10 Lessons for Managing Large Projects

Introduction

With 20 years in the industry and hundreds of enterprise projects, our team at BlueFletch knows a few things about managing a successful large project. We’ve made our fair share of mistakes and understand the importance of maintaining a consistent process. On an episode of the BlueFletch Enterprise Mobility Roundup Podcast, BlueFletch’s Richard Makerson, Brett Cooper and Lee Dehihns spoke about their experience with large projects. This article breaks down their 10 lessons for managing large projects to help you make the right choices for your clients. 

The 10 Lessons

1. You Can't Agile a Skyscraper

Agile software development is a strategy that involves rotating team-led sprints to complete a project. These sprints are short, typically one to two weeks, where self-organized teams collaborate.

Agile Alliance describes agile development as a community team structure where teams determine how to approach a project. Since its emergence, many enterprises have begun to adopt the principles outlined in the Agile Manifesto. However, the Agile method is not without flaws; the crux of the issues is typically neglectful planning.

Neglectful Planning – Companies using agile development tend to neglect effective planning on the front end. Disaster will strike without adequate plans, and small mistakes can pile up with a rotating structure. We use the phrase “you can’t agile a skyscraper” to address some of these issues. Let’s break it down: 

A construction company instructs its workers to turn a pile of iron into a skyscraper with no blueprints. They get orders to work in alternating two-week shifts, with each team improvising upon the work of the last. But little is accomplished without a detailed plan for the building’s design. Construction workers rely on blueprints, calendars, and detailed plans to run a successful project, and so do developers. A big project can fail without the proper prep work, especially when rushing to meet a final product. Developers get caught in a seemingly endless loop of no progress without a solid plan. No map means no sense of direction or destination, destroying progress. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Adapt Along the Way – In an agile environment, blueprints are the foundation for strategies and goals. With this shared vision in mind, it’s okay to change along the way because you’re still moving in the same direction. At BlueFletch, we often ask for the requirements and design section of the sprint. This allows organizations to understand what they’re trying to build. While also giving them a chance to preview the final product. With this strategy, companies won’t spend money burning through sprints without progress.

2. Building a Process for Learning

When working alongside customers, we often steer their focus on the core of the issue the project is attempting to solve. We run with a “move fast and learn things” strategy. We draw up a plan to get to the solution as quickly as possible. 

This plan breaks down into a few steps:

  • The Proof of Concept (POC) – A POC propels and outlines the details of the project. POCs are essential as they often detail many vital features of the end product. The POC process also allows for experimentation and growth as developers take their time designing an outline. 
  • The Pilot Phase – The pilot phase is where we conduct an initial rollout in a small environment. The soft launch is a learning opportunity to make adjustments before the wider rollout. There’s no need to launch everywhere, and starting small in one location may provide a perfect testing ground.
  • Multiple Releases – Multiple releases teach things along the way. They allow organizations to troubleshoot without fear of instant disaster. While also giving a glimpse at what a wide release could look like before committing.  

Moving quickly with the goal steadfast on the horizon may prove to be a less destructive process. We recommend promoting an atmosphere of learning during the process of creating. This mindset gives developers a chance to relax, make mistakes, and learn how to refine the final product without added pressure. 

3. No Nice Stakeholders

Stakeholders often have a strong influence over the decision-making process. When approaching a long-term, expensive project, find out who wields the power to sway the outcome. Get the appropriate people and teams involved early in order to maintain the validity of a project. Stakeholders do not always have the project or company’s long term interest in mind. Some higher-ups will push for unreasonable innovation and trend hopping to build their reputation.

Find out who can come in and change the project at their will. Knowing these individuals or groups of people can help when push comes to shove. Sometimes breaking down the importance and end goal of a project can help keep stakeholders on your side.

  • Welcome Collaboration – A handful of internal teams on the other side of a project can serve as valuable collaborators. Said teams include but are not limited to the security team, IT, finance, and operations. The IT team can provide helpful information about appropriate practices and technologies. No one knows the ins and outs of an organization’s technological processes better than the IT department. They’re often eager to help since they’ll most likely be servicing the systems and products in development. It’s essential to get other teams’ insight throughout the project. 
  • The End User – The needs of an end-user fuel the purpose of a project. The more you know about their motivations, goals, and wants to make a difference down the road. A successful project balances the stakeholders’ wants with the end-user’s needs. Remember that at the end of this process, the end user will invest the most time with this product. Establish a line of communication with end-users, conduct surveys, and assess the work environment. Expressing an interest in the end user’s needs is a significant factor in the outcome of a large project. Ensure that the people using this technology will have the tools they need. 

