About PM4Web

The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

19 November, 2010

10 Tips for Keeping Momentum on Web Projects

Tricks for avoiding stagnation and block points on a web project.

There are many hidden perils lurking in the midst of a web project. So many little devils which conspire against you delivering on time. The nature of a project is that it is a unique undertaking, so unless you can see into the future, chances are there will be hiccups along the way.

If we know there is trouble on the horizon, then we can be prepared. The idea isn't just to have a plan ready for dealing with what maladies may befall your project, but also to use strategies to nip things in the bud before they become a problem.

To that end, I present 10 techniques I use to keep things moving along smoothly on a project. Some of these may seem counter-intuitive at first, so you will have to use your best judgment about what approaches you feel comfortable using.

Before I get into the meat of the article, I should say I'm not covering obvious things like 'use a project schedule' and 'write a spec' - if you aren't already doing that, then no amount of clever tricks will save you.

1. Get the ball rolling early on things involving third parties - a good example is live hosting, you can get seriously bogged down if you leave this until just prior to launch. If you don't have full control over the server it makes you heavily reliant on tech support to do things for you. Another example is e-commerce gateway integration. Do you really want to wait until the last minute to find out if your code is talking to the gateway provider's server properly?

2. Have settings accessible via the CMS - I've found it's preferable to have settings adjustable via the CMS rather than have them in code or in a string table. Options like Google Analytics script code could be placed inside a System Settings or Website Configuration page. Doing this lets non-technical people deal with last minute changes.

3. When there's two ways to code a simple feature, code them both rather than wait for approval - if the features each take only 15 minutes to implement, just code them both and enable one. You have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. If the client decides they'd rather have it the other way around, you switch on the alternate option (preferably via a setting in the CMS). The amount of effort you would expend going back and forth to get a concrete decision from the client is probably going to exceed the 15 minutes it would take to just code the alternate feature.

4. Put in the wrong content - this may sound counter-intuitive and you'd expect it to lead to an unhappy customer every time (but it doesn't, most of the time). This is only for preview/staging versions of the client's project, not their live site. If the client hasn't made content available to you, then use the closest match. Something off their old website perhaps, or workable place-holder text. This does one of two things; the client may say "hey, that's the wrong text", to which you reply "OK, can you give me the correct text please?", or it gets them started by providing a basis to work from (as opposed to starting from scratch).

5. Have a change request budget - this concept is straight out of PRINCE2 methodology. It basically says when you make a fee proposal/tender, include a chunk of budget for unexpected features. So for an eighty hour project, I would have between 5-10 hours of change request budget. The good thing about this is when the client asks for something off-spec, you don't have to wait for approval or try and convince them to pay for it (they already have). It can also help cut down on admin tasks since you don't have to track the item for inclusion in a future invoice.

6. Get clients thinking about what they hadn't thought about, early - a good example of this would be a social media strategy utilising Facebook (assuming it's appropriate for the business). A client may not have thought about Facebook, bringing it up early may have them saying "hey, I hadn't thought of that". That gives you time to provide them with some advice or reading material. Leaving it to the last minute may throw them off, they may even decide to delay launch to consider social media options.

7. Don't just offer options, offer a recommendation - if you talk to a client about a feature where there's two or more paths to choose from, first describe the available options, then the pros and cons for each, and finally make a recommendation on what's most suitable and why. This helps clients who are cautious of making a decision because they don't understand the technology at play. An example would be if a client asked whether its better to integrate a blog into their website or use a well-established one like Blogger.

8. Use a bug tracking system - scope creep can seriously side-track a project, potentially delaying the original launch date considerably. An issue management system lets you deal with off-spec features in a controlled way. If a client asks for a feature and you say no, that's just bad customer service. If you say yes to everything, you'll be coding forever. Instead, if you say "yes, but its been flagged for post launch implementation", you should be able to segment off features for future coding. Unfortunately this doesn't always work, sometimes clients are adamant that a feature needs to be included immediately.

9. Start early on tasks which require client approval - an example of this would be a storyboard for a Flash animation. The client may need a few days to review the document. Connected to this tip is starting early on things which only the client can do. A good example would be applying for an Internet merchant account. The bank will most likely only deal directly with the client due to security considerations.

10. Begin some work before the project deposit arrives - if you're fairly certain the project is going to proceed, do a couple of hours work even before the deposit has arrived. This would be stuff like preparing the project folder, checking that the domain delegation details the client has provided actually work, minor things (but no coding). This gives you a head-start on the project, its creating momentum from the get-go.

Dilbert - project plan for 10 second task

Keeping momentum on a project isn't just about following documented procedures. The role of creativity and a willingness to take risks shouldn't be underestimated. Novel solutions which produce results are either praised or go unnoticed, whilst failures may attract negative feedback. The trick is for your successes to significantly outweigh your failures.

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