Projects Suck; Do Products Instead!

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With the vacation in the Nordics largely over, I have had the opportunity again to spend time with several companies over the last week. I noticed a pattern that I had seen before but didn’t really reflect upon: whenever a company that I work with is experiencing difficulty in changing to where they want to be, preparing for the future in some way or otherwise drive improvements, its main organizing principle was to structure work around projects. Even if the result of a project is a product, the project mindset was prevalent.

A project mindset implies at least three things. First, the project team’s goal and mission is to successfully deliver on the goal of the project at the expense of everything else. Second, any improvement that does not provide immediate benefit to the project itself is not implemented. Third, any risk to the project that can be mitigated and removed without negatively affecting the outcome of the project is avoided.

The result of the project mindset is a situation where change, transformation and improvements come to a complete standstill. Each project ongoing inside the company applies the project mindset and refuses to take a long term perspective or accept risks that come with doing things different from how we have been doing them before. And the more successful the company, the more projects are ongoing and the more resource constraints we have, the worse short-termism gets. Improvements that clearly benefit the company overall, but that can’t be amortized within the context of an individual project don’t happen!

Interestingly, the companies where I observe this project mindset actually deliver products to their customers as a result of their projects. However, there is little ownership of the long term evolution of the product portfolio. The solution, obviously, is to adopt a product or rather product line mindset. Ideally each product is “just” a side effect of the constant evolution of the product line. The project to create a specific product for a specific customer (or customer segment) ideally consists of selecting the components from the product line that are optimal for the specific set of requirements, preferably configuring these components and minimizing the customization, verifying the result and, finally, delivering the result.

A product (line) mindset is ambidextrous in that it balances short-term project needs with a long-term company needs. It can afford to invest in improvements that benefit all projects, even if the cost can’t be carried by a single project. And it can afford to take risks as the worst case situation is that a next version of a component in the product line is delayed or fails to materialize. In that case, the projects will have to select among the existing components, but at least there is an alternative.

Concluding, although the title of this article blames projects, it really is the project mindset that is causing surprisingly much damage. The product (line) mindset is superior, being ambidextrous, constantly taking on improvements as well as necessary risks. Even if the project mindset often feel good due to the dopamine kick in our mammal brains when finishing something, this is one of those cases where perception is not equal to reality. When it comes to long-term success, you need a product (line) mindset.

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