Things to keep in mind:

  • The Influencers: Find out who has the power to change the direction of the project. Mitigate unexpected roadblocks by keeping an open line of communication.  
  • The Gatekeepers: A manager or team lead may know existing workplace trends and technology. Managers can offer valuable information about day-to-day operations that can prove helpful in meeting expectations. Also, be open to collaboration with the IT department and other teams who can provide feedback and assistance. Nobody knows workplace technology better than those who work with it daily. 
  • The Doubters: The vocal doubter is an excellent asset in your pilot store. They are typically someone who has been doing the job for 20+ years with a strong understanding of the ins and outs. Depending on the location, this person may feel they can run their ship without technology. Make them a valuable resource once you’ve shown them the benefits of your product. 
  • Pilot Groups: Find pilot groups who enjoy trying new things and are comfortable giving honest feedback. Test groups are an excellent way to gauge what’s working or failing on a project. This is a good segue into launching with a more significant site.
  • Test Sites: As mentioned above, soft launching to a smaller test site can be a huge help. But leaning too heavily on one location may put a lot of pressure on employees. Try different sites and diversify the spaces you work in to get a rounded view of how the product functions.

4. Understand Your Project's Constraints

Nothing is impossible given the right resources, and when a client approaches with an idea, never say never. But before diving into a large project, it’s critical to outline some fundamental constraints. Projects are scaled by the number of people, time, and budget put into them. Give clients an estimate based on what they’re trying to do. You can learn a lot along the way by building a learning model. So when approaching a large project, keep constraints in mind and work with the resources and budget a client can delegate. 

Here is a list of common restraints to consider when moving into a large project:

  • Time: A project’s scale and the quality of the final product rely heavily on the time given to complete it. Goals should be set within a reasonable time frame to give your team room for growth and progress. Always be upfront with a client about realistic deadlines, and be transparent when the clock feels like a burden. Keep a client in the loop, and negotiate an appropriate deadline to meet their expectations and deliver the best project possible.  
  • Budget: With enough money, anything is possible. When providing estimates to a client, be realistic about the initial investment. Having a solid budget with enough wiggle room to experiment and make mistakes is crucial. On the other hand, if an organization can’t invest what’s needed, find workable solutions to provide a scaled project. There is always a way to cut down on costs while still providing a quality product. 
  • Resources: Resources is an umbrella term that covers areas like people, money, and tools. 
  • Legal Regulations & Law: Check with a client’s local, state, and federal laws and regulations at the beginning of a project. Regulations such as Europe’s GDPR or US state privacy laws can constrain the goals of a project. Routinely adjust plans and practices to meet legal requirements, avoiding future legal issues. 
  • Your Organization, Your Team: Your team may be the most crucial constraint to consider when moving forward with a project. Ensure that you have the internal resources to dedicate to a client. Also, the scale or requirements of a project may be something your team is uncomfortable with. Assess challenges and decide where your team will work best.

Some things you can’t overcome, but with enough resources and money, almost anything is possible. Keep a client’s wants and needs at the forefront of a project plan and adjust when necessary. Certain constraints may change a project’s progression, but the best teams know how to build sustainable workarounds.

5. Understanding Project Value, ROI, & Business Case Analysis

Every organization has a different value scale, as its needs may differ from those of previous clients. What’s valuable to the company and what they hope to gain is what fuels the engine of the entire process. It’s critical to understand the value of a project before laying down the groundwork. The best way to truly determine the value is to ask the right questions. 

Here are a few questions we recommend starting with: 

  • Why are you doing this project? – The “why” may be the most crucial aspect for the company. This question usually reveals the organization’s intentions, allowing you to see why this project matters. 
  • What is your end goal? – The “what” gives a final destination for your project roadmap. End goals sit at the horizon and serve as a beacon during the process. Always keep the goal at the forefront of your plan. 
  • How do you think this is going to help your company? – Finally, the “how” ties everything together and shapes your work’s trajectory. A company should be able to provide details about where this project aligns with its needs. The “how” often involves the end users and individuals directly affected by the final product. Surveying managers and end users will shape a greater understanding of how this project will help. 

