The Hidden Superpower Of Scoping Projects

Taking an incremental approach can de-risk your innovation effort.

William Treseder

November 28, 2022

The art of successfully launching a new project has to do with its scope. Unfortunately, few people pay attention to this critical dimension, and most new projects fail. People who want to launch efforts to modernize, streamline, transform, or otherwise improve their organization will have a much higher chance of success if they scope projects more effectively.

When creating a corporate innovation and change management culture, most organizations focus on the big picture. As a result they prioritize a sense of urgency by elevating leadership buy-in and adopting other best practices. And while these elements are critical, the broader discussion misses a key point.

First and foremost, you must align and set clear expectations upfront. Early efforts focused on securing this information, also known as the “work before the work,” maximizes the benefits and minimizes the costs and risks, while ensuring a project is directionally correct in its goals. And perhaps more importantly, that the project team can deliver against them.

A new project requires many enabling conditions to succeed, but it needs to be able to demonstrate some value before fulfilling these conditions.

For starters, many novices assume the project’s potential value or its highly visible executive sponsorship will somehow remove all obstacles. They plow ahead with a big project, often expanding the scope, budget, and team in response to suggestions from early advocates and senior leaders.

How, then, should a visionary intrapreneur get started?

After launching dozens of innovation projects in risk-averse organizations over the last decade with BMNT, I can tell you this logic is attractive, but deeply flawed. The greater the fanfare and the larger the scope, the more quickly saboteurs emerge and the less likely the project is to survive long-term.

Taking an incremental approach, even to revolutionary ideas, paves the road to success. Dr. John Gall, a brilliant American doctor and complex systems theorist, understood that all complex systems evolve from simpler systems that worked. According to Gall’s Law, pie-in-the-sky concepts are almost doomed to fail unless the scope is kept simple, measurable, and compelling.

Quite often, the missing link is in maintaining an open channel of communication between senior management and the project team before they execute the vision. Scoping a simple project is deceptively hard to do. It begins with an understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and relationships of the stakeholders vested in the project. The scope of the project should expand no wider than the initial group. They will naturally have a much larger vision for what they want to accomplish but must be willing to wait until the project has some evidence of impact before planning an expansion.

This was helpful for an early-stage project tackling supply chain fraud. The team concentrated their efforts on a specific region and the commodities most affected by price fluctuations. They were rewarded with early results that recruited more people into their growing coalition.

A concept is a strategy of pitching outcomes as advocated by corporate innovation expert Greg Larkin. Larkin’s approach is a roadmap for how to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that prioritizes product development initiatives in the name of innovation, to scope the project so the team can get results. The end goal is to use those results to attract more champions and partners, then expand the scope based on the newly enlarged coalition’s remit. Then repeat the process until the broader vision comes to life.

Successful new projects are scoped tightly to focus on solving a single pain point. Once proven, the scope can expand to address adjacent opportunities, often with an expanded coalition of champions, partners, and managers.

The drug discovery process works this way. Laboratory experiments generate the results that justify preclinical trials and human trials, etc. Big Pharma benefits from its disciplined Innovation Pipeline. They would never fund a prototype that had not been vetted by the FDA and yet that’s precisely how most organizations operate.

Several years ago, we worked with a technical team responsible for modernizing long haul trucking logistics. Moving away from paper-based workflows presented an overwhelming number of challenges, so we ran an experiment to replace one specific process. Within a week, the team figured out how to migrate data securely without connectivity. Demonstrating this technique convinced leadership to support the project over other options.

Another powerful technique is scoping projects around a specific problem, rather than a preconceived solution. Many projects start with questions such as “How do we use AI?” and “What are we doing about automation?” This framing will bias a team toward specific solutions when they should be conducting a root cause analysis to better understand the problems they could try to solve. Once they have a firm grip of the problem and how it affects the organization, the team can confidently experiment with solutions.

Such was the case for one project leader who wanted to rebuild his organization’s operations center. He took several months to validate an acute problem with resource planning. This helped him construct a business case and secure a $5,000,000 investment from executives that ultimately redirected $500,000,000 to his visionary model.

Champions of new innovations and ways of working need to embrace the discipline of scoping projects. Demonstrate results quickly based on the roles and responsibilities of the project team, then incrementally expand.

Focus on results at each stage and the broader vision will be closer than you think.

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