If you manage projects of any type, you know what thrashing is. Thrashing is changing things on a project. It’s to beat on a design (or concept) via criticism and feedback. With thrashing, timing is everything. There’s an appropriate time for edits and then there’s a terrible (and expensive) time for edits. If thrashing happens early in a project, thrashing is a beautiful thing. But when the timing is bad and the edits come at the last minute right before launch, then you have a problem. This is when thrashing becomes the enemy of every project manager, because it will push deadlines and jam extraneous shit into your projects at the very last minute.
Regardless of whether it’s a software build, print ad, or website design, this is a natural part of all projects. If you want to manage creative projects, you need to have great respect for thrashing because it is a powerful force. Seth Godin puts it best:
Here’s what happens on almost every software project. Someone comes up with a software idea to make. They hire programmers and they start building it. Then about three months before the project ships, other people start to get involved. Other people want to look at the UI. Other people start weighing in. About two months before it ships, thrashing occurs, people start pulling things out, and putting things in. And the closer you get to deadline, the more thrashing occurs. The more cycles get extended, the more work gets put into it. Until eventually you ship not on time and not on budget. What smart programming shops like Microsoft have adopted, is that they must thrash in the beginning, when it’s cheap and easy. They insist on thrashing early. Because they know their job is to ship. – Seth Godin
Watch the full Seth Godin video on thrashing here, at around the 5:30 mark. He reminds us that thrashing late is no less than sabotage, and that our jobs as creatives and project managers should be about finishing (shipping), not starting.
A project manager who can’t get a project shipped is doing a disservice to their clients and an even greater disservice to their agency. What’s important is to focus on how to efficiently ship projects. To get them out the door, so you can do it again. And again. To do this you will need an iron clad process, and the discipline to continually follow the process, every single time, at all costs.
Process & Discipline
It’s one thing to have a process. Everyone has a process. It’s another thing altogether to have the discipline to follow that process. The military and police departments follow set processes in order to maintain safety, because processes only work if they’re followed every time. This last part is worth repeating, processes only work if they’re followed every time.
James Fyfe, is head of training for the NYPD, and trains his officers to follow a process that requires them to act with time on their side, so they can slow the situation down. He wants his officers to follow the processes and procedures they were trained in (such as taking advantage of available cover and calling for backup) before acting. They are trained, at all costs, to avoid making decisions based on reflexes (not following process). “If you have to rely on your reflexes, someone is going to get hurt — and get hurt unnecessarily.” Says Fyfe, “if you take advantage of intelligence and cover, you will almost never have to make an instinctive decision.”
If you have a process in place, then you’ve won half the battle of controlling thrashing. But if your process is not followed, or is routinely abandoned then the process is rendered useless. Even if the process is slightly deviated from it renders the process ineffective, and if you’ve managed processes before you know exactly what this looks like. It starts with “Well, that’s not our typical process, but we’re happy to make an exception…” Remember processes only work if they’re followed every time.
Break The Process = Break The End Product
Your client or customer has likely chosen to hire you because they like what your end products look like. They hired you because you are the expert. This is important to keep in mind. Say the client loves the end product you delivered for company x and they hire you because of it. Then towards the end of the project, client thrashing occurs, which is not part of your process. This is a crucial moment. This is a time to review objectives, the client wants a product just like company x, that’s the objective, but now they want you deviate from the process that allowed you deliver company x’s enviable product. This is not the client’s fault, this is a natural occurrence on creative projects. Remember, you are the expert, and as the expert you follow a process in order to deliver your superior product. Deviating from your proven process based on client requests is not how experts act. So bring it back to objectives, you want our superior product? This is how we get there, trust us, this is our proven process.
Why You Need a Process to Deal With Thrashing
Here’s why you should control thrashing through a solid and respected process:
- To Manage Time — You have a schedule that was set before the project began. When new requests/edits come in mid-project, having a solid process provides you with a framework on how to deal with those requests/edits. Generally, requesting new work within an already approved project should result in pushing the schedule, and cost. Always trying to go above and beyond to secure trust and credibility with customers or clients leads to sacrificing valuable time, and eventually diluting the value of the overall project.
- To Stay Focused — Saying yes is easy. Anyone can say yes. Everyone says yes. The customer or client asks, can you do this too? And you say yes. This is how businesses spread themselves too thin. Businesses hate saying “No” because they don’t want to disappoint their customers — and saying yes makes them feel like they are going above and beyond the call of duty (not to mention the project’s scope). However, allowing thrashing midway through the project compromises your focus, and it compromises your ability to hit your original deadline/budget, which therefore compromises your relationship with your customers. Many will come to learn that “done is better than perfect.”
- To Maintain Credibility — Miss deadlines much? Over promise clients/customers things and then fail to make them happen? If you allow thrashing to occur you compromise your ability to deliver on your promises. Every time you under-deliver, you chip away at your credibility.
- To Maintain Value — Many times, late in the game thrashing is chuck full of “making this different” edits. Think about it. With each round of new edits, ask “am I making this better, or just different?” Are you making edits that change things on a project without necessarily improving it? Edits like these are sometimes known as “appeasement edits,” and they can seem somewhat harmless, but they stack up. After six or seven rounds of appeasement edits (making it different, not better) you’ll notice there is a net effect of the overall concept becoming watered down, and much further from the original vision.
- To Make More Money — YFS Magazine makes a great point here: “Feeling overwhelmed often stems from not setting precedence. Spreading yourself too thin, taking on more than you can manage, and under-delivering will all hit your bottom line in one way or another. Setting precedence is key for all business owners, but especially for those who sell their time and expertise. You, your time, and your expertise is valuable and others will see it too once you set precedence.” Take all those thrashing edits and push them outside the original scope, making them into separate projects, that you can charge for separately.
Now, of course, the world is not perfect. German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke famously stated that “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” This is true. Businesses need to be flexible to meet customer needs. This is why having a plan to deal with thrashing is paramount. Having a consistent and repeatable process combined with the rock-solid discipline to always follow the process without deviation will be of huge benefit to any business, and to its customers.