I thought I would cross-post these thoughts I blogged about over on my personal blog as they have direct relevance here a Project X's blog. Hope you enjoy it!
My 7 year old daughter asked me what I meant while I was talking on the phone and used the phrase "Don't try and boil the ocean?" I was working from home and talking to a client and used the term that we are undoubted all familiar with. When I got off the phone she asked me, "Dad, how come you can't boil the ocean?"
I simply said, "It's an expression sweetheart. You know, if you try and do something too large you can't do it. Just like you couldn't boil all the water in the ocean away. Understand?"
She scrunched her nose and I could see she was thinking. Then she replied, "You could if you used mom's pot."
I replied, "A pot would be too small wouldn't it?"
She answered, "Yeah but you would just do it over and over again. One pot at a time."
To this I smiled and chuckled as I reflected on the truth of her statement. It got me thinking about the approach that my consulting group and I take when approaching client problems. Project X leverages a Rapid Results approach, striving to chunk things down into 100 day initiatives that deliver value. In effect, our approach for producing value through short engagements that make up a larger organizational strategy is akin to boiling the ocean one pot at a time.
Trying to "boil the ocean" all at once will undoubted result in an organization realizing that they are under-powered (resources like people, funding, technology, processes). Breaking up large initiatives into manageable "pots" allows an organization to effectively leverage the finite resources it has.
There is a second element to take note of as well. What is important for organizations to realize is that with the pace of change that occurs in markets today, and especially with technology, "boil the ocean" projects take so long to complete, that business value is not realized in a timely fashion.
I have found through experience that projects that are structure across a long period of time tend to break down because people spend a lot of time in meetings & talking about what needs to be done; months will pass and little gets done. Results are expected at the end of the project and project teams see those far off results in the distance and hence the result doesn't shape the process. In shorter term projects, you get results quickly and that allows for two important benefits: 1) learning & 2) renewed capacity.
What do I mean by those benefits. First, learning: When I am on an engagement that is leveraging a rapid results process, these short initiatives allow me to learn. That learning then feeds into the future phases, thus improving future initiatives. Take an example of a project that has been structured to last 9 months. In my approach, I would have had three projects – three opportunities to learn and enhance the next phases. In the single "boil the ocean" type project, you only have a chance to learn once the project has completed. Value is realized too late.
Secondly, renewed capacity. Capacity in this case can mean a number of things. First, it is your resources. A "boil the ocean" project will likely have many moving parts that requires many people. Larger teams are harder to manage. Multiple stream projects are harder to manage. In many cases, staffing a large project can be difficult. By delivering smaller projects in a rapid framework, you can operate with a smaller, more agile team. Secondly, you have the opportunity to realize cost savings through the rapid results approach. This could free up dollars, that could then be used to fund future phases.
These are just two of the main benefits. I will in a future post detail some of the challenges and pitfalls of this approach. Suffice it to say, however, that my experience has been that the benefits far outweigh the challenges.
I would welcome thoughts from others who may have leveraged a rapid-results-type and hear what benefits and disadvantages you may have experienced.