According to David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, anything that involves more than one task is a project and should be managed that way. So, according to that definition almost everything we take on in our business is a project and should be managed as such.

My view of projects has evolved so much in recent years, heavily influenced by David Allen and Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup. The typical approach to a project is to try and capture everything that needs to get done, organize those tasks, delegate, and track the progress to some defined outcome. This approach suffers from what I call the “comprehensive assumption” that needs to be retired. Projects do not fail because you forgot one thing or you didn’t have everything on a comprehensive list, more often than not projects fail because you didn’t do the right things soon enough or at all. A comprehensive approach to projects assumes you’ll get to everything; the reality of all of our situations is that we have built-in constraints in the form of time, money, and resources. In almost every project plan I look at today, my first reaction is to say, “Which half do you want to do because you’ll never get to the other half, so choose wisely.”

Why do we do this? We do this because the dreaming phase of the project is way more fun than the execution phase. The execution of the project involves people, lots of them, most of which are inherently opposed to change and were not part of your dreaming process so they lack the context over why they would need to change in the first place. I’m not against grand plans; it is a necessary part of the process. Walt Disney famously had teams dream in a “green room” where no idea was too bold, and then the group moved to the “red room” where reality was taken into account and the constraints of execution came into play. You need to get everything on the table so you can decide which half you’re not going to do.

It is more important to the success of a project to decide on and communicate what you are NOT going to do than what you are going to do. This is really hard because when you take each item in isolation, everything seems really important but you have to brutally prioritize or your constraints will sneak up on you and you’ll have many things half done and many vital things not addressed at all. Most print software projects fall victim to this, your team spends lots of time on the technical configuration of a web-to-print technology that nobody knows how to market or sell to customers so that perfectly implemented software sits dormant.

Rather than taking a “comprehensive approach” to projects, I prefer the minimum viable product approach or MVP. This approach says you should prioritize around what would be “minimally viable” to launch your project and then iterate from there. This changes the whole mindset of the project, gives you a win before everyone’s A.D.D. kicks in, and then the brutal prioritization is based on measureable data from a live system. When you get an order to travel from order-entry all the way through to invoicing, you find out very fast what is next most important to tackle (e.g. shipping charges failed to land on the invoice). Iteration helps you deploy your resources on the next most important task, therefore preventing you from working on stuff that doesn’t really matter.

What really matters is often completely lacking from most print software project plans – the massive change management portion of the project. A Print MIS transition for example, is first and foremost a change management project because if it’s done correctly it will impact every corner of your business. In every one of those corners are complicated, emotionally driven people who go through this change management curve aka “emotional rollercoaster.”

Change Management Curve

Stage 1: Surprise

What is management thinking now? Why would we want to change the way we’re doing things, everything is working great. Our current tools are fine. I am confident in my job, I am working hard and now they want to mess that all up.

Stage 2: Denial

Management is always dreaming something else up, I’ll just sit back and wait for this one to blow over - all the other ones did. Maybe I can even actively stall the process so they move onto the next bright shiny project.

Stage 3: Anger

I’ve been doing this the same way for over a decade, now I’m really pissed off. How dare they turn the tables on me at this stage of my career?

Stage 4: Negotiate

I understand that change is required for others but my specific role is special, therefore I should be able to continue to do it the way I feel comfortable with. I’ll negotiate special treatment so even though everyone else has to change, I can keep working the way I’m working today.

Stage 5: Depression

This is referred to as the valley of despair, now I think they might actually go through this stupid plan and I don’t think I can handle it.

Stage 6: Evaluate

Others are adapting and they don’t seem that upset, I’ll take a look at it but I’m still very skeptical.

Stage 7: Trial

I’m not buying in yet but I’ll give it a try for a limited time. It still has to prove itself as useful to me.

Stage 8: Commitment

Wow, this new system is really better; I can see why we went through all this pain. I can’t imagine going back to our old system – it really did suck.

Everyone in your organization goes through this process for any major change, even your management team. Not everyone makes it through the “valley of despair”. Some people will get stuck there and they can spread their negativity like a virus throughout your organization. You can’t continue with those people, no matter what role they play in your organization. Your business has to move forward, faster than ever, you can’t afford to have staff who are more interested in holding down the brakes than adapting.