project management

What Technical Debt Can Teach Business Owners About Project Management

It’s one of the most epic (and horrific) examples of a shortcut gone wrong.

In May of 1846, approximately 90 people set out from Springfield, Illinois. They were headed for California, and they seem to have been an optimistic bunch. Rather than sticking to the normal route for the journey, their leaders choose an alternate course. They would cut south, opting to traverse the desert rather than hook north around the Great Salt Lake.

But the shortcut didn’t pay off. Not at all.

Instead of shortening their trip, the untested route left them stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the dead of winter. In the end, only half of them made it to the West Coast. And those that made it brought with them a dark secret—to survive, they had to resort to cannibalism.

Perhaps you’ve heard of this trek gone wrong. After all, references to the Donner Party are still common.

The downside of shortcuts.

Who doesn’t like the idea of a shortcut? Whether we’re talking about keyboard shortcuts that make common tech tasks faster or a little-known side road that shaves 10 minutes off your daily commute, shortcuts are kind of awesome.

When they work.

But when they don’t, shortcut-takers pay a high price. Tasks take longer. Projects cost more. Budgets get blown. Cutting corners at the wrong time can cost you big. Technical debt is a prime example.

What is “technical debt”?

If you don’t work in the IT industry, you may not be familiar with the phrase. On first glance, you might mistakenly assume it means debt businesses acquire purchasing technical equipment and services. That’s not a bad guess, but that’s not what it means.

Technical debt is an insider term. Here’s the official definition: “Technical debt is a concept in programming that reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.”

In other words, technical debt is about time.

When coders use quick, sloppy code just to get the job done (instead of using forward-thinking, efficient code that will work better in the long run), things can get messy down the line. Often, this results in the need for massive overhauls later.

Like the route the Donner Party chose, technical debt is a shortcut that costs more in the end. Okay, but what if you don’t work in technology?

Fair question. The literal meaning of technical debt may not apply to you—but the best practices coders use to avoid technical debt apply to every business leader out there.

Including you.

Efficient project management is good. Shortcuts are (often) bad.

Whether you’re traveling from Illinois to California, coding the latest smartphone app, or retooling your company’s internal processes, effective project management often comes down to a delicate balancing act.

You have to take into account time, resources and expenses and leverage those against the expected benefits. If you can’t keep costs below profit, there goes ROI . . . no matter how amazing the projected outcome.

Sure, there are times when select, strategic shortcuts might be a good thing. But before you decide to cut a couple of corners, give some serious thought to the long-term impact. If “the fast way” is going to bite you in the butt next year, maybe it’s not worth it after all.

The unskippable steps.

In the world of project management, there are five distinct phases to every project. No matter the scale, department or outcome, every single one of these steps is a must-have. If you skip any of them, you’re asking for trouble later.

And we feel compelled to make an important distinction here. Some of the steps (like the first one—see below) may tempt you to make some assumptions. The moment you start to think, “Well, of course all the stakeholders see the value of . . .”, STOP YOURSELF.

Assumption is a type of shortcut. Don’t just tick these steps off mentally for yourself. Engage in every step with your team.

1. Initiating

Every effective project starts with discussion. All involved parties should openly consider the value of the potential project, the expected outcomes, and the metrics by which success will be measured.

Note the phrase “potential project.” During this phase, the project hasn’t really launched yet. Rather, it’s on the launch pad. This is when you decide if this rocket is worth the fuel it’ll take to get it in the air.

2. Planning

When everyone agrees on the scope, goals and metrics of the project, you’re ready to get started. Now it’s time to plan the budget, the timeline, the necessary resources and even the obstacles you may encounter along the way.

Keep your guard up against sloppy shortcuts. Getting Dave’s brother to run cabling over the weekend because he’s kind of a geek might be cheaper, but boy, oh boy, can that come back to haunt you.

If you make it this far and feel the project is worthwhile but maybe a little bigger than you’re ready to handle on your own, consider enlisting the help of a business consulting firm to ensure success.

3. Executing

Once you have buy-in and a plan, you’re ready to implement. Gather your resources, allocate funds, prep all included personnel and get going.

4. Controlling

Stages 3 and 4 overlap a bit. As you’re implementing the project, you’ll need to keep tabs on the schedule, budget and real-time outcomes.

Once again, beware of assumptions. Don’t be passive during this phase. It’s absolutely possible for the entire project to derail without anyone making a fuss. Rather than waiting for someone to tell you something’s amiss, be proactive.

Track everything. Meet regularly. Safeguard success by staying on top of each and every task.

5. Closing

When all the tasks are completed, you’re still not quite done. Now it’s time for two critical follow-ups.

First, evaluate the success and efficiency of the project. What went really well? What could have gone better? What lessons did you learn during this project that can make your next project even better?

Second, document it all. Make sure there’s a clear record of the budget, plans, steps in execution and post-project evaluation. All that information will play a significant role in the planning phase of your next project.

Take your project management from good to great.

These five steps are the core of project management strategy. With them, you have a solid foundation for tackling your own projects—whether you do that on your own or with the cooperative help of a consultant.

If shortcuts are the death of otherwise effective projects, these five steps are as close as you can get to a guarantee of success.