The End of the Beginning

We hope we haven’t caused you a boatload of pent-up anxiety. We hope that you haven’t gotten to this point only to be on the verge of bursting because there’s so much to think about that you can’t imagine how you’re going to bring it all together.

Take a deep breath. It’s not like that.

The way the world is going these days, we tend to get trapped in binary thinking. Something is either right or it’s wrong. Good or bad. Success or failure.

However, the truth of anything is often more analog. Instead of a simple true or false, the reality is usually a gradient. These things aren’t like soccer, where the ball is either in the goal or not, but maybe more like horseshoes where you might not throw a “ringer,” but rather you just try to get as close to the stake as possible.

The end result of your project is analog, not binary. Even if you sat down before the project was planned and defined clear, quantifiable goals, there are dozens of other resulting factors to consider when trying to determine if you succeeded or failed.

  • Did you come in under budget? Did you launch on time?

  • Did the stakeholders like the result?

  • Did the result improve your brand perception among your customers?

  • How stable and maintainable is the result?

  • How does it compare to what your competitors have done?

  • What is the mental, emotional, and organizational state of the team that finished the project?

  • How reasonable and considered is the plan for continued development?

You can’t force-feed all these factors into a simple value judgment then spit our a verdict. It’s probably more like throwing a bunch of things into a pot of gumbo and hoping the result tastes good. Quality ingredients and the chef’s experience play a huge part, but no one quite knows what the end result is until they finish their bowl.

Back in the chapter on scope, we offered this as a clarifying question:

Six months after this project has ended, what has to have happened for you to think the project was worth doing?

All things considered, was it worth it? Were the costs worth the benefits? Maybe there were both unexpected costs and benefits – these projects have a tendency to go in directions you didn’t plan. But, taking everything into account, has the organization improved enough after the launch to justify the effort that went into getting there?

This might seem vague, but we hope this takes some of the pressure off you. These projects are complicated. They’re a symphony (or cacophony) of human emotion, technical capabilities, and organizational mettle. Don’t think you need to jump out of an airplane and land on a dime. Just get on the ground.

The real work starts the day after you launch. Rather than a clear, bounded project with a countdown to the end, you start fresh, and can begin delivering on the promises you made to the organization. You can test out new features and capabilities, see what works, what doesn’t, and how you should modify your people and processes.

You tweak and adjust. Stick and move. Evaluate and react.

To re-state what we talked about in the chapter on site maintenance.

  • Be prepared to concede that some things just don’t work as well as you hoped. The greatest plan in the world can break down under load, and lots of things that seemed good in theory just don’t have the pay-off you expected. Give yourself the grace to make necessary decisions to jettison things that aren’t providing value, not matter how great the original idea was. When it’s necessary, kill your darlings.

  • Be ready to work through human processes while people adjust to the new state. It might become clear that some people are in the wrong roles. People might need to be retrained or retasked. Keep the lines of communication open. Foster openness and inclusivity among your team. In very few cases is not raising a concern the most productive course of action.

  • Know that while these projects lead up to and end with a Big Bang, it’s the incremental work that you do in the following year that will reveal the true value. You don’t just dump your new property on the organization and walk away. You work at it, chipping away at problems, doubling-down on successes, and rolling the dice on new ideas.

Atul Gawande is a surgeon and health writer for The New Yorker. He wrote once about his decision to become a surgeon:

I was drawn to medicine by the aura of heroism – by the chance to charge in and solve a dangerous problem.

This, of course, is every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, where surgeons are rock stars, the problems are all critical, and impossibly good-looking men and women “scrub in” and save lives every day.

However, over the years, Gawande came to appreciate the exact opposite type of medical care – that of “incremental care.” He’s talking about the day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year relationship you have with your primary care physician. This is the doctor who knows you, knows your issues, and has the long-term focus to try new things, evaluate what worked and what didn’t, and then modify their strategy.

Gawande continued:

Success is not about the episodic, momentary victories. It is about the longer view of incremental steps that produce sustained progress.

Incrementalism is where innovation is born. Heroes don’t waltz into projects and change everything.

After your project launches, you begin the incremental care and feeding of what you’ve built. Hopefully, you can develop a long-range view of your organizations goals and strategies that let you course-correct in small gradients, rather than yanking the wheel left and right to respond to every new obstacle that pops up.

Launch day isn’t the finish line. It’s the starting line. It’s just the end of the beginning.

Go do amazing things. Good luck.