A little story I heard this morning: A freelance digital consultant is asked to review an ongoing project in a large company. He writes a report pointing out that a number of things need to be reconsidered and that it is a good idea to step aside and rethink the goal of the project. The report causes a big shock in the organisation. They hadn’t expected criticism but later admit they agree with most of the report. They don’t know how to handle change at this point in the project and the consultant report becomes ‘a situation’. The project continues its predefined course.
Corporate projects don’t fail
Running a digital project in a large organisation is a process, a well defined process, with a clear beginning and an end. A process with certain tasks, people and roles and a well defined number of steps. The first law in projects there is that they move f-o-r-w-a-r-d. They are never supposed to move backwards. The way they move forward is reported in a ‘progress report’. Progress reports are designed to move forward. Possibly too slow, but forward they go.
I have seen a number of projects, in my humble career, that should have been stopped at some point. Projects of which everybody directly involved agreed they were lost. The types of projects that go horribly over expected date and budget. The kind of project that causes rumours around the organisation and anyone involved in those projects gets the stain of ‘project disaster’. But rarely have I seen someone pull the plug. And the longer things go wrong, the more money is spent and the more difficult it becomes for someone to come forward and say: ‘Shall we just stop now?’. So these projects continue, come to some undefined end and anyone who can get away from them and loose ‘the stain’ will do so. Rather sooner than later. In many organisations these projects become taboo. You don’t mention them anymore once they’re finished. Consequently an opportunity for learning from a failure is lost.
Not quite what happens in startups. Do startups ever change mode, I wonder? Is there something like initiation and project mode? There probably is in the financial side of the picture. I will find out more in the interviews I will be doing in the coming weeks. But from what I have experienced and witnessed, startups have a long period of redefining themselves and if necessary reinventing themselves as they go. There are a number of reasons why this happens.
As a startup dives deeper into the reality of things, they encounter surprises. Sometimes good surprises but lets face it: this planet is much better equipped for bad surprises. One of the surprises can be technical. Assumptions were made that don’t hold true when faced with reality. In that case quick and very creative thinking needs to be done in orde to either fix the problem or find a way around it. Or simply bite the bullet and stop.
Blinded by the light
Another very common case is the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of your market. You were focussed on a certain problem and trying to solve that. You were blinded by your own enthusiasm but when you get to the bottom of it you notice that the much larger problem is lying right next to it. You can then either continue barking up the wrong tree or shift to a new problem and invent a new solution. That means you let go of all the hard work you have been doing up til then and go back to the drawing table. This is one of the topics I will be discussing with Bart Van Der Roost, COO and co-founder of Neoscores, in the first of a series of interviews (coming soon!).
Struggle for survival
The only way a startup can survive is by choosing the right problem to solve and by offering the spot-on solution to that problem. It is this struggle for survival that allows and forces startups to rethink themselves. Do they like it: no. Does it hurt: certainly. Does it cost money: of course. But the sooner they identify that plans aren’t going in the right direction, the less money and effort it costs to stop and rethink. Startups are in a context of life or death. The success of the project is the succes of the company. The failure of the project is the end of the company. Corporate organisations never work under this type of pressure.