How do you define project success when you’ve never managed one on your own? The simple answer is to create a roadmap for yourself — one that outlines the parameters, restraints and bandwidth needed to complete the task at hand.
And if you think about it, almost everything you set out to do in life is a project. If it has a beginning and an end, you’re in control of the decisions you make in between.
For example, think about how you handle your weekly grocery trip or how you plan on throwing a surprise party for a loved one. What about tiling the bathroom floor or building a website? Ultimately, all these tasks share similar project planning characteristics. And, if you’re already doing these things on the daily, you’re essentially a project manager already.
However, before one can entertain the idea of successfully managing projects, we must understand what “project success” really means and the reasons projects typically fail. We’ll talk about this in relation to website development projects.
What is “project success?”
Most experts agree that a successful website development project is one that is completed on time, within budget, with a result that meets the agreed-upon business requirements. But this definition only defines success from the client perspective.
It is hardly a success for the website provider if, in order to achieve the above, they put in long hours on nights and weekends ending up with only a portion of the profit they expected to make. Therefore, to include the provider’s perspective, the definition of a successful project, in this context, is as follows.
A successful project is one that is completed on time, within budget and has an end-result that meets the agreed-upon business requirements — without sacrificing profit.
The good news is, by applying proven project management techniques, anyone can consistently achieve project success.
Essential project management terminology
While most project management terminology is simple and self-explanatory, the following terms require further explanation as we look at the related processes.
Deliverable – A tangible work product, delivered on a date and in a state that has been agreed upon by stakeholders. A deliverable can be a physical product, a file or software and doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “deliver” it to the client.
Change management – A process designed to identify, evaluate, and manage requests for change to project resources, timeline, costs, and/or approved deliverables. The primary objective of change management is to control scope creep.
Scope – The boundaries of the project including what will be completed and by whom, as well as what is not included in the project.
Scope creep – How a project’s scope, without some form of control, can change over time, ballooning in size from the original parameters or boundaries.
Risk management – The process used to plan for and minimize risks that may derail a project.
What is the triple constraint?
The triple constraint is the three components of any project — time, scope and cost — that your must manage to achieve a quality end-product (or project success).
To paint a better picture, visualize it as a triangle — with time, scope and cost at the corner sides and quality at the center. Refer to the points of the triangle as the “triple constraint” because a change to one component almost always has an impact on one or more of the other two.
Project management, in a nutshell, employs techniques to help you effectively control the cost, the time, and the scope, so you will end up with a quality product.
The role of the project manager here is simple. It is to control the triple constraint.
Why projects fail
Projects fail because the triple constraint is not effectively managed. In most cases, this can be attributed to one or more of the following:
Unrealistic/incorrect client expectations
Inaccurate/inadequate estimating/not getting paid for all you do
Poorly defined business requirements
Client performance delays
No risk mitigation plan
When it comes to project success, you must keep these points in mind as you begin to build your strategy.
Every website project has a team
Some website providers think project management is only applicable if you have a team. This is because they do not consider the client a team member — and that’s a mistake.
Most clients believe there will be a meeting where they provide you with instructions, so that you can go off and bring back a website. They essentially see you as an “employee” and don’t understand the level of involvement and collaboration required.
So to aim for project success, you must tell them. It is your responsibility to establish, very early in the project life cycle, that:
One way to help your client understand the team approach is to list all the fulfilled roles on a typical project. Include your client’s role and show how you (and your team, if you have one) will fill all the others.
Examples of project roles worth mentioning to clients
The list below includes typical project roles you may not even be aware you are filling:
WordPress environment manager
WordPress web designer
WordPress web developer/builder
Sharing this list with your client is a good way to establish yourself as a colleague and set the proper client expectations regarding what is involved in a website development project. You can find the full list of project roles in the WordPress Project Management 101 course. Guiding principles for project success.
These six principles were developed in the late 1980’s by Keane, Inc. during the heyday of software development, by studying hundreds of both successful and failed projects.
