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Websites: Moving Targets

At PeaceWorks, our Development Services team works on implementing websites and web-based applications for our clients.  

In a previous post, I looked at the question of why we can't just give you a quote for “the website” you want to build – first we need to spend sufficient time talking with you to understand what your expectations are, and then develop a detailed plan.

This time we're looking at a different question clients ask us: “You gave me a ballpark estimate, but now you're saying the costs will be higher.  Why?”

We used the analogy of writing a novel – a murder mystery set in Spain...

What a headache!  Back at the beginning, the publisher promised to cover your costs while writing, but they wanted to have an estimate from you up-front.  So you buckled down.  You took a couple of weeks to work out a plot outline with some great twists, and you developed some rough character sketches.  And you had long conversations with the publisher – to convince them of your ideas – as well as incorporate some of the “must haves” that they really wanted to see.  One upshot was that you were able to talk them out of a few bad ideas which would have really impacted the project.

At the time, you knew that all of the up-front work would really pay off once you started the writing process – and most importantly – gave you a pretty good sense for the size/scope of the project and how long you would need.  After all, this isn't your first novel, and you know what you are capable of.  The best part: you included costs for a two-month trip to Barcelona so you'd be able to give it a genuine Spanish feel.  Based on your conversations, the publisher agreed to the costs, and you bought your plane ticket!

But all of that was months ago, and what a mess it is now.

After six weeks in Barcelona, everything was going great.  You covered a lot of ground, observing and taking notes.  Then you retreated to your hotel room to start working on the novel.  Your progress was on-target, and after a month you sent a draft of the first 3 chapters to your publisher to get feedback.

A couple of days later you got a phone call from the publisher, and it was awkward.  It turned out that your draft was shared around internally at the publisher.  Although you had discussed your plans in detail with your main contact when you prepared your estimate, the takeaways from those conversations weren't shared with other key people.  As a result, some of their bad ideas – the ones you thought you had talked them out of – are now back on the table.  And even worse, the publisher has a big problem with how you set the novel in urban Barcelona – since according to their market research, a pastoral setting in rural Spain will appeal to a much wider demographic (it's a real shame they didn't tell you this two months ago!).

It took a whole week just to make the mental adjustment – and to find the motivation to continue this project at all.  It's going to take a lot of work to meet their expectations.  You'll have to substantially rework what you've already done in order to incorporate the elements they are now insisting on – and it will also slow down the rest of the novel, too, since you'll have to adjust many scenes and plot twists you had already sketched out.  And the setting?  If rural is what they want, you'll have to extend your trip and head out to the countryside for several weeks – not an unpleasant prospect – but it's going to cost a lot more than you had budgeted.  Who's going to cover the difference?  You know that you'll have to work that out, and it won't be fun.

At PeaceWorks, we know that no one wants to go over-budget.  We do our best to put together realistic estimates and set realistic expectations.  But sometimes “things change” in a project, and there is little we can do to keep within the original estimate.  My contrived analogy highlights three common factors which contribute to projects going over budget:

  • unspoken assumptions
  • key stakeholders didn't get involved until too late
  • changes to project scope after the estimate was prepared

We try to counteract these factors by following these best practices:

  • involve all identified stakeholders in pre-estimate planning
  • scope should always be written down (not just based on verbal communications)
  • educate our clients that changes to scope will involve changes to the cost
  • establish a single point-of-contact within the client's organization who is authorized to make project decisions

Thanks for reading.  Next time we'll look at why development projects always contain bugs/issues.

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PeaceWorks provides first-rate technology solutions that enable organizations to achieve their mission with increased ease and efficiency. We focus on genuine client-focused relationships, connecting client needs with sustainable and reliable technology solutions.
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