Project Initiation (Escape to the Country Style)

By the end of an episode of Escape to the Country the show’s participants have completed a project initiation phase that is proportional in time and effort to the project implementation and have adopted a quality first approach.  They are now ready to go to the time and effort of buying a new house and moving from the old to the new having fully explored their requirements, options and assumptions.

  1. They have defined what success looks like for them.
  2. They understand how the golden triangle of budget, specification and location (time) constrain them
  3. They have prioritised requirements and know where they are willing to compromise
  4. They have developed these requirements and rehearsed future states through prototyping and modelling
  5. They have accepted they “can’t have it all” and have managed their aspirational ideas into a pragmatic strategy.

It’s a template that also goes a long way to reducing the stress of IT project implementations if done well at the outset.

This blog post discusses how I realised that the brainless and escapist television I thought I was watching to relax was actually repeatedly demonstrating the execution of a successful project initiation pattern and indoctrinating me with the merits of its application.

My Daily Schedule

One of the benefits of taking a year to return to full time postgraduate study and therefore working from home on a flexible schedule is the scope to self-determine a productive and pleasant daily routine beyond the standard 9 to 5 of many office jobs.

Over the last 6 months I’ve gradually evolved into a routine where I get up and go out for a gentle run and do some yoga to wake myself up; eat some breakfast whilst reading and watching the birds in the back garden; I then sit down at my desk and work until my brain energy is depleted.  Sometimes I even remember to get up and move about and eat regular small meals.  Early afternoon, with my mind tired but my body stiff I go out for a longer walk or run before settling down for a break with a cup of tea and some television before going back to my desk for a few more hours work before preparing dinner.

Introducing Escape to the Country for the Uninitiated

Invariably, my after television watching break involves watching Escape to the Country. For those who haven’t seen it, (a determined thing to achieve given its ubiquity across BBC schedules), the format involves two protagonists, usually a couple, who wish to relocate from their current abode to somewhere quintessentially rural to pursue their dream life.  There is an introductory section where were meet the pair and they explain their story, their rationale for moving and what they are looking for.  The presenter then takes the couple to see a first house, before the couple get to meet a local expert and try an activity that appeals to their interests/location.  A further two houses are visited, the third being the ‘mystery house’ designed to challenge their thinking before the presenter visits another expert to try a local activity for themselves whilst the couple mull over their home choices.  Finally the presenter meets the pair for a wrap-up where their preferences are revealed and their plan for future action discussed.

It’s a gently appealing programme for many reasons:

  • appreciating how beautiful and diverse our country is with the artful shots of countryside and landscapes, much of which is accessible to most of us.
  • the activities the couple/presenter undertake are usually quite interesting dip into various hobbies and services.  From cheese makers to RNLI training and morris dancers to hovercrafts, it’s usually quite interesting.
  • you get to play house and imagine how you might fit yourself into various housing options without bothering with the actual hassle of conveyancing, mortgages and packing up all your detritus.  Most are unaffordable for many people but that doesn’t stop us imagining!
  • undeniably there is the vicarious pleasure of watching the protagonists interact and make choices at this point in their lives.  We only know the little of their lives the show peaks at but this microcosm of real human drama at the show’s centre is often revealing and entertaining

From House Hunting to IT Projects

So it may be thought of as escapist and undemanding entertainment, but the more I’ve watched it the more I’ve come to appreciate its template for project initiation and wonder why more care isn’t given to this most neglected part of the process on IT projects to try and limit and direct project failure?

Many times in my career I’ve joined a project at implementation stage without any idea of what success looks like for that project and with many initiation phases and gates having been skipped.  Most IT projects fail because they don’t define success well enough in the first place.  This is exactly what project initiation is for.

Projects success needs to be defined not vaguely:

we want a new IT system” or “we want an IT system that will do all this for us”

but more specifically:

we need a system that will do xyz for us by a.n.date.  Acceptable quality is this … we are prepared to compromise on this but not this … we have this much contingency in our timescale and budget … when it launches the system operation will look like this … in two years it should look like this … “

On Project Failure

Complete success in projects is unattainable.  Projects have an element of failure built in for they are imperfect vehicles for achieving change in complex scenarios.  Projects chart a course between the Scylla of doing to little and the Charybdis of expecting perfection.  The levels project managers pull really only determine the nature and degree of project success … and failure.  Projects inevitably need a degree of realism and compromise and most often fail to agree, or even identify, areas for compromise from the start through proper requirements prioritisation.

