Project management is a vital part of any consulting project and incorporates many factors. This particular post focuses on projects with accelerated schedules, and the options one has in boosting successful products.
"As Soon As Possible"
Almost universally, the answer to the question we ask each client in their first consult: “what is your schedule?” is as soon as possible. Of course, that’s the nature of this business - an idea hits and it’s a mad dash to prototype a proof-of-concept and submit a patent before someone else realizes the same idea and develops it first.
That’s all great! We love a client with enthusiasm, and we want to do all we can to make their project succeed! But what happens when that time line is simply too quick to thoroughly complete their design? Or perhaps their development schedule is reasonable but we have already allocated resources to other, existing projects?
Reduce the Scope
For a proof-of-concept level prototype, this is often a good way to go. It reduced both development schedule and cost by stripping the specifications to their bare bones and focusing on the core and/or what really makes a product unique.
Say we’re developing a new smartphone for extraterrestrial communication, but we only have a couple weeks before the trade show at which we want to debut our new technology - we’ll strip the extra features (speakers, gaming apps, excessive setting options, etc.) and focus strictly on two-way calling and texting with alien life.
Maybe it’s not pretty yet, but potential investors can tell that what you’re presenting is a viable product - it does what it should and will only be made better by the industrial design, optimization, and added features that can be incorporated in later stages.
Leverage Existing Designs
On occasion, certain pieces of a design can be copied from other projects with entirely different applications. This may be a recycling physical designs or utilizing specialized technical understanding of a related field. The most important consideration of this type of shortcut is to ensure no existing or potential conflicts of interest with any project, as well as avoiding inappropriate use of any proprietary designs.
As you’re working on your Martian headset, you begin pondering what type of battery you plan to include. If appropriate, why not include the battery management system you designed for a toy train set a year ago? There isn’t any intellectual property claim on it, and it will function beautifully in the new design.
By recycling the BMS in your new design, you have saved valuable development time that would otherwise need to be allocated to component sourcing, schematic design, and PCB layout. You can incorporate what you already have and tweak it to fit the current project.
Regardless of how much experience you have in a certain field or with a particular vendor, things can and may go wrong. On the design side, it’s often because a tool, component, or material you were counting on is no longer available or is less reliable than initially expected. Sometimes, it’s a vendor who can’t meet the promised delivery dates. Regardless, and as with any project, it’s always wise to have contingency plans in place to negate any negative results. Have extra time built into the schedule to work out the kinks of new design concepts - clients are not often saddened by coming in under design budget - and have several possible vendors in place and able to fulfill the job, if possible.
Managing Client Expectations
With any sort of accelerated schedule, communication is paramount. The client has likely made a significant investment in the consultant with a lot riding on the resulting trade show, investor meeting, release date, etc. From the very beginning, you should be realistic about what can be accomplished, both in best and worst case scenarios, and communicate this to the client. This type of brutal honest and constant check-ins when things go well or poorly let your client know exactly where their project stands, and what they might expect come phase completion. In other circumstances, you may be able to provide amazing prototypes with perfect integration between all features, incorporating additional functionality that will really wow a crowd - but perhaps that’s better left till a later phase when the schedule allows for more integration.
Additionally, those new to product development are often not acquainted with the types of upfront expenses associated with prototype building or final production runs. Quick turn times may mean that a client is not as financially prepared as they should be to take on initial tooling costs or bulk material orders. A full, up front briefing of estimated parts, machining, and assembly cost is a necessary to avoid late-term disappointments.
Sometimes, the best course of action for you and the client is passing on development at that time. If a project has a schedule that simply can’t be met by utilizing some or all of these options, elect to let it go. Even if it means losing that project, they will hopefully respect your choice and appreciate that you were not interested in making money off a failing development step. Alternatively, the client may realize that the schedule is unreasonable, and be willing to work on a longer timeline to achieve the desired quality.