Running a project marathon

Pete Boston

Some projects feel like running a marathon. But these projects can teach us valuable lessons for the future.

In January 2014 I attended DPM:UK14 where Suze Haworth gave an enlightening talk, comparing running a digital project to running a marathon. Well, earlier this year I did feel as if I had just finished my own DigiPM marathon.

In the Autumn of 2012 we kicked off an exciting new project. The kick-off meeting went smoothly where we covered topics from business objectives to target audiences to design and technical requirements. A small alarm bell did ring though when we got to the ‘PM’ agenda item and I discovered that:

  • Instead of running the project with a single person in charge, the client would be running it collectively as a team. This was the approach they took to running internal projects and this was the approach they were going to take for the website project.
  • There was no specific target date for a release.

Despite my concerns, the initial phase of the project went well. We established a good set of wire frames, mood boards and a great visual design. I put together a timeline which was agreed by all parties and we had weekly project calls to discuss progress.

We made great progress with integrating the front-end templates into the CMS but then hit some hurdles relating to the content. We had made assumptions (for which I acknowledge we shouldn’t have) on what content should be manageable and what shouldn’t.

It’s always important to retain the balance between giving the content manager enough freedom to do their job, but at the same time not giving the CMS user so much flexibility that they are able to make such wholesale changes that the site becomes unrecognisable from its original design.

This is where we had some disagreement, which also coincided with the fact that:

  • Summer holidays had arrived and people from both teams were away.
  • We’d moved on from the exciting design phase to the potentially more laborious content integration phase where people are more likely to lose interest. With no leader at the client end it was a challenge to keep the momentum going.
  • Other Headscape project deadlines were approaching which were now going to conflict.

Hitting the project wall

The project really did start to stall and the weeks passed with little or no progress. In her talk Suze referred to hitting the project wall, much like you hit the wall in a marathon. Well, I had now hit the wall, but without the knowledge of how long the marathon might be.

So, I faced the challenge of reinstating enthusiasm for the project, for both the client and the Headscape project team. We took the new year as an opportunity to get things going again. Because the project had now been going for over a year, we made some changes to the design and front end code to ensure we were still using up to date practices.

With much encouragement the project picked up again and we agreed a new date to go live. 4 months later (which was the original projected duration of the project, not 16 months!), the site went live.

Lessons learnt

This experience has underlined the importance of:

  • Having someone to lead the project from both the agency and client end. The leader at the client end needs to be a decision maker.
  • Setting a deadline and sticking to the schedule. Yes, we do need to ‘get things right’, but we also need to remember that websites evolve and if we spend too long getting the original site completed it will be out of date before it goes live.
  • Not making assumptions. Run everything past the client to ensure that you have agreement on all aspects, even the areas you expect to agree on.

Our team at Headscape are pleased with the site but have a rather tainted view of it. Its a great design built on an excellent CMS platform, but we went through a painful process to get to there. From a personal point of view I far preferred working on a couple of other projects during the same time period, both of which had very tight deadlines. The fact that we had tight deadlines meant that I really was able to focus teams on both sides on the tasks in hand.

We got there in the end but with this particular marathon we had to bulldoze down a few more walls than expected. The client is happy though and that is what matters most.