Start Right and Finish Strong

In the last two weeks, I’ve kicked off three new projects. Two were digital product related and the other one related to marketing and branding. Chances are, you work on projects as well, so I thought I’d share a few things learned over the last few years.

Try these two pages from Honestly’s playbook. They may help your next project get off to a good start and finish strong.

Project Kickoff

Once we have the start date, signed contracts, deposits, and other details out of the way, we schedule a project kickoff. I used to combine this with workshops or other discovery related meetings but found it added too much complexity.

The project kickoff now gets it own slot and is focused on relationships, logistics and alignment of expectations. Here is what a common agenda looks like:

  1. Team: We introduce team members across collaborators and what role(s) they play
  2. Scope: We review scope and set expectations to embrace change, unpredictability and priorities
  3. Timeline: We confirm schedules and solidify important milestones
  4. Approach: We discuss and agree on an approach that mitigates risks and ensures success
  5. Logistics: We put important dates and meetings in everyone’s calendars, sync up on workflows and settle on project tools

It’s good to block out an hour for project kickoff but it usually takes about 45 min to get through everything. You’ll be amazed how much trust and confidence is built by finishing the first meeting early and starting out ahead of schedule. This small win starts to build momentum.

Project Retrospective

When I started leading creative projects, we called these postmortems. The term never sat well with me. It always felt cold and lifeless (Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.). I was glad when we started calling them project retrospectives or “project retros” for short.

The concept is simple. After a project period or phase ends, schedule 30-45 minutes for everyone to discuss how the project went using this three-question framework:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t go as well as hoped?
  3. What can we do to improve working together moving forward?

That’s it. This forum empowers people to provide candid input, give praise to other team members and focus on solutions to make the next project go better.

It’s cool to see a team well-tuned for the next project after a good retrospective.

There you go. Two project investments I’ve found worthy of the time. Do you do something similar? If not, try these and let me know how they go.

Until next time.

Informed Simplicity

A significant part of the work I do these days is focused on creating simplicity. The kind of simplicity I’m talking about may be different from what you have in your mind. The type I’m referring to is informed simplicity.

Let me explain.

Ask any child to draw a picture of their home and you’ll get a simple picture. My four-year-old, Matthew, did one the other day. The page was colored with green crayon for the grass, a yellow circle with lines coming out of it for the sun, and a brown box with a triangle on top for a house. Oh, and there were five stick figures in the yard. Two big ones (me and Sherry), two small ones (he and his brother), and our dog. It’s a simple drawing. But it’s simple because that’s all he knows and all he can do.

Now, look at Piet Mondrian. He’s one of my favorite modern artists. His most famous paintings are simple. But unlike Matthew’s drawing, he applies informed simplicity. It’s by choice. Piet takes the complex and subtracts all the parts that don’t work or get in the way. What’s interesting is Mondrian was an impressionist early in his career and later on developed the clear abstract style called De Stijl or “the style”.

Coco Chanel’s famous quote comes to mind.

Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.

This applies to software features, design, marketing and especially copywriting. It also applies to relationships and strategies.

The hard part is knowing what is the right thing to remove. This is a big part of my job and a lesson I’ll always be learning.

Stubborn & Flexible

The last week or so has me pondering a quote from Jeff Bezos I’d like to share with you. I found it again going through old notebooks during the holidays. Here goes:

Be stubborn on vision, flexible on details

The ethos of this statement is a great way to approach marketing and building products. It encourages tenacity while maintaining adaptability. I believe “lean” methodologies when done right, have that message at its core.

Also, the best entrepreneurs, executives and leaders I’ve met simultaneously possess stubbornness and flexibility. The great ones know when to be which at the right times.

One of my focuses this year is to keep this top of mind on every project. My hope is it will foster greater unity (stubborn around the same vision) and less ego and fear (flexible details) across my teams.

We Need More Bridge Builders

A year ago today I wrote this post about the main challenges with website redesign projects.

Since then, I’ve worked on nine website or app projects in various roles (content strategist, information architect, UX lead, project manager and copywriter) and guess what?

Website redesigns are still difficult.

One recurring challenge for a website reboot is that for the first time, or the first time in a long time, ALL departments have to get in the same room and accomplish a goal together. The key word being together. Departments like IT often feel defensive, since they no longer “own” the website. Others, like marketing, sales and operations, have their own expectations for what the new site will do for them.

These internal dynamics and politics seem to be the biggest hurdle and present the most risk for web projects to fail. This is the reason more companies should invest in better facilitators and product managers. The most successful web projects I’ve worked on had someone who ensured good collaboration and managed expectations.

My last job, before I went out on my own, was at a software QA and testing company. One of the services they provided was as an independent validation and verification resource (called IV&V). This role worked outside the vendor(s) and the company to make sure each party had what they needed to make the project successful.

This should be an essential role on all larger projects in software or marketing. It may be considered “overhead”, but isn’t it worth it to reduce risk and ensure a greater ROI? I’ve fought to bring this “bridge building” role into the projects I’ve worked on this year and it’s made a huge difference.

Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences in utilizing engagement and project managers with these skills on your projects.

The Other Side of Inertia

I’ve been heads down in several big projects of late. We’re at a point where we’re in sync with the client and everyone is focused on working the plan. Like a crew team tuned-in to the coxswain’s voice, everyone is in the rhythm. I’m fortunate to have an incredible engagement manager partnering with me who knows how to keep the momentum going (Thanks, Marty!).

Momentum is the only thing that matters when deadlines are tight and expectations are high. It’s momentum that enables clients to not get hung up on small details and creative teams not to get sidetracked by distractions.

At this stage of the project, you want as few “new ideas” introduced as possible. None is best. When you’re in create and build mode, all brilliant innovations and improvements should be placed on a backlog to address later.

Coming up with simpler solutions and fresher creative concepts during the process is expected. This is another reason “launch is the beginning” and why continual improvement and optimization are important. But try not to sacrifice present momentum for future enhancement. You don’t need to discard your ideas, just save them for later.

To tie a bow around this point, I’ll leave you with this great quote from Ben Chestnut, founder of Mailchimp.

Never sacrifice momentum. I might know a better path, but if we’ve got a lot of momentum, if everyone’s united and they’re marching together and the path is O.K., just go with the flow. I may eventually nudge them down a new path, but never stop the troops mid march.