Late and Over Budget: What to Do When Your App Project is Dragging

by Jonathan Tarud
Blog Post

What are your key goals for an app development project?

We all want to produce a quality app that resonates well with users, but when it comes to the actual development period of the app, most will want “on time and within budget” to be key goals of the app too.

This really isn’t at odds with producing a high-quality app, as long as the project has been set up well in the first place. Too many companies have found themselves scrambling, with projects late, over-budget or both (we’ve had a number of companies in this situation come and ask for our help).

You can usually tell ahead of time if your project is dragging or if it’s heading off-course, so let’s look at a few suggestions for keeping those development projects on-track:

Know the reasons for being off-track

Why have things gone awry in the first place? We find that it’s rarely the case that projects got off-track due to team incompetence or lack of skill (although of course, that does sometimes happen).

There are often a combination of reasons at play, and if you understand them, you can do more about mitigating the situation. Here are some of the most common reasons we see for development projects being late or over-budget:

#1. Unclear scope

A well-defined scope is an essential element for any sort of project. Unfortunately, a common mistake is to produce a “fluffy” scope for the sake of having one in place, often with incomplete or poorly stated requirements.

What happens when a scope is unclear? The project is either held up because developers and engineers need to ask all sorts of clarifying questions, or because the project keeps morphing as it goes. It’s difficult to understand where the finish line is if the course hasn’t been set.

It’s also difficult for developers to stay within budget if the goalposts keep moving.

If you’re already in this situation, it may be worth calling a halt while you go back to project scope. For any future projects, remember that if there aren’t detailed plans in place, you’re not ready to move onto the next phase. Sometimes we find that people are so eager to get to the development part that they try to skip through important project documentation. Don’t do it if you want to stay on track.

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#2. Project goals or vision are unclear

This ties in with scope, except goes deeper to the overall goals and vision for the project. You should be able to define these very clearly, so that it’s generally understood why the project is important in the first place.

The needs of your end-user should be at the heart of any development project. If they’re not, this is when we find that scope can become more fluid and that projects start to drag out.

Of course, we have to add here, it’s just a bad idea in the first place to skip over clear identification of who your user is and what their needs are. Besides leading to “scope creep” on development projects, failing to account for user needs can lead to a disappointing final result for your app.

If you want your project to go well, the development team needs to understand the core goals for the project well. They should know who it is they are developing for so they have the opportunity to do justice to the project.

#3. Slow feedback

Sometimes projects suffer because key stakeholders are either slow to get back with required feedback, or they’ve disengaged completely. In some of the worst cases we’ve seen, a key person disappears for the duration of the project, only to pop back up with multiple change requests right at the end.

To be blunt, you can’t expect any project to be on time and within budget if you’re not prepared to give timely feedback as needed. We’ve seen projects where, had feedback been given early, it would have saved weeks of additional work and required funds.

Occasionally (especially in larger companies), this kind of scenario occurs because there are so many different stakeholders involved. Where this is the case, we would always suggest one key project liaison from the stakeholders who is responsible for ensuring that they’re all kept informed and that feedback is timely.

#4. Issues weren’t discussed soon enough

Good communication is a must throughout any development project, and goes for both the development team and the project owner. We’ve seen projects where developers didn’t want to raise important issues early because the focus was just on “making progress.” It’s much easier to make progress on simpler parts of the project and sometimes the mistake is made to leave those complex features and issues until later.

This is when the project ends up late. If the issue is complex, it can run over-budget too.

It’s important to create an environment from the very beginning which welcomes issues being raised and encourages anything major to be brought up sooner rather than later.

#5. Poor project tracking

It doesn’t matter which project methodology is being used, project tracking is important and should be monitored closely by the project manager. When this monitoring is lacking, projects can head off-course quite quickly.

At Koombea, we prefer agile development methodology. We’ve found that there’s a common misconception with agile that it avoids long-term planning. From this perspective, people may also think that there’s not a lot of sense in road-mapping and tracking.

This simply isn’t the case. It’s still important to have high-level goals and a clear target audience, along with regular check-ins on the project. We schedule ours weekly as we work in five-day sprints.

Getting back on track

Now that you’ve examined what’s been going wrong to get your project off-track, it’s time to take some steps to steer it back in the right direction.

Here are some possible strategies:

#1. Problem-solve based on the issues

You’ve got to know why things have gone off-course before you can offer solutions, so understanding the root cause is important. Remember that root cause can go deeper than first appearances might suggest, so work to get to the bottom of it.

The “Five Why’s” technique can help with this. It is essentially a method of starting with the problem and asking “why” until you reach an underlying answer. For example:

“Why is the project late? Because Bob delivered X late.”

“Why did Bob deliver X late? Because he didn’t have the complete specifications on time.”

“Why didn’t he have the complete specifications on time? Because the project owner didn’t respond to queries.”

… and so on.

Just beware that information-gathering like this is prone to deteriorating into finger-pointing. Don’t allow this to happen as it’s not constructive for reaching a solution.

#2. Review your scope and project goals

This will almost always be necessary where projects are late. Review the original plan, including the business case for the project and ensure that:

  • The business case is valid.
  • The project goals are clear.
  • The scope is unambiguous.
  • The end user and their needs are clearly defined.
  • There aren’t requirements added in which are just “fattening” the project.

#3. Review people resources

Are the right people doing the right tasks? Sometimes throwing more people at a project only creates more bottlenecks. A good place to start is with your current resources and identifying if they’re being used appropriately.

If delays have occurred due to the project owner or stakeholders being slow to get back, consider whether it might be better to appoint a core project liaison.

#4. Review project processes

Where are the sticking points? Could communication or other issues be handled in a different way to achieve a better result?

An example here is those reviews where feedback is slow from stakeholders. Sometimes it’s much easier to arrange a meeting with everyone at once, go around the table and ensure that issues are taken care of in that one session.

If it’s a case of project tracking gone awry, set it straight with a clear schedule.

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#5. Stay engaged

Keep following good management practices throughout and stay engaged with the project. It can be easy to panic about project delays and get caught up in “doing” in the project, but that overall management needs to stay in place.

Staying on target…

Most of us have experienced those projects which went completely awry and ended up taking longer or costing more, but if you’re savvy about it, you can guide projects back on track.

Know the warning signs early and stay engaged with the project. Look out for clearly defined scope, as well as project goals and user needs.

As a last tip, remember that projects are always dependent on people. Good people skills such as encouraging a communicative environment where all feedback is considered will help to ensure that any issues are raised early.

At Koombea, we create top quality apps following a proven process. Talk to us today about how we can help with your app project.

by Jonathan Tarud
Blog Post