Want to Avoid Driving Your Project Into A Death March?
Software development projects can get out of hand, and it’s hard to know when to hit the brakes.
Do you ever feel pressure to push forward from your boss, shareholders, or customers, but your gut tells you this project is going nowhere?
Decision gates help you know when it’s time to reassess a project. They allow you to evaluate your project status and provide insight into the best path forward.
Critical points consistently pop up in any software development project where more information is available, enabling you to make better decisions.
Not all projects are the same. And not all projects are healthy.
So you need to reassess your projects’ health regularly to ensure you are not hanging onto an unhealthy project on a death march towards failure.
As you uncover new information, it sometimes becomes clear the costs or risks of moving forward outweigh the business value.
The trick is to know as soon as possible and adapt.
You need a clear delineation between project phases to get control and avoid runaway projects on death marches.
Never make your next move without considering both the gains and the risks.
“Whereas a novice makes moves until he gets checkmated, a Grand Master realizes 20 moves in advance that it’s futile to continue playing.” - Bill Gaede
Here’s the thing.
Many companies don’t plan for the maintenance and support costs that pile up rapidly if their product becomes popular.
The short-term pressures like finding product-market fit and getting and holding market share distract from planning for long-term sustainability.
The catch is that newer systems with limited functionality are much simpler than mature systems. When a product is brand new, too simple, and immature, it has a low level of complexity because it doesn’t have to adapt to changes in the outside world (yet).
Because of limited foresight, a lack of planning, or an unsustainable software foundation, many companies end up rebuilding their entire system at a massive risk and cost.
Greenfield projects initially avoid the high overhead of maintenance and support because they are not in production. Brownfield projects can sometimes survive a rebuild, but each comes with a high level of risk (for example, how do you know you got it right the second time around?).
Regardless of the type of project you are running, you need a post-launch survival plan for your systems.
Therefore, you must plan and establish your maintenance practices ahead of time.
Here’s what typically happens:
Maintenance overhead handicaps your company from innovating.
If you don’t start with a model that paves the way for constant change, competitors will eventually deliver better ways to meet customer needs faster.
This also means establishing a deliberate design for safely failing fast.
While this model may already be part of your overall project plan, it’s also an excellent tool for driving feature development.
In maintenance and support mode, you can establish the same logical sequence as your overall project on a smaller scale.
Establishing “small-spin zoom-in” feature phases helps you keep your fingers on the pulse of your project.
Here are the project and feature phases where you pivot.
At each phase, avoid failure.
Track and categorize all risks.
Then plot your next move by determining if you should push forward, pivot, or cut your losses.
Any project suffers when you overlook early planning activities, move forward with incorrect assumptions, or can’t adapt to changes in business circumstances.
Knowing everything up front is impossible, so preparing for the unexpected is your best bet.
The best time to ensure success is early in your project by planning.
Start with a solid plan to pave the way for constant change.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always pivot when you have more information.
A healthy system has a support structure that can grow, change, and last, both from a technical and a process point of view.
By following the steps above, you can systematically improve your team’s ability to know when to move forward, when to pivot, and when to cut your losses on a project.
The more flexible and adaptable your process is…
Even though long-term success isn’t usually planned for at the beginning, every product manager needs to be ready to handle the pressures of success.
Planning for the day you need to support your system is like forecasting the weather for a trip. While seeing what things will look like when you arrive is vital, preparing for the storms that might hit along the way is also essential.
The best way to ensure your project works out is to plan for what you don’t know, establish a solid operational evaluation foundation, and set appropriate project expectations.
Best wishes and warm regards, —Matt
By the way…
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