TLDSP: Inception, or what you do before you begin

Categories Projects, Working smart

S: (n) origin, origination, inception (an event that is a beginning; a first part or stage of subsequent events)

Inception, the first article in my The lore of delivering software products series presents one of the key phases of a software project, a phase so important and sensitive that it alone may decide the final outcome of the project: success or failure.

This is a phase of discovery, acquaintance and assurance both for you, as a provider and for your customer, which so anxiously awaits the day when he can reap the fruits of his financial and social investment in this new project.

This phase is the one that lets you see if the customer is fully involved in the project and is really ready to go the extra mile with you to see the project delivered; this is the phase that tells you if the customer really cares about the project, the product and the benefits that it will bring to the general end-user population, or if this project is only done just because it should, because the budget is there and because people really need something to do and a project is a good thing to do, over and over again.

All or nothing

As we all know, there’s a mythical ratio that everybody avoids mentioning in project meetings or project briefs, namely “two thirds of all software(system) projects fail”. It’s true, they do, but I’ll let somebody else write the series on project failure.


Photo by conray

Now, as we know, failure is a very relative term in the software development and integration world. A project can be successfully implemented and used on a nation-wide level while being a huge failure for the company that implemented it, because the costs were 200% more than the contract value. Eh, they’ll be able to use the good references and maybe, in the future, they’ll learn from their mistakes.

Most software projects fail in this phase, which is a good thing, if you want to fail, this is the best phase to fail in, and there’s a good reason for that.

In this phase, your investment, as a provider, will be minimal and – wait, let me rephrase that – your investment in this phase should be minimized, always. Under no circumstance will you start developing the product or purchasing required hardware, software or services. Nah, wait until you have a solid grasp of the project and until you’ve met the customer.

During this phase, your senses must be alert at all times, during all meetings with the customer and your partners, ready to sense any problems, even before any of them can cause them, because they will. If you feel that, even from the first meetings, the engagement of the customer is not up to the challenge, address this issue. If addressing this issue does not work, prepare a contingency plan… an exit strategy. Who knows, maybe you’ll need it.

If the engagement of your customer and your partners reaches your expectations, the project seems to be on track or it’s steadily getting there, you have a moral responsibility to take this project to delivery… and success, because quitting the project once you have completed this phase you cost you not only financially, but it will also hurt your image.

The real stuff

Enough with the chit-chat, and down to the quick and dirty business. This article is actually about what you should do to ensure that the project has a smooth start and that everything is on track.

What you do, as a service provider, is the most important part of this phase. You are responsible for planning and executing most of the activities of this phase. Most importantly, you are responsible with the engagement of the customer and partners in these activities. If you are not the prime contractor and you see that they’re holding back, your main task is to engage them and to make them realize the importance of this phase.

– Be professional, be polite, never over-commit and under-achieve
– Just as you can, the customer can prepare and execute an exit strategy and find another supplier

The activities and outcomes you must target

In this phase there are some things that must be accomplished just for the sake of it and there are other things that are really important and can decide the fate of the project. Just like in life, the ones that really matter seem to avoid the eye.

Activities and deliverables for this phase are split up into two categories:

1. Important to your customer (will actually make their day happy):
Interim project plan, or working with them on the project plan. A third of the project should be enough. Remember, we’re talking macro planning, a WBS 3 levels deep. Details spoil the whole thing. You know that you’ll have to deliver the final plan sometimes soon, so why not involve the customer in the process.
Quality assurance, the magical term stating the fact that the project will be guided by quality and that quality assurance procedures will be part of every activity. You know, like testing, standardized work, proof reading, that sort of thing. Yes – you got that right – proofreading documents. Don’t put it in the plan. Just do it!
Promotion (dissemination) plan. If it’s a big project they’ll want to show it off. You’ll have to create a visual identity, advertise it on TV, have press conferences and go to international fairs and summits. Who knows, maybe it will increase your business in the vertical, it usually does. When you disseminate, do it by cellebrating your achievements with the customer’s team, and letting everybody know.
Knowledge transfer, or how the French would put it “transfert de savoir-faire”. You have to do it. I know that vendor lock-in is really sweet, but transferring the know-how to your customer will save you a whole lot on maintenance, technical support, upgrades and it will give them the sense of independence and self determination that they desire internally. This is a real gem, and I’ll talk about it in detail in the future.

2. Really important, even critical for the outcome of the project:
Prepare your project charter! Even if you only use it internally, this will give your team a perpetual single point of reference for the project vision and objectives. It’s not as hard as it seems if you remember that it should not be very detailed. If you are working with a terms of reference document, extracting your charter from it will save some time.
Identify the internal apparatus of the customer. This is really important! You have to identify the organizational chart of the customer, in regard to this project, the mirror image of your own organizational structure. The most important positions to identify are: who will oversee delivery, who is the person that will give you access to the end-users (this is really important), who is the main stakeholder, the project owner on behalf of the customer, the one that really cares. Usually, the people that hold the power are not the apparent ones. The project director on behalf of the customer will only sign the delivery if one of his aids will give him the technical and business approval. Find these people, as you will really need them during the project.
Communications plan. Who you talk to, what will you talk about, how often will the meetings happen. It’s a project buster! Having a good communication plan, accepted and executed by you and the customer will ensure that you’re on the same page, all the time.
The kick-off.The meeting that says it all. Have your team meat with the customer’s team. Show them what you’ll be doing for them. Do it clearly and slowly. Use graphical means. Don’t scare them away. Include everything on this list, even as bullet items. Get a feeling of the customer’s team. Are they into the project?

All of the things above are coming from a pragmatic perspective – just sharing with you what works – not a project management one. Maybe a full blown project manager will have a few more plans or a few more activities up his sleeve or maybe your project has these activities set in stone, some do. The bottom line is that if you cover all aspects but always keep an eye on what your objectives are for this phase, then you’re on the right track.

Your objectives… achieved

To conclude, your minimal objectives for this phase are:

  • Get to know your customer and your partners, make them your friends and allies
  • Show your customer that you are professionals and that you are at their disposal
  • Have a project plan, at least for the first third of the project
  • Identify the internal apparatus of the customer. Identify the people that matter
  • Setup a clear and concise communications plan
  • Have a kick-off, meet face to face as often as possible
  • Never over-promise and under-deliver, especially not in this phase!

If you achieve these objectives, you’ll be on the right track to a sustainable project, where all parties are engaged and willing to give their best to produce a great, usable and long lived software product.

Some of the topics expressed here will be elaborated further in my The lore of delivering software products series so stay tuned in for more information.

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