It’s important to help a company understand the value of the work and how it will make a difference for them. Get a better understanding of what an organization’s goals are and what they hope to achieve.

Another critical aspect of ROI evaluation is avoiding pitfalls created by influencers with misguided intentions. 

  • Avoid Falling Victim to Trends – Some clients choose to ignore the value of a project and instead look toward jumping on a shiny new trend. Companies may fall victim to investing in fads instead of thinking about the ROI for their customers and employees. It could be an executive, manager, director, or developer trying to push the envelope. This is because if a project works, it will potentially help them gain a promotion or control of a  larger project. There might be personal motives you need to uncover.

6. Invest in Tools to Measure a Project's Before and After

We’ve learned that investing in data measurement tools can provide invaluable information about the performance of a product both before and after an initial rollout. Take advantage of test sites and locations to develop a better end product. Then, use what you’ve built on understanding value drivers within a rollout situation. 

Data recovered from test sites can be invaluable when tweaking the final product. On the other hand, measuring the performance of a product after an initial rollout can help strengthen processes for future releases. 

For example, let’s say you’re rolling out a mobile POS system at a retail store. Employees are given devices that allow them to conduct direct sales with customers in the field. During the pilot phase, you use analytics tools to measure the product’s performance. The data reveals a double-digit uptick in sales on the floor. Using this data, you can diverge investment, better serving customers and associates alike. 

7. Have a Pragmatic Technology Selection Approach

Have a pragmatic technology selection approach. 

Selecting the right technology at the beginning of a large enterprise project is crucial to achieving a client’s goals. It can seem daunting, as the technology behind a project will be a pivotal contributor to the process. However, making the right choice does not have to be complicated. 

Here is a list of some main points and associated questions you should ask before making a final choice: 

  • Data: Does the client have data that can support a decision? Will this data backup your choice in the future? 
    • Data may be the most critical component of a technology selection. There needs to be sufficient data, metrics, and information to support using a particular technology. This data may relate to the technology’s workplace trends, analytics, and performance feedback. 
  • Feedback: Do they have end-user feedback and suggestions?
    • As mentioned above, end-users are the driving force behind the success of a project. Since they spend the most time with this technology, make sure your choice fits their needs. Surveys, test sites, and pilot groups are excellent ways to source feedback. 
  • The Market: What is popular and new on the market? What new technology is on the horizon?
    • With technology evolving rapidly, it’s always important to keep an eye on the market trends. See what devices are defining industry standards, and decide where your project fits with these trends. The latest technology may be advantageous but continuously assess the market before deciding if it suits your client. Also, newer technologies may be approaching the horizon. Stay in the know and consider whether future technologies could overtake or benefit your project. 
  • Innovations: Are any innovations available now that could benefit the client?
    • Technology changes fast, and seemingly overnight, new innovations could reshape your business’s foundation. Watch over the industry leaders and stay up to date with the latest innovations. There may be a new technology on the horizon that could significantly help your client. Additionally, knowing the latest trends gives you an advantage when discussing investment costs and ROI with a client. 
  • Risk Assessment: How big of a risk are you selecting this technology? Will something new usurp it shortly?
    • Never overlook the possibility of something becoming ubiquitous. In months, newer, shinier upgrades can overtake your investment. Assess the risks of investing during the process of a project. Ensure your client’s investment will grow with their needs. 
  • Community: Does a significant community support it? Are there other organizations backing it up and proving its value?
    • Certain technologies gather huge followings and copious amounts of support from a given industry. When a significant number of organizations are backing and driving its value, there may be a good reason. Uncover this reason and decide if it’s something your client can benefit from. 
  • MegaCorps: Does it seem like a big company like Google is supporting a library or developing a framework that could someday compete with the current technology?
    • Watch what the big companies like Google are working on. If there’s a trending innovation on the way, Google or its peers may be working on something similar. 

