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The IT Project Management lessons from throw away pants

Image of neatly stacked underwear

It’s reassuring that even the planet’s biggest brands mess up! When they do, their mistakes can become global news and great lessons are there for all to see.

Now, In IT Project Management, mistakes rarely trouble the headline writers. They can, and do, impact an organisation’s bottom line though. And, it turns out, there are lessons to be learned from the huge corporate blunders that can help us in delivering our IT Projects.

My PM friend Malc is mentoring a group of young project talent right now and has shared with me a brilliant exercise that takes some of the biggest brand mistakes and unpacks them with the eyes of a project manager.

The lessons learned are really helping focus minds on how to avoid project fails – lessons that can be learned without the pain of an actual IT Project disaster! I’m all in. It certainly trains you to look out for the elephant in the room!

Here are just three examples that Malc shared, as you read, you’ll start to see the logic behind the exercise and start to notice lessons everywhere too. I did, even watching Manchester United!

1 - New Coke

Coca-Cola unveiled New Coke in 1985. They’d tested their new recipe on 200,000 people and this market research concluded that New Coke tasted better than their traditional version and rival Pepsi.

It wasn’t well received. In a time before social media consumers were clear – they didn’t like the change! There were protests, Coca-Cola fielded as many as 400,000 angry phone calls and letters as Coke drinkers professed their dissatisfaction with the new product, people even bought New Coke just so that they could pour it down the drain. Imagine if they had launched it in the Twitter era!!

In less than three months, New Coke was withdrawn and old Coke, rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic was back on the shelves.

So, what lessons can IT Project Management learn from New Coke?

  1. i) Stay alive to your central mission! Apparently, Coke’s mission wasn’t to launch a new recipe per se, it was to re-energise the Cola market. You can argue that ‘New Coke’ did that! Often, in IT Project Management we can get too caught up in the means and lose focus of the end. Analysing New Coke as a launch of a new recipe, you have to chalk it up as a failure. However, when you consider the bigger picture, the market was revitalised so was ‘New Coke’ a success!? (OK it cost $4m in development and left them with $30m of New Coke they couldn’t shift – but still!)
  2. ii) Ask the right questions. Coke had asked consumers which of their two products they preferred and, based on the results, shelved 99 years of consistency and brand equity. Asking the same consumers if there was anything wrong with the old Coke or did they want a change might have saved Coke millions of dollars. When carrying research with stakeholders and end-users it’s crucial that we ask the right questions to assess actual business need. Aligning business change through IT Projects with answers to the wrong questions can really harm strategic objectives.

2 - Samsung's Exploding Galaxy Note 7

When “errors both in design and manufacturing affected batteries by two different manufacturers” led to Galaxy Note 7 phones catching fire and exploding, Samsung had to recall millions of phones.

According to the findings of Samsung’s own internal report, the problems were caused by insufficient insulation material within the batteries and a design that did not give enough room to safely accommodate the batteries' electrodes.

The recall was thought to have cost £4.3bn and was damaging for the South Korean firm's reputation who had positioned the Galaxy Note 7 as a rival to Apple's iPhone.

To make matters worse, Samsung insisted all replaced devices were safe but soon after the BBC reported that “those phones were also overheating”.

So, what lessons can Project teams learn?

  1. Test, test, test. Launching a product that overheats, recalling it and then replacing it with a new product that also overheats is not a resounding endorsement of your quality control protocols! But this happens in IT Projects often in the guise of buggy software being rushed to market too quickly, etc.

  2. Be Transparent and Take Responsibility! Samsung said it was "taking responsibility for our failure to ultimately identify and verify the issues arising out of the battery design and manufacturing process". They were also very clear about what the problem was, where it had originated and what they were doing to resolve it. This transparency and acceptance of responsibility probably scored Samsung some brand points back. Stuff happens, in IT Project Management being famous as the PM who holds your hands up before rolling up your sleeves and sorting the issues is a powerful personal brand!

  3. Be resilient. Good one this. If I’d created a phone that I’d marketed as a rival to the iPhone and it had turned out to be even more explosive than I’d expected, literally, I think I’d have laid low for a bit! Samsung didn’t! The Note line even persists to this day. The latest version, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 was announced in August 2019. IT Project Managers need to have an equally thick skin!

  4. Be Careful Who You Subcontract To And Brief Them Thoroughly! Samsung said that errors in design and manufacturing affected batteries made for them by two different manufacturers. Can you remember either of these two firms’ names? Of course not, it’s Samsung’s name on the phone and it is YOUR name on your IT Project so take care when bringing in talent. Having a trusted PMaaS partner on speed dial, one who understands your business and projects is the biggest takeaway lesson from this for IT Project teams!

3 – Bic’s Disposable Underwear

Can you imagine the meeting at Bic?

“Right team. We make Biro pens, cigarette lighters, razors. What else, high-quality, yet inexpensive and therefore disposable, can we launch?”

“Ladies knickers!”

“There are no bad ideas in brainstorming” was pushed to the limit with this one!!

Globally, the lingerie market is expected to hit $55.83 billion by 2024, that tells you something about the market. Women consider their underwear as an investment in how they feel, the thought of throwing them in the bin after one wear never really caught on! Who knew?! Some things, I guess, just aren't meant to be thrown away.  

So, what lessons can we learn from disposable undies? (A sentence you never thought you’d read in a project management blog!!)

  1.  Know Your Market. Both internally (in-house end-users, stakeholders, etc) and externally (client end-users, your client’s customers) and make sure that IT Projects are always congruent with their needs!
  2. Know Your Business, Align IT Projects With It. Was Bic really just in the business of making disposable “anything” or were they a trusted brand that delivered great products? A Bic Biro always delivers tidy handwriting! Their razors will give you a decent shave when you’re on the road! One of my colleagues met his (now) wife offering her a light with his Bic disposable lighter (the old smoothie doesn’t even smoke himself but always used to carry a disposable lighter just in case!) Many IT projects fail because they’re either not business case led or they are aligned to misconceptions about what the business needs. Knowing the goals of your business and aligning IT projects to deliver them avoids creating the IT Project equivalent of throwaway pants!

Betamax, DeLorean cars, Titanic, even Brexit are all subjects that Malc and his young proteges have looked at through the eyes of an IT Project Manager and each yields plenty of lessons that can be learned and applied in your next IT Project.

Since Malc shared this insight, I’ve been looking at lots of things and applying a project manager’s thinking to them - Manchester United after Sir Alex is a personal favourite! This, though, is maybe one for when we both have a beer or glass of wine in our hands – it could take some time! I would love to hear any thoughts that you have!

The point is, by looking at life outside project management with our ‘day job eyes’ we open ourselves to some great lessons.


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