Thursday, February 3, 2011

Is Your Project Facing a Third-and-One?

Football fans know that third-and-one (both on offense and defense) is one of the toughest situations to be in. You’ve got to find a way to pick up a yard (on offense) to keep the ball or stop the other team from gaining a yard (on defense) to get the ball.

So with the Super Bowl approaching, I thought it was appropriate to use this analogy as it relates to projects (full disclosure: this blog post idea was triggered by a quote by Indiana basketball Tom Crean (below), relating third-and-one to basketball).

Why Does Vendor Selection Take So Long?
I’ve spent nearly a decade working with web projects across all verticals and everywhere from SMB to the enterprise, and one trend that I’m seeing is that it’s taking longer and longer to identify and select a vendor. And it makes no sense, honestly. Yes, there are more qualified vendors to choose from these days, but because of technological advances, our ability to evaluate and score them has been accelerated as well.

So, what can we do to make the vendor selection process more efficient:
  • Don’t ask 20 firms to bid on a project; Find a list of three to five quality firms that you’ve identified, and ask them to participate.
  • Identify any major technological preferences/requirements ahead of time; If your development team is dead set on a .NET based solution, don’t involve firms that only work in open source.
  • Meet with every vendor; It’s so simple, but is often ignored. I can only put so much into a proposal for you to look at; but, if we sit down, we can have a productive conversation that will give you a much better idea as to my experience and capabilities. This can vastly reduce the amount of time it takes for you to evaluate a vendor. And, this leads right into my next point…
  • Look em in the eye; It’s easy to hide behind technology these days. Emails can be cleverly crafted. Phone calls can be planned out (or unanswered). Even instant messages allow vendors to digest the question and carefully prepare a response. But nothing is as effective as meeting in person and being able to look someone in the eye to determine if they’re someone you can work with. In many cases, you’re looking at a multi-year engagement, so don’t you need to know that you can trust this person before you sign on the dotted line?
  • Who do you do; Problems will pop up during the course of the project, they always do. Be sure to choose a vendor that has experience working on projects of a similar magnitude so that they know how to navigate through these unforeseen changes during the course of the project.
Following those steps can help speed up the selection process, but what happens when you get to a third-and-one with your actual project?

Why Isn’t My Project Moving Faster?
Similar to the course of a football game, there are certain points in every project that are tougher/more critical than others (the third-and-ones if you will). It’s these milestones that often are the cause of delays, whether they’re on the part of the vendor or on the part of the client. While many vendors are smart enough to build padding into their timeline to accommodate unanticipated delays, others will try to win bids by simply proposing the tightest of deadlines.

In either case, here are some things we can do to power through those third-and-one situations:
  • Establish guidelines; When establishing the project timeline, outline both development time and client review time so that everyone has a clear understanding of their responsibilities and the consequences if deadlines are missed.
  • Identify stakeholders; Knowing who needs to sign off on what allows your primary point of contact to set expectations in terms of client review.
  • Don’t call FEMA; Identify a resolution path in the event that scope changes are necessary or the direction of the project changes midstream – this does happen and being prepared for it makes it smoother for everyone involved.
  • Talk, talk, talk; Email/IM/Skype/etc. are nice tools, but none can replace picking up the phone or traveling to meet with your client/vendor. Talking is still the best way to communicate, so do it early and often.
  • Remember, you’re working together; Even the best marriages can end in divorce. It’s important to remember that you’re both working towards the same goal – a successful project where both parties are happy, and that ideally, leads to a long-term relationship. So many projects fail because one side becomes upset with the other and rather than the project experience being an interactive and collaborative one, it becomes one-sided and resentful.
So there you have it, some good plays to call on third-and-one. I know that adhering to these guidelines is in no way a guarantee for success, but it’s certainly a good place to start.

Be sure to let me know what you do to help reduce vendor selection time and reduce project delays by commenting below.

The Tom Crean quote referenced above, when talking about his young Indiana team needing to get tougher:
"My father-in-law equates it to third-and-one in football. Third-and-one on defense, it's the hardest play. Third-and-one on offense, it's the hardest play. Well, there are certain plays at the rim that are like that in the course of a game. But third-and-one or third-and-two, however you want to look at it, when it's 2:28 and it's a four point game, we still have to believe that we're going to win the game. And that's what we've got to grow through." -- Tom Crean on the Hoosiers' reaction to crunch time vs. Penn State. Crean's father-in-law is Jack Harbaugh, father of NFL coaches Jim and John Harbaugh. (source:

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