The stakes have never been higher. As organizations focus more of their budgets on digital marketing initiatives, there’s greater pressure from clients and management teams to achieve success and measurable returns on investment.
Competition is high, and so is risk. Project Management Institute reports that for every $1 billion invested in a project, organizations risk losing an average of $135 million. For perspective, that’s slightly more than Netflix invested in “The Crown” and more than the initial asking price for the triplex penthouse at 520 Park Avenue. Gone are the days when creative marketing efforts could be launched simply for “awareness.” Now, every eyeball is tracked and every interaction is measured, and failed projects can have dramatic financial consequences.
To avoid becoming cautionary tales and dinner party punchlines, creative marketing professionals must exercise prudence when launching complex web projects. Here’s how:
1. Scope with precision before engaging in a project.
Our company was recently hired to rescue a full-scale website development project for a sophisticated digital startup. The organization had built a product with the intent of rolling it out to hundreds of thousands of users online. Unfortunately, its development partner couldn’t execute on the complicated software requirements. Rather than fess up to the client, the firm continued on a “death march” of sorts, ultimately getting fired and costing the client time, money and much-needed sleep.
It should come as no surprise that more complicated projects may be developed in a more agile fashion. They require an experienced skill set to outline complex scopes of work and manage clients (and budgets) through an iterative process while avoiding roadblocks. Adding to the challenge, technology is evolving and increasing in complexity every day, so it’s easy for your team to find itself incapable of delivering what was promised.
For a client, exhausting budget for an agile project before it’s functionally complete can be devastating. Avoid this by understanding the opportunity, determining whether your team or technology partner has the requisite experience to deliver on-time and within budget, and defining the scope with as much precision as possible.
2. Create a comprehensive roadmap.
A roadmap is an effective tool for planning a project, allowing key stakeholders to visualize milestones, deliverables and important deadlines.
By first creating a schedule, you can paint a realistic picture of how the project will go from the start. This ensures the client understands the ramifications of missing dates on either end and allows you to build in a cushion for the unavoidables, like team member sick days or delays on the client’s end. A schedule also provides clients with opportunities to provide feedback and approval before critical, irreversible actions are taken.
But don’t stop there. Include a detailed project plan with your schedule to clearly outline client expectations at each milestone, what resources will be required on the part of the client, and the timing expected for review and approval of deliverables. Roadmapping the process will help to set expectations from the start.
3. Clarify expectations in writing.
One of the most important skills in an agency environment is managing expectations. Rather than sugarcoat or lie, be straightforward and transparent about the resources and processes necessary to complete the project. This should be done in writing before any work begins or money changes hands.
This can sometimes be a challenge if details or scope are still to be discovered or defined, so be clear about what is known and fixed and what is unknown and may have variable costs down the line. If possible, provide ranges of the effort that may be required for that work.
With a clear, written set of goals and deliverables, clients can confidently track progress and understand their responsibilities. Creating and managing their expectations will lead to a more positive experience with your agency and increase the likelihood that you’ll be called back.
4. Establish firm boundaries.
Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone understood their counterparts’ roles and responsibilities?
Unfortunately, that’s still not reality. Clients will often ask for things beyond the scope of a project or beyond an individual counterpart’s skill set or expertise. (This can often happen on tech development projects when clients may not fully understand the implications or engineering needed to satisfy a particular request.)
They will take their lead from you; it’s up to you to set clear boundaries regarding what you will do and won’t (or can’t) do. If clients ask for something beyond the contracted scope, be firm—but polite—in letting them know it’s outside of the service agreement. Otherwise, you may shoulder additional costs and risks, such as causing delays in the project and damaging your reputation.
5. Verify who’s in charge on the client’s end.
A study by International Data Corporation found that 42% of managers have fewer than 24 hours to make important decisions. Business requires quick thinking, and projects start to fail when they’re waylaid by indecision. Having fewer stakeholders can lead to more direct communication, but projects can’t always be tight and streamlined. To better keep projects on track, try to find out who’s actually in charge upfront.
Sometimes, after project kickoff, key project stakeholders or decision makers can change. Should this happen, take the time to reassess the project and walk through earlier presentations and important decisions with the new stakeholder(s). Make sure the client understands that shifts in direction from previous decisions require additional effort, are out of scope, and/or are billable change orders.
Your projects will benefit from a defined timeline, particularly if needs extend beyond the targeted completion date. This helps to account for the increased carrying cost(s) of allocating resources and attention to manage a project for 12 months when it was expected to require only four.
Anything can go wrong from launch to completion. But with these five fundamentals in mind, your team can effectively execute any web development or design project. If you don’t stick to these essentials of project management, you could end up losing money, business relationships or work to those who do.
Jaron Rubenstein is the founder and president of Rubenstein Technology Group, a software engineering firm focused on empowering user experiences through digital technology.
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