Often, the biggest source of chronic project failure is the relentless optimism of project planning and the refusal to acknowledge either previous failings and the possibility for more to come.  There are as many ways, if not more, for projects to go wrong than there are for them to go right.

This is where risk and issue management comes in but these should be seen as norms not exceptions and some kind of anticipated disruption quotient added to project estimates.  This can be based on risk assessment but also evidence: issue models based on previous similar scale projects.

Projects should acknowledge from the start that some things will not work and be clear not just what a desirable outcome looks like but also what an acceptable outcome is.

On Project Initiation

So what has IT project failure got to do with Escape to the Country?  Most couples start the programme with a dream; by the end they have at least a strategy and perhaps a solution.  They nearly always have a clearer idea of what they want.

This happens because they work through a proper project initiation process for their project (buying a new house and moving to a new life).

Initially the programme understands the couple’s story.  Where they have come from and where they are going to go?  This is important for understanding requirements broadly and stakeholder analysis and management and provides an initial strategy for investigating possible solutions (suitable houses).

This big picture analysis is not really interested in how many en-suites you want but about understanding you, where you are and where you would like to go. They do ridiculously fake, affected and cheesy things like walk their dog, or potter about their garden looking not very relaxed or comfortable whilst talking about their life and aspirations.  We all know it’s a bit fake and awkward but it’s an essential early part of the show.  It’s definitely a workshop.

Next, the couple meet the presenter (business analyst) who confirm their understanding of the couple’s requirements, press for more detail and clarify any areas of potential misunderstanding.  The presenter finds out budget, ideal location (can be though of as IT project release plan) and presses for any areas of disagreement between the couple and also potential areas of compromise.

It is usually obvious at this stage that as usually when people dream and have ambition that it is unlikely they will get everything they want (requirements) within their budget (resource constraints) in their desired location (time constraints).  It’s usually often obvious that the presenter knows this having done several of these shows and knowing what the show’s researchers have been able to source.  The golden triangle of project management always applies.

There is nothing wrong with aiming high and falling slightly short, it’s probably better than aiming low and achieving it all, but obviously without infinite resources and options the project constraints will always require compromise on the specification.

This is where requirements prioritisation is important:

  • is a view more important than an open-plan kitchen diner?  (Is feature A more important than feature B?)
  • is having “character” more important than it being modern? (Do you want custom development options or is off the shelf OK?)
  • do you want it to be finished perfectly or are you prepared to pay a bit less up front and wait a bit longer by taking on a property that “needs work”? (Do you want waterfall or agile?  Everything launched at once or iterative development? High up-front quality or continuous improvement?)
  • do you really need it to have four bedrooms and 2 en-suites for “when all the family come to stay” i.e. once in every 2 years or would you find a smaller property more cosy for the two of your and less maintenance? (Does your scope really make sense for the things you are actually going to do with this system?)

The way the show works it teases out these priorities from the initial requirements specification by prototyping and modelling. Each house that is actually visited, rather than seen in an estate agents listing say, acts as a prototype to see, feel, try out spaces.  To have an instinctive and human judgement not just an analytical one.  Each activity they try in the new local area is a test to see is this the way they want to live their life in future?  Can they see themselves operating like this in this space, this place?  On an IT project prototyping and process modelling can perform similar functions to rehearse future states before committing too fully to them.

Then there is the ‘mystery house’.  This house deliberately doesn’t address their requirements perfectly and challenges them to think different.  It either focuses more heavily on one set of requirements at the expense of others rather than taking a balanced approach or introduces new options and possibilities.  It sometimes backfires but is often successful at introducing people to homes they didn’t realise they wanted.

By the end of the program as the show participants discuss the houses they have seen they are conducting a retrospective to close this analysis and design phase.  Sometimes they have discovered their dream home and are already planning second visits and making offers.  Other times they haven’t yet found a solution close enough to their requirements but even they they always say the process has given them a better understanding of their requirements and priorities than previously and they have a strategy and a plan for how to focus their next set of activities.

Published by

Alison Pope

I spend my working life creating maps and models of invisible, intangible things such as ideas, concepts, organisation structures, systems, information, software and cultures. I do this to try and make them more explicit so they can be seen, understood, shared, discussed, contested, agreed, nurtured, exploited and safeguarded. I'm currently working for the University of Reading as a Business Analyst and am studying design thinking.

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