One of the topics I’ve obsessed on more and more over the years is the way development succeeds or fails. It’s always felt somehow fatalistic – as if there were forces beyond my control at work. I started off thinking it was what happened during a project. Then later, I adjusted this to focusing on what happened before the project started – strategy, scope/timing decisions, decision-making structure, etc. Lately though (and fueled in good measure by a panel discussion between ISF and SIM I participated on), I’ve adjusted this again to focus on the question of business sponsorship.
There is no single greater success factor to online development than the influence of its business owner. It’s that simple.
Here’s why: the factors preceeding and surrounding a project *do* determine the outcome, and it’s the business sponsor who creates those conditions. The sponsor is the one who makes the most important of all decisions – scope/time. The sponsor is the one who needs to make or approve critical decisions. The sponsor’s the one who needs to run political cover where needed, smoothing obstacles beyond the project lead’s scope of empowerment (and let’s face it, “influence” only goes so far as a conflict resolution tool).
When I think back to every project I’ve worked, probably 90% of them have started in jeopardy for lack of the right sponsorship involvement. Almost always, unrealistic scope/time decisions are the first step down a wrong path. Lack of strategic clarity is right there at the start to increase the risk and ensure a stream of constant changes throughout the project. (Note to Agilists – I just don’t buy that requirements need to change all the time – if the right work is done on the front end, the right answers are reached, and why should those change?) Then you usually have a lack of clearly defined decision-making structure that makes it much harder to stick to already aggressive timelines. Huge amounts of time can be wasted spinning wheels, when the right planning and a little discipline could make this routine and speedy.
Part of the issue is that Internet development is an inseparable hybrid of marketing/business and technology. This means that someone with a business and/or marketing background usually finds themselves in the role of business sponsor. They usually won’t have had the years of hands-on experience to learn all the painful lessons that we Internet specialists have acquired. And there’s also what seems to be a prevailing sense that force of will can overcome obstacles – it can, but there are limits (or maybe risks is a better word) when it comes to development. And then of course there’s the fact that everyone’s an Internet user, so everyone has an opinion. A CMO once remarked to me that no one at the executive table has an opinion about database architecture, but everyone feels free to opine about the choice of colors on a brochure. Same thing here – in spades.
So how does this get resolved? Those of us who require the sponsorship need to improve our ability to communicate to this mindset. Don’t just say, “it can’t be done.” Provide data, details, choices, tradeoffs to show that you’re not putting a finger on the scale or just being obstinate. There’s also been enough time now for Internet specialists to climb the ranks and assume roles that place them in the sponsor’s seat. You also get sponsors who’ve had their own painful experiences and learned to respect the process a bit more. But at the end of the day, this is something that will be with us for a while to come. If all else fails, a good belt of whiskey works wonders…
- Dan Leeds, firstname.lastname@example.org -