The Nine Serial Project Killers of a Digital Campaign

Earlier this year Peter Mayer from Pelicam and Alan Thompson from the Haystack Groupaddressed a group of senior marketers from the Financial Services Forum to discuss the challenges in managing complex projects. In the past, running a marketing campaign was a relatively simple affair; the business or brand would employ a creative and a media agency and between them virtually any campaign could be managed, from ads to packaging.

However over recent years, this picture has changed considerably. There may be a host of agencies - digital, PR, CRM, and direct in addition to the traditional creative and media agencies. To complicate matters, new agencies are springing up to manage new media - social media, smartphone apps, and so on.

Pelicam’s research of nine serial project killers apply to digital marketing projects in the same way as a business or IT project.    These nine serial project ‘killers’ can delay, derail or even destroy any digital project.

It’s often said that an error discovered in test is 100 times the cost of one found in design. We have found this to be absolutely true whilst working with brands to help roll-out campaigns over a decade of project work.

Can project management be the answer to cracking digital campaigns?

We think the best way to manage a great campaign is to develop ‘Project Intelligence’, where the impact of different cultures, skills and mindsets can be assessed and juggled. It is key to deciding what’s important and knowing what action needs to be taken. Good project people will understand this, see the complexity and plot a path through the serial killers: 

Establishing Dependencies - lacking in 92% of projects

To plot how different parts of a project have an impact on one another, three steps can be found in any marketing manual:

● Understand what needs to be delivered and how;

● Understand the sequence of tasks and how each impact on the next;

● Define dependencies, for example have prototypes delivered before they can be tested.  

However, there is a fourth step usually omitted - go through it all again -weekly.

Simple on paper! When you have multiple work-streams, suppliers and departments, such simple relationships evaporate. Plotting a diagram to show dependencies can be a difficult task and in the end can resemble spaghetti. This could account for why so few projects are mapped. But you should always strive to map dependencies and understand where the weak points are.  

Poor Stakeholder Engagement - 84% of projects

A Native American expression goes something like this “to know a man you need to walk a mile in his shoes”. This has applications to getting stakeholders on-board and your project completed.

Get your head around the perspectives of stakeholders and communicate as much as you can usefully. Make sure this is part of the central plan, not a peripheral endeavour.

Even more useful to your project: map not the influence and importance of stakeholders, but their influence and interest in the project. This way, you can eke out those who may not have much influence, but could cause massive problems for you if they are not managed. Once your stakeholders are categorised, develop a communications strategy to manage them.  

Disjointed Planning - 84% of projects  

The easiest way to plan is to load information into a Gantt chart. Job done?

One organisation we worked with had 10,000 individual parts mapped on the Gantt chart. Our first step was to persuade them to put this plan into the bin. This can be a difficult area - to map a project minutely gives great reassurance but it will not be realistic.

Map your project simply on a single piece of A4 paper. If this seems impossible, you should be worried.

Test the ‘Islands of Stability’ concept - chunk-up projects into manageable sections with its own benefits, so if the project was to stop there, there would be a measurable benefit.  

Uncertain Quality Targets - 82% of projects

One of the most subversive killers. This could be down to a failure to ask the right questions.

Consider the Millennium Bridge - still known to Londoners as the ‘Wobbly Bridge’. The project had so much going for it - linking the City with the arts at the Tate Modern, a stunning design and enthusiasm from everyone involved and the general public.

But, pedestrians found the completed bridge to bounce in an alarming way, terrifying them. News reports carried pictures of petrified pedestrians clinging to the floor as if their lives depended on it. Considered acceptable by the design and delivery team, and ‘perfectly safe’ on a desktop model, everyone else regarded this as an obvious and rather embarrassing failure. The structure was soon closed for 2 years and re-engineered to take the bounce out.

Make sure what is acceptable to you and to your team is also acceptable to the end user, and define acceptance criteria. Be explicit: make sure there are no ambiguities or missing or incomplete factors when considering these criteria.  

Risk Issue and Change Management - 76% of projects

Darwin wrote in ‘The Origin of Species’: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,” which is the simple definition of survival of the fittest.

This does not mean your project needs change for the sake of change. Another quote puts this in context, this time from Dr Martin Luther King Jr: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can't ride you unless your back is bent."

So, to make change work for you. You need to be in control.

This has relevance for changing the scope of a project. If more is to be added to the project scope, consider very carefully how this will change the overall project.

On the risk side, there is a tendency to go through risk processes, but not consider the actual risk. Many projects end up dealing with the effects of risk when they arrive - like dealing with the symptoms of a disease, but not the disease itself.  

Inconsistent Governance - 68% of projects

This refers to the killers within - those delivering a project who may be strangling it. This is unlikely to be intentional, and could happen through changing roles or personnel, changing organisational structures, shifting performance indicators or short sighted decision making.

But these are the types of situation where project managers earn their stripes - keeping the project on-track and under control. Victory could even mean closing the project - every project should have an end plan built-in.

Remember that you either deliver your project and everyone is happy, or you bring it to a close, but plan for both possibilities.

This digital killer is linked to the management of stakeholders. Be careful of too many stakeholders, and of stakeholders falling away, of complicated organisations, lots of organisational change, disrespect for project managers and particularly long meetings. 

Poor Work Package Management - 68% of projects

The definition is the ‘Passing the responsibility of completing a product (or work) to another party.’

Done by the book, this is a simple procedure. Be careful of making arrangements on a ‘mates’ basis, without clear delivery contracts. Vague terms like ‘partnerships’ between other companies or government departments can lead you down this path. Make sure everyone knows what the project goals are and ‘partners’ are tied to clear timetables. 

No Business Case - 66% of projects

Is what you are doing going to achieve anything? Often, projects without a business case are portrayed as ‘no-brainers’. Be very careful here.

Clues are out there. For example, if a business sponsor is difficult to find or non-existent then alarm bells should ring. The same if there is just one solution proposed. It could be that an alternative and perhaps non-technical (perhaps cheaper) solution has not even been considered.

There may be a wonderful solution floating around just looking for a problem to take it on. Be careful here too. Conversely, the problem may be clear from a corporate strategy, but the alignment of the two may not be easy.

Finally, business benefits may be unspecific, intangible or based on a specific possible future scenario that may well never materialise. Equally, there could be massive theoretical benefits that fall apart under scrutiny or when compared to costs. Even if you have managed the project well, you may still need the support and involvement of a senior executive to make sure the outcome is adopted across the company.  

Compromised Testing - 66% of projects

If live projects fail straight away, then the testing schedule has failed. One example could be the phenomenally complex baggage handling system at Heathrow Terminal 5, which turned into two days of fiasco when opened.

Try to test the strategy at the definition stage, and get users involved early on. Make sure responsibilities are clear and your suppliers are on-board and happy to commit to what you are trying to do.

Finally, plan for contingencies - try to break the system you have to find weak points.  

In summary:

We find these nine digital killers are those that hit digital projects again and again.   Download our nine serial project killer factsheet to help you to focus on what to avoid when running a digital project.