Technology

Fight the Jumbles: The Dangers of a Convoluted Project Management Path

By / Nov 12, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

No matter how innovative your culture is, if you can’t act on your big ideas effectively, they’re of no use. That’s why clear, well-considered project management is so important to your strategy.

There’s probably someone on your staff who’s always full of great ideas, who makes the room three or four shades brighter simply by talking.

That’s awesome. You should nurture those ideas, because they might come in handy someday.

But there has to be a point where nurturing leads to something concrete, or it’s potential wasted. That’s where project managers come in. They can help shape those big ideas into manageable, well-organized processes that eventually turn into useful, real-world products.

Well, that’s the potential, anyway. Without someone steering the ship, the throw-crazy-ideas-at-the-wall mentality can go to waste. That’s something that hit me recently when reading a couple of fascinating social media anecdotes—one about a well-managed (albeit tiny) project and the other involving a company with broad ambitions that could be held back by slow-moving project management paths.

Without someone steering the ship, the throw-crazy-ideas-at-the-wall mentality can go to waste.

Which of these sounds like your association?

When Project Management Works

Last week’s launch of a redesigned Facebook “Like” button was fascinating—because it showed how project management should work.

As I noted in a Lunchtime Links item last week, people working on the redesign had to show it off to all parts of the company, including CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Sure, that took talking to a few people, but the measured approach ensured that the the project wasn’t just sitting around forever.

Facebook is a company that’s not afraid of truly bold changes, but it knows where to focus its energy and its ideas. The Like button got close analysis by everyone who matters, not because the company was being overly cautious but because Facebook knows exactly how valuable that feature is to the bottom line. (At 22 billion views per day, it may be the most-viewed piece of Facebook imagery outside of the company’s logo.)

When Facebook is building something out, it has a laser-point focus. People complain about its many redesigns, but generally the ideas (especially the Timeline visual style) have been well considered and fully fleshed out by the time they hit the screen.

It’s a little soon to tell whether or not the latest iteration of the Like button will sustain the success of the original version, but the well-thought-out product approach will certainly help.

When Project Management Flops

Another social network with a wide reach has struggled with the opposite issue. AllThingsD’s Mike Isaac explains that Twitter’s leadership often shows a tendency to sit on its hands, fostering innovative ideas through its Hack Week sessions, but rarely putting them into practice.

“Engineers inside the company have long grumbled that there are few direct paths for moving product changes up the ladder at an efficient pace,” Isaac says. “Twitter’s occasional ‘experiments,’ or ideas for change, sometimes sit in their requisite testing phase with 1 percent of users for an inordinately long amount of time, stagnating without any decision being made to move the product forward or kill it.”

To make things worse, sometimes the decisions seem driven by efforts to take the platform more mainstream rather than by a consistent strategy. (A couple examples: The inexplicable decision to thread conversations, breaking a longtime convention of the platform, and the stunted launch of a standalone music app that failed to gain popularity.) Those examples show the danger of a jumbled approach as well as an overly cautious one—something Isaac speaks to in his article.

“According to sources, some of Twitter’s top people—including a few from the company’s executive ranks—fear any major changes will meddle with the company’s revenue products,” he writes. “These products, in just a handful of years, took Twitter’s revenue from zero to hundreds of millions of dollars.”

TechCrunch‘s Matthew Panzarino, meanwhile, pinpoints Twitter’s problem as an over-reliance on user data.

If revenue is such an important factor for the company, why not put more energy into streamlining and focusing ideas for the benefit of the product instead of creating dead-end experiments? Sure, companies have gotten away with that approach for years—see Google’s 20 percent time—but Twitter appears to want new ideas without establishing ways to act on them effectively.

Effective project managers could help fix organizational problems like this. They would ensure that every big idea has a path and that projects running into obstacles aren’t chewing up energy better spent elsewhere.

Time to Ship

Your association’s best ideas probably aren’t going to get looked over as closely as those of a company that just went public. Nonetheless, you will have some technology-focused ideas that need a clear process to ensure people are hitting their marks and remain focused on the right things—and that you’re not showing sloppy work to your members.

In the February 2013 issue of Associations Now, Lisa Stefanoff, the chief information technology director at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, spoke to this very point. “It’s difficult to bring in a project manager if the project doesn’t have a very clear beginning, middle, and end. You need clear objectives,” she said.

A great example of this is when redesigning a website: Sure, you may know you need to redesign the thing, but after you make the decision, you need to focus your energy on how to get it done in an orderly fashion. You need to look at everything you’re doing and making sure that the things you’re changing are lining up with your goals and overall strategy.

If they are and you’re near the finish line, make sure the higher-ups are signing off within a reasonable amount of time and that there’s a clear path to completion. If problems come up, work through them in a way that doesn’t slow down the process. Then, when everyone’s signed off, ship the dang thing.

That last part is important: If you don’t eventually ship, you’re just coming up with a bunch of great ideas you never use.

Creating a project is a risk. Pouring time into wasted or unfocused ideas is a bigger risk.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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