Keep Calm, Don’t Panic and Let’s All Have A Cuppa

Or, how we manage when projects don’t go according to plan

In our previous post we discussed the fact that we take terrific pride in delivering projects smoothly and efficiently – and that this is partly the result of making sure the entire team is trained in project management. That, however, is not the full story.

What could possibly go wrong?

In short, a multitude of things could, and quite possibly, will go wrong! When things don’t go according to plan, as they sometimes will, resolving the issues is less about clinging to a rigorous process and more about having a flexible, positive and helpful attitude.
Here are some of the more common problems that we regularly face:

Hardware

A common situation is where there’s a problem with hardware. The client often develops the hardware at the same time as we are working on the software – then there’s a delay at their end. In some projects they don’t have enough prototypes for us to work with. The solution is often to create simulated hardware – it’s not ideal but it means we can still continue to make progress.

Another common issue is where a client gives us a version of the hardware, then changes it without warning. The new hardware doesn’t always work with the software we’ve developed. In this instance there is no easy solution other than to spend time working in conjunction with the client to identify where the problem lies and find a solution.

Paperwork

Another issue is the fact that clients sometimes need more time than originally anticipated to review documentation we’ve produced. This creates delays because we can’t go to the next stage until the previous one has been approved and signed off. We try to head off these problems by putting a clause into the contract that we want the reviews done within five days.

We recently had a project where the client was slow in producing the final acceptance test spec and asked us to stop work on the project for six weeks. As we were nearing completion we reduced the engineering team from three to one. The remaining engineer used the time to run through a previous version of the acceptance test spec – he was able to undertake informal testing and iron out a number of bugs before the final check.

This delay did bring cash flow implications for us, so we agreed to change some of the milestone payments which smoothed things out. In return for them amending their payment schedule, we were happy to accommodate the fact that the completion was delayed and at that time could transfer engineers onto other projects.

It’s about building good relationships and not being too hard line – things work out better when you are fair and reasonable.

Can you do it in green?

User Interfaces can also take longer than expected because some elements of the design can be very subjective. We often create prototypes or mock-ups but when it goes to the client for approval there are often changes – users may not like the colours, the shape or the arrangement of the buttons. We generally leave time for two sets of amendments, because we know we’re likely to go though a few different iterations.

Occasionally you get technical issues and the best approach is to talk them through with the client – together we’ll find a way around it.

Expect the unexpected

These issues just go with the territory. You just have to anticipate them and deal with the problems as they arise. The trick to doing this is having a flexible, helpful and solution-orientated attitude – being awkward and uncooperative is no use to anybody.

It’s also about establishing, right at the start, the need for open, honest and regular communication. We don’t want to take on a job, disappear for six months, then come back with something in the hope that it’s what was wanted. The key to smooth and efficient delivery is not just excellent project management but constant dialogue – regular reporting and updates, so everyone from the client to the engineers are on the same page.

Ultimately people are like tea bags – you don’t know whether they are strong or weak till they land in hot water. We do everything we can to make sure everything goes to plan. But when they don’t, we’re pretty strong on sorting them out to everyone’s satisfaction.