Over the past 30 years technical development methodologies have come and gone. But it has been proven that, when employed consistently, these principles almost always guarantee project success.
Because they were originally devised for software development, we have modified them slightly to apply more relevantly to web design and development. Those modifications are in italics.
1. Define the job in detail with a content-first approach
Determine exactly what work must be done and what tangible results must be delivered. Explicitly evaluate the non-technical environment and customer expectations, then address all areas in writing. Structure all the activities and tasks around the website content collection process.
2. Get the right people resources involved
Involve the entire project team, including the client, from the beginning stages of planning throughout the life of the project. Ensure that each member of the project team participates in defining his or her own goals. Gather the right hosting, themes, plugins and other resources needed to meet the business requirements.
3. Estimate the time and costs often
Develop a detailed estimate of each phase, iteration, or release of the project before undertaking the effort. Estimate the components of a job separately to increase accuracy. Do not estimate what you do not know. Re-estimate the project at pre-defined milestones and when any change request is implemented.
4. Break the job down
Break the job (any job) down into the smallest components possible with the shortest timeframes possible. Ensure that each activity (group of tasks) results in a tangible deliverable.
5. Establish a change procedure
Recognize that change is an inherent part of all projects. Educate the client about this. Establish a formal procedure for dealing with change and ensure that all parties agree to the procedure in advance.
6. Agree on acceptance criteria
Determine, in advance, what will constitute an acceptable outcome. Obtain written acceptances of deliverables throughout the project so that acceptance is a gradual process, rather than a one-time event at the end.
Essential processes for managing the project scope
Managing scope means making sure all the requirements are uncovered before development begins and then vehemently sticking to the agreed-upon scope during the project or invoking a change process.
Scope creep typically happens gradually and usually due to positive intent, such as “over-delivering” or just being a nice person to “throw that in” without charging for it. No matter the reason, performing work that was not planned and for which you are not compensated is never a good idea.
The following processes can help in controlling the project scope at the outset and throughout the project.
2-step proposal and paid discovery process
One of the most common reasons projects fail is due to poorly defined requirements. It often happens like this:
The provider has a one- to two-hour meeting with the client where the project requirements are discussed.
That information is included in a proposal along with a precise estimate which is then accepted.
The provider may have one more discovery meeting with the client or begin development right away.
The provider presents the first deliverable to the client, only to find out there are many more requirements that were not discovered in the initial meetings.
The provider tries to figure out how to adjust the estimate and timeline when it has already been agreed upon.
Some providers overcome this problem by “selling” a discovery project that is separate from the development project which, although effective, can sometimes be a tough sell.
Preparing successful deep dive discovery meetings for clients
The best and easiest way to circumvent this issue and keep the client under contract, is to position Phase 1 as the “deep dive discovery” discussion. This is what it typically looks like:
Set up a chat: The provider has a one to two hour meeting with the client where the project and business requirements are discussed.
Present the information: That information is included in an initial proposal using a range estimate for time and cost with the caveat that a more precise estimate will be provided after Discovery (Phase 1) is complete. The proposal is accepted by the client who pays a deposit that covers Phase 1 only.
Follow-up: The provider then conducts as many deep dive discovery meetings as needed to fully define the website specification. Any new requirements not considered in the initial proposal are added and a new estimate is crafted.
Review options: If the new estimate is within the initial agreed-upon range estimate, the contract remains in force and the project moves to Phase 2. If the new estimate exceeds the initial range estimate, the client is given the option to cancel.
The benefits of the above process are there is less change (and scope creep) after the project begins and if the client decides to cancel (which rarely happens), the provider has been fully compensated for the work performed.
Regardless of the approach, however, an in-depth discovery should take place before a final estimate is crafted and before any development begins.
Requirements definition process
A good requirements definition process goes hand in hand with a proposal process. Present your proposal after all requirements have been fully defined with precise estimates, as previously described.
