Expectations and Engagement
This is another post in our series designed to help clients understand some of the issues related to up-front project analysis, as well as engaging and working with us.
The first thing that we consider at the start of any project, is whether the collective organization or team involved is able to describe project expectations and whether they have the capacity required to run the project and meet those expectations.
All projects start with a vision or defined goal, and within that vision establish a set of expectations — expectations that typically need to be adjusted in order to achieve a balance between vision and capacity. In other words, every project needs to determine whether it has the capacity to realize its vision and succeed — in particular within the digital domain.
It's probably not an exaggeration to say that we live in a digital world and that the pace of technological innovation and change occurring all around us is having a profound affect on our lives. We'd also argue that it's having a profound affect on what we expect from technology. In its early days the Internet was a fascinating place where engineers and users imagined a future where information was shared online, people could communicate in real-time, and all things seemed possible. We take most of this for granted now, but what's really changed since then is the level of sophistication that well-resourced organizations have brought to our digital world in the form of modern web and mobile digital products. Arguably too, our collective appreciation for 'digital design' and 'user experience' has increased as a result (even if only subconsciously). It's no longer enough to put text on the web and feel satisfied that you're sharing information. Both users and producers are expecting their online properties to be equal parts function and design with good design and a good user experience sending important signals about the overall credibility of a product.
What this often means is that organizations contemplating a new project may have already set expectations by comparing the aims of the project with existing (and often completely unrelated) products or services that have received substantially greater investment, or have been implemented by teams with far greater resources and skills. More than once we've received a request from a prospective client with links to respected publications like Wired magazine or The New York Times and have been asked to produce "something like this". And while we might in theory be capable of producing similar products, the question we normally have for the client is whether they genuinely feel they have the capacity to produce the material required to support such an effort — and the answer is typically no. This mismatch in expectations from reality doesn't only present itself as the occasional inquiry — it's often baked in from the beginning without anyone having the courage to say there's a problem before the project starts.
Not that long ago in traditional print media, launching a publication required a combination of skills and resources from good writing to good design to good photography, all combined with a clear vision to produce a quality publication. And while technological advances have made it easier for users and organizations to produce and publish content, there are still a range of skills required to bring all of the roughly equivalent elements together in a digital product. The tyranny of systems is that most of what gets built in a 'digital project', is completely invisible to end-users, and so its incredibly easy to underestimate the level of effort required, as well as overestimate capability.
And so one of the things that we attempt to determine from the very beginning, is whether we and our prospective client have the capacity to realize a project's vision and deliver a successful product. We pay particular attention to the time and commitment required from the entire project team including stakeholders, product owners, editors, designers, and developers.
If we've cleared all of the expectation hurdles above, and a project is ready to start, then the next thing to do is agree a way of working together. In project management terms this typically means creating a project document. A project document includes a project plan and some description of how the project team will be organized, including statements about how frequently the project team will communicate, how the project will coordinate and schedule activities, how resources will be assigned and, most importantly, how the project will measure progress. Will there be a defined set of milestones or deliverables combined with some method of reporting on whether the project is on track? How will the project team notify stakeholders if there's some variance between what's been planned and what's happening? How will the implications of these variations be described?
One of the important aspects of engagement and planning is to make sure that we can answer all the questions above while also applying the right level of project management. Smaller organizations simply won't have the resources to develop highly sophisticated project plans. Nor are highly detailed plans necessary for smaller projects and smaller organizations. And so it's essential that whatever level of project administration we apply is adjusted to suit the size of the project and the size of the organizations involved and not to overburden the project with unnecessary project administration or a dogmatic application of project methodology.
And so with expectations and engagement in good form from the beginning, projects have a much better chance of succeeding and delivering results. They also have a much better chance of being a positive and rewarding experience for all of those involved.