It’s not always easy to know the right choice, and with technology evolving so quickly, some decisions may become obsolete quicker than others. But you can’t always know when something new will come along and change the industry standard. Prepare data to back up your choice later down the line. Make adjustments and minor changes along the way to stay up-to-date with rising trends. That way, if something changes down the line, you don’t have to rewrite everything. 

There’s never one correct answer when selecting technology, but having the data to defend a choice later and making choices is critical. 

8. Know When to Replace Legacy Systems

As an outside vendor walking into a client’s organization, be mindful and sensitive to their investment history. Learn about what products they rely on, and be conscious of how you treat their legacy systems. Coming into a new company and dismantling a system one of their team members took years to develop can be insulting and inconsiderate. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering whether to replace or improve upon existing systems:

  • Replacing Legacy Systems: Customers might not want to hear about investing in new products that can update over time. But, it may be worth more in the future when the current systems show their age. Some clients live by the “It’s always been this way, it’s what we’re used to” philosophy. They may be unwilling to replace existing systems, citing a host of concerns about cost and training. In a case where a current system no longer serves the needs of the end-users, a detailed plan is necessary to show a client where new solutions will save time and money. Sometimes an organization may not realize how much money they’re losing with the products and services they currently employ. 
  • Bolting Down on Existing Systems: There are some organizations that may have an existing system that doesn’t need to be replaced entirely. Large projects aren’t always a complete replacement, sometimes they’re a renovation or addition to existing legacy systems. Customers may need you to come in and build upon what is already there. In this case, use the same surveying strategies and get a strong sense of what is working and what isn’t. Break down the plan of a project by pinpointing areas of improvement that justify a large investment. Clients want to be sure that large projects will be servicing their needs, not just adding to the problem.
  • Making The Right Choice: Part of taking on a large project is crunching numbers and providing data to build a case for your services. Also, develop an understanding of how the organization operates around its current products. Surveying workplace practices can be useful in uncovering metrics needed for convincing leadership to invest in a project. Once you’ve understood the importance of their legacy, you can begin to aid them in transitioning to new products.

9. Don’t Be Cheap

When pitching the initial cost of a project to a client, some will express concern and hesitate to see the value of a significant investment. They can be too caught up in the initial cost and not think about the savings a project brings in the long term. Large projects are rarely “cheap,” and the investment cost is typically indicative of the value of a final product brings. At this stage, keep the project goal at the forefront of the conversation while providing ROI estimates. A client needs to understand that investing money now saves or makes money down the road. Break down the value and ROI at the planning stages so they can understand the weight of the initial investment. 

We worked with an organization that lost about 8% of its in-store mobile devices yearly. Once they’d worked with us and installed BlueFletch Enterprise, device security increased, and device loss decreased to about 2% annually. The organization’s initial investment in our product paid off in this example. And it will continue to pay off in the coming years as they no longer have to replace many devices.

This is what we mean by don’t be cheap; misjudging the project’s value based on the initial price can be even more costly. Your team’s responsible for helping a client see the final vision and potential for success. 

10. Know When to Shelve a Project

Every so often, a project you’ve devoted hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into to will fail to meet expectations. Projects tend to become close to your heart as you work to make them a reality for your customer. But not everyone will be a success. The final lesson in developing large projects is knowing when to lay an unsuccessful project to rest. 

Shelving is never easy, but dumping more time and money into a sinking project is never a good plan. Have an honest conversation with your team and the client to assess a project’s future. This is why we stress the importance of multiple rollouts and the development of a POC. The initial POC launch on a test site is often the best time to assess whether the project will work. Having a dud in the initial rollout is a valuable learning experience to refine the final product or restart. 

Shelved projects can become helpful later on or serve as a lesson for what not to do going forward. Regardless, the point of a project is not to be correct but to learn the answers to the initial questions. 

Conclusion

Build a foundation for project plans to keep clients feeling safe knowing their money is working for them. Big projects work best when they adapt to the specific needs of a client and work to improve existing pain points. Learn from our mistakes and consider our 10 lessons before moving into a large project. If you have any questions or want more information about BlueFletch’s solutions, reach out to us at info@bluefletch.com.

Looking for more content? Check out an in-depth conversation about these 10 lessons on an episode of The BlueFletch Enterprise Podcast. If you wish to listen to the podcast fully, please visit the link and subscribe to stay up to date!

Shane Hurley

Shane Hurley

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