PM Articles > Kent McDonald > GoldPlater


In the mid 60's, James Bond avoided hat-throwing henchmen and suggestively named pilots to prevent Auric Goldfinger from inflating the price of gold astronomically (one could say "atomically"). These days, project managers have to fight an equally devious villain, Goldplater, who attempts to atomically inflate the costs of projects. Goldplater usually doesn't reveal his entire plan over a martini (shaken not stirred); rather, he reveals it gradually through casual hints and added features.

I bet you're thinking, "Oh, those darn Business Owners, why can't they keep their scope under control?!" But Goldplater is not always a Business Owner. Sometimes he takes form through our assumptions.

Most of my project work involves information technology in one way or another, so whenever I start a new project, I find myself looking for tech-based ways to solve problems. After all, when it's implemented correctly information technology is great for performing repeat tasks quickly, correctly, and consistently, right?

Sure, technology can do things quickly, but if it's based on a bad process or flawed business logic, technology just produces bad results faster. Sometimes, the most elegant solutions are the simplest ones. This is especially true when there are hard constraints on the project, particularly time or cost. In an ideal world, we would always have enough time to produce a bulletproof, automated system to meet every business need imaginable. As I have learned over and over again, we do not live in a perfect world.

So why do I still find fall into the technology trap? Because technology is cool, and because I have been involved in so many projects that exist to save money by automating processes. Do enough of those projects and you start to actively seek ways to avoid creating something that will have to be reengineered later.

Sometimes we need a sense of proportion. There are a lot of cases where users need to perform a fairly straightforward task or provide a fairly simple service, and they need to do it soon. A project team could spend the time and money to develop a lot of custom code around it, or they could consider who is using the system, what they are used to, what they expect, and what they are willing to do, and rely on a simple manual process. It's amazing how straightforward something can be if you think about it a little bit and factor risks, costs, and timing into the equation.

Recently I was assigned a project to implement a management system for my company's wellness center. The system was developed, hosted, and maintained by the vendor that managed the wellness center. The new system was a considerable step up from the one currently used, and provided a great deal more functionality. Since this was a hosted application, we just needed to setup a couple of interfaces and provide some configuration requirements.

This is where those nasty assumptions crept in. We needed to provide data about our company's employees to the vendor on a regular basis. I naturally assumed that we would have to develop an extract program to produce this and build a process to deliver it to the vendor. But in talking with the Business Owner a little bit, I found out that one of the Payroll administrators regularly produced extracts for other outside vendors. Since we were facing a tight timeframe and developers were pretty sparse, the manual approach looked much more appealing.

The vendor also suggested that we attach a device to the computers used for registration to allow members to swipe their badge and be logged into the system. Again, because the Business Owner wanted to keep things simple and I was concerned about how that approach would interact with our device security standard, we decided to let members log in using a good old-fashioned keyboard and mouse. After all, that was what they were used to.

In this case, I was lucky. Goldplater lived in my assumptions, but not in the Business Owner's head. This made it much easier to get around and find the simplest, most elegant solution. But I'm not always this fortunate. Sometimes Goldplater shows up in the guise of a Business Owner, suggesting feature upon feature that—while neat and value-added—may not be feasible within the constraints of the project.

What do you do when you run into this situation? First, make sure you aren't adding to the difficulty with your own assumptions. Then talk to your Business Owner about the relative importance of the various constraints. I find that the following chart (which I learned from Jim Highsmith) helps with these discussions:

Constraint Fixed Flexible Accept
Cost   X  
Time X    
Scope     X
Resources     X

Fixed indicates that the constraint cannot vary, even when an issue comes up. Flexible indicates that you can change that constraint a little bit, but would prefer to leave it constant. Accept indicates that the constraint can vary in response to issues or changes in the project. There can be only one Fixed constraint and one Flexible constraint.

Using this graph to guide the conversation with the Business Owner provides a way to establish decision criteria and the relative importance of various constraints. Then, when you have a Business Owner who keeps trying to add every little bell and whistle, you can bring them back to the chart you agreed on together and remind them that you have a limited amount of time and somewhat limited amount of money and that you need to be sure you address the key objectives within those constraints. Once those goals are met, you can start looking at adding other features.

It's not an Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat or a Walther PPK, but this simple tool is very helpful in helping you deliver an elegant solution that won't leave you covered in gold paint.

(Barely) Related Resources:
If you remember Goldfinger, these might be worth a chuckle. If you've never seen it, the resources will still be useful. (As will Netflix. And popcorn.)
  • Hats off for a change of perspective: Kimberly Wiefling points out the value of trying on de Bono's Six Hats, none of which are steel-reinforced.
  • "No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You To Buy." Laser tables are effective, but expensive. There are better ways to confirm customer buy-in.
  • Just Flip the Switch? Bond movies may be the only place that ever actually worked. For the rest of us, there are integration plans.

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