Running pilot projects is different from production projects, but both require good management practices and accountability.
There are similarities between managing medium to large-scale production projects and running smaller pilot projects, but it is a mistake to assume that the same set of practices can be applied to both types of projects.
Pilot projects are by nature “try and buy” or experimental. The project promise is not that it will work – an implied promise if you are working on an internal production project that has been vetted and approved by users and management. Instead, a project is tried because it has a high probability of success, although success is not guaranteed.
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Tips to keep in mind when running a pilot project
If you are in charge of carry out pilot projects, you still want to choose projects that have a chance of success and instill confidence in stakeholders. If you see that the project isn’t going to work, you’ll also want to pull the plug and move on as quickly as possible.
In addition, there are a number of other important management techniques for pilot projects.
1. Pilot projects should be highly structured and prioritized
Because a project is in a pilot phase and not immediately destined for production, there may be a tendency to lower its priority when faced with production issues. There are also companies that launch pilots without a defined project schedule or specific metrics or goals. Instead, these companies run all their pilot projects as if they were tinkering in a sandbox.
Here’s a real-life example:
I visited a company that was excited to test a telematics project. When I visited them six months later, I asked the CIO how the telematics pilot was going.
He scratched his head and replied, “Oh yeah, I think we’ve got someone in networking working on that.”
When a pilot project is approached in this way, it loses its credibility as a serious business – and the project advocate will encounter much more resistance from management the next time he proposes a pilot project.
It is important to keep in mind that if there is not enough time to thoroughly plan and audit a potential project or solution in a pilot project, then do not engage.
2. Sellers must be active participants
Pilot projects are considered “pilot” because much is unknown about them, such as how it works or fits into the business environment and whether it can tangibly demonstrate significant business improvements. In addition, it is unknown how difficult it will be for users and IT to learn, use and support the product.
Not all of these questions can be answered by reading product manuals or seeking help online. Therefore, it is best to ensure that product suppliers commit to the project before taking steps towards production.
This may mean that the supplier is on site to guide the project through the pilot. Or maybe the supplier needs to train the IT staff and users. In some cases, it may even mean that the supplier writes some of the interface code for the product to the organization’s systems, as needed. Finally, the supplier must respond if a malfunction or bug occurs.
If this level of supplier support is not in place and there is insufficient staff experience, it may be best to postpone the pilot until there is an adequate level of support and expertise.
3. Set up a project timeline that fits the business use case
Pilot project timelines and events should be aligned with the business use cases for which they are piloted.
For example, when testing a new accounting solution that has the potential to reduce the month-end closing time from three days to one, it seems reasonable to try the solution for at least three months. In this way, both accounting and IT can confirm that the desired monthly close target has been met and that the results are accurate and consistent.