I used to think product development was just another way of saying “stress and frustration.” A sort of trauma-induced anxiety fell upon me anytime we would start a new project because at the beginning, our entire team was on the same page, but by the end, we would be scrambling to get everything finished. We’d throw up our hands in exasperation and ask ourselves how we managed to find ourselves in this situation, each of us following our own book. Thankfully, science came to our rescue.
A few hundred years ago, a couple of clever physicists found that “when left to their own devices, pretty much everything in this universe moves toward chaos.” It takes a lot of work and energy to create order, and even after you organize the mess, it all goes back to the same mess it was before. That’s why my desk is never able to stay neat. Confusion and complication are perfectly natural; they are not, however, conducive to successful products. Fortunately, something being perfectly natural does not mean it is completely inevitable. Take my desk, for instance. Every time I clean it, it always seems to get messy again. Knowing that my desk tends to get messy (and assuming I don’t want it to be), my approach can be one of two options:
- Wait until it gets so messy that I can’t take it anymore and spend a whole morning cleaning it off
- Set up a system that anticipates the mess and periodically organize it before it becomes uncontainable.
Both options involve work, but only one is full of frustration. The trick is not trying to do away with the chaotic nature of life (because we can’t), but rather to prepare for it.
Enter: Project Management
The reason our projects got so chaotic in the past was because we never fully anticipated complications. We were convinced that if we did enough work up front, everything else throughout the project would take care of itself. That’s simply not how it works, though. Most project management methodologies have been born out of this desire to compensate for the chaos. The more traditional way of doing it (often referred to as the “waterfall method”) takes a more linear approach: you gather all of your requirements up front and design the whole thing. Build it, test it, then finally, deploy it all. The agile method takes a more iterative approach, where you gather requirements, pick the ones that make the most sense to design, build, test, and deploy first. Once you’ve done that, you go back to your requirements and pick the next set. There are pros and cons to each ideology, the best approach depends on the product, teams, and customers involved.
Regardless of the method you use – waterfall, agile, or some combination of the two, neither are impervious to chaos. The overarching process behind any successfully executed method, and what our team thrives on today, involves using what we call PDCA: Plan, Do, Check, Adjust.
Plan, Do, Check, Adjust + Discover
At its core, PDCA is the basis for any cycle of continuous improvement. It all hinges, however, on the step of the process that happens before the cycle begins. We call this the “Discover” phase.
The key to effective problem solving is identifying the problem in the first place. This is the most important part of any process because it lays the foundation upon which the rest of the process will be carried out.
Discovery is not just about learning what the goal is, but also why it’s the goal. So often, we’re given goals to reach that fail to solve problems because the goals we’re attempting to address are actually symptoms, not the underlying cause. The products we build are a means to an end, not the end itself. They are tools we create to help businesses grow and solve problems. It’s in the discovery phase that we discover what that real end is.
Planning is one of the most challenging tasks to accomplish because it is, in a sense, an attempt to predict the future. And the future, as it turns out, is quite unpredictable. In my personal experience, I’ve found there are two ways people typically handle this:
- They skip the planning step almost entirely and jump right into doing, using the “we’ll figure it out as we go” motto.
- They’re reluctant to move past the planning step at all and get caught up in analysis paralysis. If the plan isn’t perfect, the work won’t be perfect, and if the work’s not perfect, why bother?
The first type usually ends up losing a lot of time and money running into one unforeseen wall after another. The second type usually ends up losing a lot of time and money because, for all their planning, there’s no product to show for it. The balance is found in planning for what you know, preparing as best you can for what you’re confident you don’t know and accepting that there are things that you flat out don’t know.
This is often the most satisfying step because actual progress appears to be happening. When clear goals and effective plans have been created, this is the most straightforward part, but when the goals are confusing, or the plan doesn’t work, it becomes the most frustrating part of the process.
This is where you look back at what you’ve done, and compare it to both your plan and your goal. An artist friend once told me that when drawing an object, you should spend more time looking at the object than at your paper. If you spend more time looking at what your pen is doing than at the object itself, it will never look right or match the original picture you had in mind. If it’s off from your plan, but might still be close to the goal, then your plan needs work.
This step can be very difficult to do effectively if the definition of success has not been established.
If your plan is off, this is the step where you take the time to fix it. Then, repeat the cycle.
True success comes from a system designed to not only get things done but also takes into account discovering and setting goals, planning your approach, checking your results, and adjusting for improvement. You need to see what worked and what didn’t to be able to focus your efforts accordingly; it’s an ongoing process. Unfortunately in business, and in life, when we are not taking strides to move forward, we are moving backward. Muscles that don’t get used atrophy. Our furniture gets dusty, our buildings fall apart, our websites get stale, and our sales eventually dwindle. The needs of people change and competitors release new and shiny features; so while we can appreciate past successes, we always need to be on the lookout for ways to improve.