Congratulations – you’ve just been given the opportunity to manage a very innovative project – so unique, in fact, that nothing similar has ever been attempted by your organization!
Once the euphoria settles, you realize the significant challenge facing you – how do you go about planning a project without the benefit of expert or historical knowledge? To make matters worse, if this is a project your company is doing for a paying customer, there are likely to be tangible and/or reputational penalties if you end up significantly missing the mark.
Assuming you have done your research and knowledge of similar projects is not easily available through your professional network, business partners or online sources, some of the following practices may help you out.
- Have your customer articulate what they feel is a minimally acceptable end state, and then have them give you an idea of the relative priority of all other bells and whistles. This can help you focus your team on working through the complexities of “must have” requirements without being overwhelmed by the “nice to haves”.
- Involve your customer in scope decomposition – they’ve likely spent considerably more time in thinking about the scope than you or you team may have and even though they may not be able to materially help you in answering the “how”, they should be able to refine or focus your understanding of the “what”.
- The more novel the project, the wider should be the skills and backgrounds of invitees to planning sessions. You don’t know what you don’t know, so by increasing diversity, you should see a resulting increase in the quality of scope definition & decomposition as well as in identifying good approaches to deliver this scope.
- Apply techniques such as Delphi to be able to refine and distill estimates.
- Conduct risk identification sessions with as broad a group of participants as possible. Not only will this help to unearth risks which you may not have considered, but it will help to overcome biases and may even help to identify scope elements which has been missed earlier.
- Structure the project into multiple phases – the first to deliver a prototype, pilot or model of the desired end state as well as detailed estimates and development plan for delivering complete scope.
- Embrace agile practices and approach the project as a set of iterations or sprints with the focus being on delivering highest priority customer-usable scope first. That way, if you do find yourself facing the likelihood of going over budget or behind schedule, the customer can elect to cut their losses but still have received value from the work completed to date. It is also advisable to focus on tackling higher risk, must-have requirements first – knocking those off will give the team a morale boost, and challenges experienced with completing those can help you more accurately re-forecast budget and timelines.
- Where reasonable, negotiate to make working conditions for your team as supportive of creativity and productivity as possible. You may need to request your customer or sponsor’s influence in getting waivers on your organization’s standard operating procedures if this means that your team will be able to hit the mark more predictably. Employ project warrooms, collaboration sites or any other types of physical or virtual tactics that can reduce distance between team members and increase knowledge sharing.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!