Category Archives: Project Management

A System For Everything


Can brand creation be systematized for a StartUp?

In his recent Reith lectures, Atul Gawande’s anecdote rich narrative tells us how failures in health care are more often than not the result of failures in systems. People say it’s the failures between people (partners) that kill StartUps but I suspect it is often the failures in StartUp systems that drive this.

One of the big tech developments in healthcare was the shift at the start of the 20th century from home care to hospital care and, with this, the rise of professional doctors, nurses, operating theatres and so on. Death in childbirth had been common beforehand. Did the shift to all this professionalism and expertise lead to a reduction in deaths in childbirth? No, it did not. The reason being that there was not enough ‘Infection Control Procedures’, like sterlising equipment or a room properly…or even doctors washing their hands properly.

One might think this problem has gone away. It has not. We are told that there are six million infections caught each year by people whilst being cared for in western hospitals. Less than 5% of all health professionals wash their hands properly in Indian hospitals. The spread of Ebola is a failure of a sanitization and protection process, as the virus creeps into those tiny gaps in clothing and finds its host.

Gawande believes that the problem is that we have more knowledge and expertise than we know what to do with. We’ve created a world of over-complexity. We’ve got too smart for our own good.

But the avuncularly cozy and positive Gawande is confident was can improve things.

We cannot leave it to individuals. Individuals cannot cope with such complexity. We need to create a system that connects and manages us.

This is not only about inventing and building the system but also about executing and managing them ruthlessly. He doesn’t say this but in effect he is suggesting we use this uber-system to create a hive mind, in which the individual operates under the collective. Like the Borg. Only collective effort will allow us to deal with over-complexity.

Now are we in a position to do this though. Technology, data, knowledge give us greater tools than ever before. This is the Age of the System, he declares.

Anyone in StartUp will recognize this over-complexity. Gawande’s belief though is that not only can super-charged systems cope with over-complexity, than can accommodate even more pressure. By introducing aggressive systemization, we can do much more than we thought possible.

The specifics seem prosaic. Make behaviours the norm. Create check-lists. Identify defaults. Introduce feedback loops. He also makes two interesting cultural suggestions. One, the participants need to be managed so they have the humility to accept that even the best (the experts & bosses) fail. Two, in one very successful system the checklist was managed by the person with least power, the telephone operator, I assume, so they would not question it (unlike, let’s be honest, gobby senior staffers).
I’d be more skeptical of his specific suggestions if it were not for the fact that across the 8 major hospitals involved in the trial there was an average reduction in complications of 35%, and an average reduction in death of 47%.

So imagine the impact of strong systems in the chaotic, over-stretched, under-experienced environment of a typical StartUp. Imagine getting your UX to work with PM and producers on every type of process and workflow in the business.
Can a creative process be systematized? I’m interested in brand creation…can that be systematized?

A brand is structured. That structure, at its simplest, covers 5 things.
1. As precise a target as possible.
2. A position within the context of a marketplace.
3. The overall purpose that’s going to own that position.
4. The behaviours, personality and identity that going to execute this.
5. The traction plan that will impact the market in the strongest possible way.

(I know, it’s that simple!…Can you believe there’s whole industry based on that…;-))

To populate that structure, a series of strategic issues need to be considered. Or put in plain English, a list of precise questions need answering intelligently. It’s probably quite a long list but it’s not too long.

Answering intelligently clearly depends on the quality of the people who are answering but what matters more is the quality of the hive.

You clearly want people who are smart and, although not necessarily experts, understand and are interested in the basics. They’ve thought about brands, which ones they love, which ones they respect and why. The hive must know how to work together. To discuss. To debate. To conclude. To let it go and move on.

Coding has a system but is also creative. I think we can look at a brand in the same way. We don’t because it undermines our creative egos. But I actually like the intelligence and creativity of the system.

So if you can figure out what the precise questions are and work them through, I think any StartUp can systematize their brand creation and execution.

Or you can pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds you haven’t got to a brand consultancy…

The StartUp Planner Giant Wall-chart

Start Up Planning, Project Management, time management
How less is more for any StartUp

Napoleon attempted to do one of the most ambitious StartUps in history.He wanted to create a European Union – run by France – 150 years before European countries volunteered to sign up to this plan voluntarily (only it ended up being run by Germany). He should have achieved it. This was one of the strongest StartUps ever. He had the vision, he had the strategy, he had the team, he had the resources….but it turns out he didn’t really have the project management plan to pull this all together.

Not that I’m trying – or indeed would want – to compare myself to Napoleon but I’m now struggling with the same issue. It is enormously difficult to do all the things that need to be done. And what makes this particularly dangerous is that by trying to complete 10 tasks I’m more likely to fail to complete Task 1. When one plate begins to wobble, you chase that and then they all start to wobble.

Let’s put this into perspective. I’ve run big projects, helped set up businesses before. I’m not an idiot. Anyone who gets to senior positions in the agency world is usually pretty competent. Hell, I’ve even adopted a boy from Ethiopia and if you’ve ever been through that kind of process you’ll know that makes me a professor of logistics. But there are more plates and fewer plate spinners.

So here’s what I’m doing about it and maybe this can help other StartUps.

I’m working on a UNIVERSAL project management plan. Sometimes we think we have a plan when we really only have a partial plan. l was involved in starting an agency whose birth was reliant on winning an enormous pitch. So creating an agency and pitching at the same time. It was chaos, people walking out, break-downs…horrible stuff. One of the things I did was to create a several dimension plan (somewhere between four and six dimensions for the physics buffs out there) that covered not only all the elements of the pitch process – like brand concept, overall marketing model, big idea creation, manifesto sizzle edit, campaign executions, rollout, distribution model, various platform mock ups and so on – but also the operational build of the agency itself.

I’ve just realised that what I’ve been doing this time round is partial plans. I need to include the big stuff and the small stuff and the tiny stuff – and put clear timing against it. It’s always a good discipline to work back from a deadline date.

For me that means work on product development, brand building, design, marketing plans, networking, cash flow, web design, ecommerce…and probably a few more besides. I also have the family logistics that I need to plan in…visas, Employment pass, Xmas travel etc.

Within this plan I need to FOCUS better. I’ve just listened to a podcast with the founder of the search engine who has published a book about getting traction. They worked on one marketing platform at a time, seeing each as a distinct stage in their traction getting plan. Exhaust SEO, then move to Reddit ads, exhaust that, content marketing, print PR, TV PR, business development.

Marketing textbooks would say this is wrong. And my recent career has involved building multi-platform marketing ecosystems for my clients so this seems counterintuitive to me. But now I’m in the grime, I can understand the practical value. I need to go away and think that through…

Finally, I’m learning project management plans also have a human element to it. The more I talk to people, listen to podcasts, read up on stuff, the more efficient I get. The ‘we did this’ or ‘you should talk to x, he knows about that’…this helps you both create the plan and work through the plan. So I’m on it, I just need a bigger piece of paper.
Start Up Project management