an art and a science, no one has ‘the’ answer… but I learnt a lot through trying different approaches.

There’s a wonderful moment in ‘Yes Minister’ (the 1980s British sitcom) where the civil servants and the Minister are discussing a new hospital. It’s working perfectly, says the bureaucrat, all systems go. Yes, but there are no patients yet, replies the Minister. Agh yes, but that’s not the point, retorts the first, hospitals work so beautifully without all those pesky patients.

In other words, the system becomes the thing.

Beware of this when bravely beginning your next project. There is no such thing as perfection. No one knows what is going to happen. No one has all the information. Uncertainty rules. The system is not the point. The customer is.

Beware the project manager who seems very good at documentation, systems and processes, and scoping (so much so, that they have a life of their own, unquestioning). Beware the initial projections of so many months, and so many tens/hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars. Run away, my friends, run while you’ve still got a life left to live and the will to live it.

For I can tell you there is nothing more soul destroying, nothing that can suck the living essence from you, than an intricately articulated, detailed project of many months. The times I’ve been told “our scoping will provide us with what we need to build” or “this will just work out of the box” or “the project will take x months and cost $y”… all lies I tell you. LIES!

Well, it’s not that these project managers are lying deliberately (although I have known some to, knowingly, to cover themselves and allow enough wiggle room for the ultimate failure that is to come). It’s just that the world is too complex, consumers too massively unpredictable, rivals often invisible, and a hundred other factors that will destroy the best laid plans of the project manager.

So, instead, try this. Think small. Lean. Minimum viable product (MVP). Think back from your consumer, keep them close, talk to them, survey them, feed them (literally – bring them in for a chat and a meal), ask them what keeps them up at night panicking, listen to them, and build them something they actually need, and will pay for. Something that would relieve a real pain point. And do it fast.

Jack or Jane be nimble, be quick. Do it in a month or three (no more than 3 months), get out there and watch the customers use it, hear their feedback, and let the project evolve in the marketplace. Never be too arrogant to think you know what they want or what will work. Bring them in to the process, and get those document-wielding, scope-developing bureaucratic system builders well away from your organisation.

Do this, and you will live to enjoy new projects, and so will your customers, your staff and ultimately your shareholders.

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