The most effective process for defining the requirements for a website relies heavily on Principle 4 – breaking the job down. If the process is broken down into the following (or similar) deliverables — each building on the previous and each approved by the client — you can expect fewer missed requirements and change requests.
Visual site map:
Show the pages of the website in hierarchical fashion as they will appear on the website. The purpose is to validate that you have the right pages in the “right” (most intuitive) place.
Use the visual site map as a guide, show the layout of each page or post type using low-fidelity (mostly black and white) placeholders. The purpose is to define a “spot” for each bit of content. These are typically without color because once you incorporate the design, the client rarely focuses on anything else.
Using the page layouts and any existing content as a basis, how much content must be created, gathered, and organized, including text, video, audio, images, and any other necessary data.
The business requirements were approved with the proposal – “what” the website is supposed to do. The functional and technical requirements provide the detail of how the website will meet those business requirements. Writing these in present tense makes it easy to migrate them to test plans later.
Style and branding
After all the other requirements are defined, you will have a much better view of how the style and branding elements should be applied. You can generally do this by updating the wireframe layouts with the company’s logo, color scheme and font selections.
Change control procedure
Change is inevitable on every project.
Whether the client forgot to tell you something, you forgot to ask, or something unexpected happens, change will happen. Therefore, it is wise to embrace change, establish a method for managing it, educate the client about it up front, and invoke it without exception.
Acceptance management process
A good acceptance management process clearly defines what “done” means for the website project as a whole and for each individual deliverable.
The agreed-upon criteria then serve as an approval checklist and prevents last-minute additions because “we thought it included X.”
Essential processes for managing the project cost
Managing costs involves three things:
1. Estimating the initial cost properly
2. Ensuring the overall project costs do not exceed the agreed-upon budget
3. Recieving payments for all the work you do
The following processes can help with all three.
Defend-able estimating process
What if your client asked how you derived the estimate you just presented? Would you feel embarrassed to explain? Of course, we all use “guesstimates” from time to time — especially when we may have never completed the required tasks before.
However, for the most part, an estimating process that uses a repeatable mathematical formula will provide the best estimate.
By breaking the job down to the task level, providing an hourly estimate for each task, and then multiplying it by the hourly rate for the resource, you can be certain that your estimate is as precise as is possible.
The truth is, the only way to get better at estimating is to do it the same way every time. Closely review and compare each one at the completion of the project in order to improve future estimates.
Whatever you do, avoid premature precision. Do not provide estimates until you know what you are estimating and under what criteria.
A well-crafted and consistently-invoked change control process that uses a change budget is essential to controlling costs.
Establishing a change budget at the project outset is important and you should only use this “bucket of invisible money” if there is an approved change. At the time of the change request, the client decides whether to approve the change and move the money from the change budget to the project budget. This reduces frivolous change requests and ensures your payments are timely for all the work you perform.
Content-first development approach
It’s important that clients provide content to your team in a timely manner to avoid major major delays. Receiving incomplete content is a common reason why many projects fall behind. An effective content-first development approach should:
State that no development work begins until completion of content deliverables
Provide client incentives and penalties
Utilizing the same hosting, themes, plugins, and other technical resources, where possible across projects, will save significant time in both the planning and implementing the project.
Most website providers have a “starter site” or “starter set” of resources that, in many cases, provide a bulk license at a lower cost than providing them individually. When implemented properly, this can save money and increase your average return on investment (ROI) significantly.
Essential processes for managing the project timeline
Stuff happens that affects your ability to deliver the project on the originally estimated delivery date. It just does. Ensure the proper processes are in place so that foreseen and unforeseen obstacles don’t hinder your project and adjust the schedule as needed.
And the most important thing here is to ensure the client understands that the timeline is fluid — based on things that occur during the project. Make it clear you do not have a crystal ball and then implement the following processes.
Issues are unforeseen circumstances that have an impact on the project cost, timeline, or resources. Recognizing that issues are likely to occur, a good management plan includes a way to record, track, escalate, and resolve issues.
