I was listening to Eric Reis in Dublin last week as he espoused the benefits of the Lean Startup approach to software projects. This approach encourages startups to release early and iterate often in order to mitigate the risks of getting things disastrously wrong. This is not the methodology employed in most large enterprises and consequently in most e-commerce projects.
The ‘waterfall’ approach is more typical of enterprise e-commerce projects. This approach usually has two or three major sequential phases – Requirements, Build and Release. They’ll be called different things in different organisations. The problem with the waterfall approach is that the later in the project you figure out that you’ve got the requirements wrong, the more cash you will have burned and the greater the subsequent costs of fixing the error.
As you move along the project lifecycle the costs increase; based on elapsed time and levels and expertise of resources deployed at each subsequent stage. So too do the risks increase. A six or nine month project based on false assumptions about customers, for example, could result in a very expensive project that does not deliver on expected benefits.
The Lean approach involves creating proofs of concept, alpha and beta versions of a platform; releasing these in cycles with users to understand their behaviours on the platform. In many large organisations this approach simply isn’t feasible. Would you use an online banking system for example with the letters BETA stamped on it?
Where possible enterprises will release individual components of an overall platform in stages, incorporating learnings from early releases into requirements for later releases. However the costs required to re-work those early releases may be substantial. Proofs of concept are sometimes developed early in a project but these are rarely used for validation with real customers.
The waterfall approach, developed initially for internal software projects, requires adaptation if it is to be used successfully for e-commerce projects. Project owners need to find ways to engage real end users early and often with the project in order to externally validate assumptions.