Project management is more of an art than a science. A good project manager is someone who can be forward-looking, comprehensive, flexible, uncompromising, meticulous and procedural … But above all a good project manager can only succeed if he or she is realistic about the demands being made by the project owner.
Project management, is an old term that would be more appropriate for Julius II commissioning Michelangelo to work on the Sistine Chapel than to business leaders today. It is an essential discipline because it gives the context, objectives, roadmap and timeframe for the realization and completion of an ambition. One must admit that the disastrous rate of project success in general, and in the field of information technology in particular, shows that most contractors have no idea of the actual feasibility of a project and often turn to external consultants to define it.
Historically, consulting firms, including leading strategists who advise states and global companies, have developed methods that impose huge costs on the client, in terms of money and time.
When John F. Kennedy launched the Space Race in the early sixties, no one knew if it was feasible or how long it would take to actually get to the moon. Fortunately for him, JFK just gave the overall goal, “go to the moon”, and the time to do it, “before the end of the decade.” There’s nothing quite like a challenge to motivate the troops, especially if they’re short on time. But beyond that, NASA and its consultants have a plethora of methods to choose from and an unlimited budget to do so.
Almost all the current techniques of project management were invented around that time, and they were all directed towards one goal: finishing a project on time.
In fact, there was a precedent for the conquest of the moon: the landing of the Allies on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. The means used to conquer Europe were enormous. Faced with a German army that had had more than three years to organize itself, managing to coordinate troops and the means to transport, house and feed them, allow for communication between them, care for wounded, call in air strikes, was unthinkable without a method to guide operational officers. This considerable challenge gave rise to a new science: logistics.
Logistics, in other words resource and operations planning necessary to achieve the objectives, are as fundamental to project management as setting the right goals and monitoring implementation. Logistics were brilliantly transferred to the industrial world, probably because workers and machines, much like soldiers, don’t really challenge orders and instructions.
Conversely, the transfer of project management methods to the corporate world has not produced the hoped-for success. In 2008, Gartner Group gave the following statistic: 90% of Internet projects fail within the first 18 months. This statistic echoes what happened with IT projects in the late 90s: only 16% of projects were functional on time.
These statistics have haunted two generations of project managers ridiculed for failing to deliver on time.
This has worsened with the contemporary reflex of designing any development within a company as a project. The world today is in perpetual motion, and that forces organizations, governments, administrations and companies to reform permanently. The Internet and the ability of a customer to express public opinions at any time has forced all of us to react with changes to methodology, procedures, organization and information system.
When building a bridge, or the Saturn V rocket, the functional requirements, constraints and goals change little over time. Similarly, if you want to invade Europe or land on the moon, you are given unlimited means to do so, otherwise you risk looking a fool.
So it is natural that the methods that emerged from these glory years of project management require either fixed objectives, that are well defined and controlled, or the financial and human resources that are as close to unlimited as possible.
When Jeff Bezos embarked on the Amazon adventure, he knew he wanted to sell books online and had a rough idea of how to achieve it. Fifteen years later, Amazon is known as a bookseller, but it sells just about everything possible, including fridges and hosted information systems. For nearly ten years, Amazon was considered dead in the water, as it was costing too much and wasn’t profitable.
For some, it stands as the counter-example of good project management. I believe that, on the contrary, thanks to his determination and strength of will, Bezos showed that the success of a company with a hazy and flexible initial goal, rests on the determination of its leaders to do whatever is necessary to make it.
When it comes to the Internet, 9 out of 10 projects combine two basic components:
- The ability to attract the largest and most targeted audience possible, ie the ability to create an appropriate media platform
- The ability to create a profitable business by providing a service electronically, what is nowadays called “monetization”.
It could be argued that advertising revenue is the worst way to “monetize” your website’s traffic. In addition, an increasing amount of internet actors are questioning the received notion that everything online should be free. While free content allows initial development and the recruitment of an audience, it can also cause havoc. The memories of the crisis of confidence in web companies in the early 2000s is still very fresh for some.