Similar to issues management, risks include foreseen circumstances that could impact project costs, timeline, or resources if they occur.
Identifying potential risk and defining a mitigation plan at the project outset prevents the ultimate impact to the project timeline (and establishes you are a true professional).
Often, when the client requests a frivolous change, and you invoke the change control process, they will decide against the change which keeps the project on schedule.
If a change request affects the approved timeline, extend the project plan to accommodate the change and remain on schedule.
Because the acceptance management process establishes the turn-around time for all feedback and approvals along with penalties for not meeting the agreed-upon dates, it is an essential part of managing costs on a project.
Essential processes for managing clients
The most important part of client management is the necessary education that must take place at the project outset. This includes all the processes that involve the client during the course of the project.
Where applicable, the individual processes should include incentives for compliance and penalties for non-compliance.
Content-first development approach
As previously mentioned, the most common delays on website development projects are those caused by clients not adhering to the agreed-upon schedule, mostly associated with providing content. Implementing a content-first approach is the best way to manage this client behavior. This means that no development takes place until you receive completed content first, with included incentives.
This plan, agreed upon at the project outset, should specify how communication will take place between all members of the project team, including the client. This is your opportunity to set boundaries and establish an escalation process should issues arise.
Project execution processes
Aim to establish and educate your clients on your project execution processes. Including them in contractual language is critical to their understanding and adherence on how your team manages the project.
How to use project management as a unique value proposition
Once you’ve mastered project success on a consistent bases — meaning you’ve delivered projects on time and within budget — you have a new unique value proposition.
A unique value proposition is that one thing you do that sets you apart from the competition. Because most website providers do not have a cohesive project management methodology, when you show the client you are aware of the pitfalls that most projects experience and that you have processes in place to prevent those, this becomes your unique value proposition.
Key questions to ask yourself:
When you can, answer the following questions and weave the answers into your proposal and contract. You’ll then need to provide this list to your potential client, so they can ask the next potential website provider. Chances are this will set you as the top choice, help you close the sale and set you up for even more project success stories in the future.
How did you arrive at this estimate? Does your estimate include a pad?
How do you discover and document the requirements for the website?
How do you manage the content activities? What happens if we don’t have the content ready when planned?
How do you plan for and manage changes?
Can you determine the cost for change?
Where does the money come from to pay for changes?
How do you handle missed deadlines?
What happens if WE miss a deadline?
What happens if YOU miss a deadline?
What happens if an act of God or some other unavoidable event happens that causes missed deadlines?
What are the criteria for approval of the project?
How will you ensure the project is on time, stays within budget and has all the requested features?
What is your unique value proposition? What makes you the best solution provider?
You can find more templates like this one in the WP Project Manager’s Academy courses.
Final notes for project success
A successful project hits all time deadlines, falls within budget and has an end-result that meets the agreed-upon business requirements (without sacrificing profit). To achieve this, one must effectively control the cost, the time and the scope of the project.
Even if you don’t have a development team, you and your client are a team and it is important to establish yourself as a colleague working together with your client to solve their business problem.
Principles that increase the likelihood of project success are:
Define the job in detail with a content-first approach
Get the right people and equip them with the necessary resources
Estimate the time and costs often
Break the job down
Establish a change procedure
Agree on acceptance criteria
Proven project management processes
The project success principles help shape the following processes below. They are essential in controlling the cost, time, scope and clients on web development projects.
Scope processes should include:
2-Step proposal/paid discovery
Cost processes should include:
Defend-able estimating process
Content-first development approach
Timeline processes should include:
Essential processes for effectively managing clients:
Content-first development approach
Project execution processes (issues, risks, change, acceptance)
Learning to implement project management is key for project success. It’s important you consistently complete projects on time, stick within your budget and meet an end-result that fulfills the agreed-upon business requirements. Use this as your unique value proposition to set yourself apart from the competition and win more deals.