Avoid a common I.T. problem: filming the movie without a script

So you are an experienced film producer, you have filmed dozens of shows before, you know all the mechanics and techniques needed. You then land a new project that will take nine months to film. What’s the first thing to do? Start filming, no time to waste! You get on set and the actors say “uh, what are my lines?”

Yes, information technology often films before scripts

Filming a movie without a script is ridiculous, but this is often how information technology projects roll out. Developers have experience in specific technologies and toolkits and see a project in terms of “how much time do we have” and that naturally leads to rolling their sleeves up and getting going. But as common as that is, it is also typical for development projects to take longer than planned, take more money than budgeted, require significant re-work, miss deadlines, and fail to deliver what the users need.

User requirements are not sufficient to solve the problem

The common way attempted to deal with this problem is to gather “user requirements.” Interviewing end-users to identify their list of needs so that the solution can handle them. This step is required of course, but is it sufficient? Not in my experience.

There is another disconnect to deal with: end-users are not developers and do not have the same foundation when thinking about technology projects. All too often the user’s needs are not matched well with the available tools and techniques. Even more important, end users also have a very significant hurdle when asked to imagine what the solution should look like. End users rarely know “exactly what they want.”

A better method is to “Road Map” the solution… before coding anything

Working on large scale information technology projects in the pharma industry for many years I faced this problem over and over. To deal with it I evolved a strategy of writing the script first, which I call the “Road Map.” The basic concept is to not only gather user requirements but then to mock-up the entire project — every screen, every field, every rule, every requirement — in a PowerPoint deck.

The road map’s mock-up of every screen allows end users to visually grapple with the project and give essential input to shape the project before coding.

The road map I try to deliver is not overly technical, the primary audience is the end-user, not the development team. But when it is complete it is the script for the film we are to make. Developers can then deliver exactly what is depicted in the road map and upon roll out the end-users get exactly what they expect. In addition, time and budget expectations are far more accurate if a road map is done first.

So to accomplish the road map you have to commit to a longer-than-normal process of requirements gathering. It is not uncommon for a road map to take several months to build. This is one of the largest hurdles for people new to the process to accept as it feels like “real progress” is not happening since things are not being coded. But Abe said it best:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Abraham Lincoln

Solving the multi-year, seventeen-attempts-that-failed dilemma

In an excellent example of a road map success, I once was asked to solve a problem for a large pharmaceutical company. They wanted to track new operating system and software releases and what applications could be impacted and required testing, on a global scale for 15,000 users with complex and varied system configurations. They had attempted this no less than seventeen different times with solutions ranging from local attempts to high-end consulting firms and still had no working system for the next major rollout.

In the course of a few months, my team developed a road map, and we were able to execute on that script and deliver a robust custom solution that solved the problem and led to global implementation. Well-received the application went through many enhancements using a similar road map process to keep all the numerous stakeholders informed and satisfied with each feature rollout.

Give it a go on your next project: write your script before you start filming!