You don’t need just one green light for a project

Every so often someone asks me, “So, have we got the green light for Project Blah?” There is always some project that’s particularly exciting, and anticipated by team members, and they’re keen to get approval from senior management.

Sometimes the answer to the question is simple: Yes, the budget has been confirmed, the following people are going to be working on it, and we expect to have everyone available on this date.

But often it’s more complicated than that. Any project takes time to form; it’s an idea that coalesces and evolves over time. There is an initial idea, but there are questions to be answered. How will it interact with System X? What research have we done about the current user need? Do we agree on our success measures? How does it fit into and balance our organisational strategy? What do we get, and when? What if…? More stakeholders are recognised; more questions get raised, more answers are needed. Very likely some initial assumptions are found to be wrong and some rethinking is needed.

As the project progresses in its evolution, and more questions need to be answered, more resource is needed to answer those questions. That means people, time and money. Now we need some user research, now we need a technical assessmement, now a competitor survey… Even before the project can “start” it’s starting to cost time and money.

That’s why I often find myself working with a “product kanban board” or similarly-named tool. This is a way of visualising the progress of any project, from vague idea to fully-resourced commitment. There may be any number of stages between the two ends. The Scaled Agile Framework shows this in the first three columns of their “Program kanban”. They have just three columns (any idea, analysis, ready), but I’ve worked with boards that have six or seven columns. These may be things like, “product manager assigned”, “user research”, “budget estimated with 90% confidence”, and so on. A shift of a project from one column to the next is an indication (by the relevant governance group) that (a) the relevant work has been done so far, and (b) we will allocate some new time/money/people to help it achieve the next step.

If a project reaches the final stage it means that it, among all the other proposals so far, is ready for implementation, with all the costs, time, people and expectations that are associated with that.

Photo by yosuke muroya