We therefore return to the fundamental principles for the creation of any service: understanding the needs of your client/user, knowing what the competition is doing, anticipating the changes in the market and producing a profitable and sustainable business.
Online, creating and managing such an enterprise becomes highly complex. It must involve the following skills:
- Defining a clear and understandable strategy because the client considers both the service, and more importantly it is to conceived and implemented
- Being able to quickly and completely review its strategy and procedures in response to market developments and the experiences of clients/users
- Maintaining transparent procedures and performance targets, and therefore know how to define them and implement them in a perfectly reliable manner
- Building technical tools that can change quickly depending on the elements mentioned above, while keeping a level of reliability as if they had been developed that way from the beginning
- Building a targeted audience by recruiting gobally and in several languages
- Creating a strong bond with this audience based on interest and confidence, so that the proposed service is an extension of this relationship
When analyzing the skills needed to get there, one realizes they are a combination of those required in media organizations, advertising agencies, IT, logistics, distribution, management consulting, and strong industry knowledge.
Since organizations and tools are constantly changing, these skills are mobilized almost continuously in a rapid cycle involving: analysis, strategy, implementation, evaluation. Rinse, repeat.
From experience, one cycle takes between six and eighteen months. Complexity implies flexibility, and therefore requires spending sparingly so that you can allocate funds effectively once you hit your stride.
With this in mind there can only be one conclusion: it is impossible for a consulting company operating in the Internet industry work effectively without charging amounts disproportionate to a reasonable return on investment if the majority of skills the project requires aren’t already present within the client company.
However, we must unfortunately note that very few traditional companies are able to mobilize such in-house know-how. Similarly, a single contractor and his assocaites rarely have a sufficient overview of their competitive environment to correctly anticipate the pitfalls that they face.
Finally, it is pretty typical, some may say inevitable, for a web project to fail temporarily, before its initators can find way to make it work. Howeverm failure is not accepted by clients, who often respond by replacing the service provider, thus placing responsibility for the apparent failure squarely with an outside party.
Witnessing this pattern repeat itself over the last fifteen years is what led us to create Keeward in 2006.
To reconcile all the contradictions we identified above, as well as unforeseen ones, we approach projects as mixed, multidisciplinary teams whose work is evaluated based on the final result, with a willingness to share risk.
This is pretty much the concept of a “turnkey” project whose team is an association between a client, a team of consultants, technical specialists in charge of implementation (in this case Keeward), and other skills that we bring to a project as is deemed suitable.
The keys for a successful project can then be summarized as follows:
1/ Ensure that everyone working on the project forms a community around a single objective: the success of the project,
2/ Pool all available resources at cost until the project hits its stride and plateaus,
3/ Continually challenge the initial roadmap by assessing short, medium and long term financial and operational efficiency,
4/ Take risks to discover new niches, but focus most resources on making the service dependable,
5/ Think of technology as a counter to competitive barriers that can kill the project,
7/ Partner up with other actors in the field like media, communities, providers of complementary services, technical operators, distributors, sharing a similar audience,
8/ Communicate the truth, always, completely and transparently, especially in terms of information produced: it must be reliable, relevant and speak to the intelligence of your audience. If the information provided is fake, it will have a very limited shelf-life, and will disappoint immensely,
9/ Seek new investment only after having built a solid audience or a viable economic model,
10/ Share the value created equally between all stakeholders of the project ie: traffic, revenue and capital value.
In a world where the technical and competitive environment is complex, the response of a project manager has to be the simplification of the management process, in order to keep costs down.
The systemic response to a complex world is the creation of a dynamic and flexible organization where adaptive intelligence and resources are invested to overcome local barriers must be comprehensive and continuously fed by information clear of the environment.
To face this hostile environment, we act like the Precambrian protozoa, we join to form a single organism whose survival is ensured by the cooperation of all of its cells.
The concept of turnkey projects is not an economic concept, or the simple delegation of project implementation, it is the construction of an new activity to which all business functions are oriented towards new goals and organized in an adapted and dynamic system. The project’s success is no longer measured by the implementation of tools and components, but in creating a viable and sustainable activity over time.