01 June 2019

Maintaining momentum: How to avoid project crashes and reach a better destination

by Adrian Weller

Some projects seem to fly and land in places you never dreamed of. Others lose altitude, stall, fall short of the destination, and occasionally lose passengers along the way.  

Projects must move onwards, upwards and improve. Yes, there may be turbulence on the way, but how do you avoid loss of vision or diminished expectations of success or quality?

The solution lies with project, stakeholder and risk management; however, this can lead to design by committee, constrained ideas and conservative solutions. How do we create a safe, inclusive and risk-free environment where we can design bold solutions that address the real problem?

Who’s the pilot?

Firstly, we need to change from a supplier/client to an expert/client relationship — working together to achieve a common goal. To quote Blair Enns, there exists a ‘polite battle for control’ in all projects. To get the best value and outcomes, it is critical that you let the creative consultancy fly the plane. 

New partnerships need to be managed with leadership, care and clarity, while established ones risk complacency and corner cutting through familiarity.

Projects are at risk if there is no tension on price (not enough fuel!); when everyone is saying yes too early and nobody is asking why.

One of the challenges in running a creative business occurs when we take on work to keep our own engine in motion, often compromising on price, scope and, more importantly, accepting the customer’s travel plans without questioning the purpose of the journey. 

Preparing for take-off

1. Agreed purpose and challenging the brief

I spend a lot of time thinking about the project title. This sounds simple, but it’s a quick reference to ‘what’ we are actually delivering and the ‘value’ we are providing. 

I get flight nerves if a project purpose isn’t clearly identified and agreed upon. The project purpose must be at the business level; if it isn’t on the table there’s probably an elephant hiding underneath it. 

A good lesson from journalism is the ‘five Ws’: Who, What, Where, When and Why.

What are the project needs? Who is the decider? What is our challenge? What is the problem? Where is the opportunity? When will we know? Good questions will get to the pain and the gain.

Evolution vs revolution? The evolution versus revolution question can mean many things to many people. To get around this, I like to ask, ‘Do you want to signify improvement or change?’ If the answer is simply improvement then we haven’t asked enough ‘Why’s.

2. In-flight controls: A collaborative approach to planning

Defining a work breakdown structure (WBS) and building a project management plan (PMP) allows everyone to agree on the approach. Explaining the methodology relieves discomfort, fear and friction.

Breaking the workflow into clear phases allows clients to understand the difference between idea and execution. Presenting top-level thinking to the top-level people often leads to creative that is more likely to be aligned to purpose and original strategy.

Throttle up, reaching altitude and cruise control

There is a point in any project where it’s time to push the boundaries and try harder. Pre-flight preparation will provide a framework for inspired solutions that go above and beyond expectations. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to imagine that all of your proposals have been rejected as it forces us to try for something more. Ultimately, a well-defined problem and working relationship will allow you to understand and identify good and bad risk, to collaborate on changes, to listen, but to make the right call — together.

If there’s a tiny whiff of smoke in the cabin, jump on it, immediately!

3. Landing at the destination: Production is everything

So many projects fall down at the end. I often see clients allocate good budgets to concept and strategy only to see quality tail off dramatically in design development and production. Unfortunately, the end user only sees the outcome, the tangible elements. In recent times print, digital and motion production has been commoditised to a point where quality and price have hit a threshold. It’s important to discuss these quality expectations.

We’ve all been on flights that end in arguments at the gates and spoil the whole journey. Great projects, like great trips, are about the balance between planning, safety, freedom, adventure and destination. 

Enjoy your next flight and pay attention to the crew!


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