From the Blog

I'm a Speaker at DrupalCon PortlandI just got notice that I’ve been selected to speak at DrupalCon this year! This will be my first time speaking at the premier, annual Drupal community event.  The title of my session is So Happy Together (Content Strategists and Project Managers Are) and I will be talking about, well, content strategy and project management. This session will actually be based on a blog article by the same title I wrote for the CMS Myth last year.

Content strategy is a great subject for anyone close to web publishing to get familiar with. It’s a rapidly growing field that gives appropriate respect and consideration to the reason why we design, build and deploy CMS driven websites in the first place: the content. In terms of the real though leaders in the space, I recommend following:

Although I hope to have some useful thoughts to share on the subject of content strategy as it relates to the overall success of a web CMS rollout…These incredibly talented women have (literally and figuratively) wrote the book on the subject. They’ve written a couple books, in fact:


When given the choice, I prefer to plan projects with a fixed bid estimate. What this means is if the client accepts my proposal I will fulfill the terms of the agreement with no change in cost. If the effort required to complete the scope of the project is more than I expected it’s my responsibility.

There is one exception to this. If, after the project begins, the client decides they would like to change the scope of the project, we must agree to the new terms in writing before we proceed. This is the best way to help clients avoid spiraling costs but it is also a little less flexible than a simple estimate. Handling changes in scope is an entire topic of discussion for another day.

Proceeding with a fixed bid demands a well defined scope. Consider this example:

You are a landscaper and a new customer calls to have their bushes trimmed back. They explain their last landscaper was fired so if you do well there is a lot more work. You arrive at the address and find a 6,000 square foot mansion on the end of a cul-de-sac with an acre of landscaped property bordered by woods on three sides. The front of the house has a 100′ long hedgerow separating the driveway from the lawn and there are Junipers under the windows on the front of the house. Naturally, you assume these are the bushes. Estimating this will take your team of three men a half day you estimate $1500 on a fixed bid and agree with a handshake and no scope defined in writing. This is a little less than you would normally charge but this is a new client and you really want their business over the long run.

A week later your guys show up and trim the hedges and the junipers and leave an invoice in the mailbox. The next day you get a call from the client, who explains they are not going to pay until you finish the job. Confused, you ask your guys to confirm what they did…which matches what you expected. However, the client informs you, they expected you to take care of the bushes…like they asked. They have 4 acres of undergrowth on the wooded part of their property and they are concerned about wild fires.

The problem here is your definition of the bushes and their definition of the bushes were are not aligned. Because you failed to define the scope of ‘trimming back the bushes’ in writing…you are now in a tough situation. This client could be good for years and years of loyal patronage with such a big piece of property. Argue and they probably won’t ever pay you at all.

So how could this have been avoided? It all goes back to the scope, which we already explored. On the topic of budgets, you will want to repeat back the items in your scope and attach a price to each item. In this example the scope would have been:

1. Trim hedgerow in front – $1000.00

2. Clean juniper bushes – $500

3. Clear out 4 acres of undergrowth – $5000.00

4. Dumpster rental/Waste removal – $1000.00

Put in writing like this there is no confusion about what you are agreeing to provide. Notice the dumpster rental? This highlights another important detail of fixed bid estimating. To be successful you must remember to think the project through and list all the costs up front. If you were to have left all the waste on the client’s driveway because you forgot to include waste removal it’s unlikely you would be asked to return.

This kind of situation can easily occur in technology consulting. If a client says they need you to build a web site it is quite possible they don’t know about hosting, domain name registration and DNS management. Better to include them in your estimate and let them ask for them to be removed than leave them out until the web site is built and then surprise the client with additional costs. Trust me.

Today I would like to start taking a closer look at the part of a proposal I call the Statement of Work or SOW. The purpose of an SOW is to establish the three most important things in a project manager’s life:

  • Scope
  • Schedule
  • Budget

I also like to use the SOW to set the client’s expectations in some other key areas. These include:

  • Key milestones
  • Communication plan
  • Exclusions
  • Assumptions
  • Miscellaneous Parameters

So, what’s the scope, and how do we define it? Well, the scope actually has two components. The scope of the final product and the scope of the overall effort required to create the final product. Let’s say someone asks you to build them a deck. In this example the scope of the product would include items such as:

  • 10′ x 20′ deck
  • Teak decking
  • Cedar ballister and railing on three sides
  • One stair case into the yard
  • Connected to the back door of the house

What you are doing here is describing the final product, so there are no disagreements about what is being built once you start. The scope of effort provided is similar but describes the work covered in your proposal. Examples include:

  • 1 Carpenter
  • 1 Laborer
  • Estimated 6 weeks
  • Siding removal to tie the deck to the house
  • Re-siding around the deck
  • Re-painting the new siding

The point of the SOW is to properly set expectations so all the stakeholders can agree upon what’s going to happen. This protects both the client and the vendor from the possibility of disagreements that can negatively effect their relationship and the project as a whole.

Imagine the contractor starts digging footings for the deck and discovers a boulder 6 inches below the surface of the client’s yard and it’s the size of a small car. Neither the contractor nor the client knew the rock was there, the inspector won’t allow you to tie into it so the footings can’t be poured and it’s going to cost as much as the deck to remove it. Yikes! What now? Well, If the contractor was careful to spell out the scope in their SOW there is really very little opportunity for this to turn into an argument. It’s clearly spelled out what services the contractor is hired to provide and boulder removal is not on the list.

On the contrary, if the project was started with no scope defined then this situation could get easily ugly. Why shouldn’t the client expect you to remove the rock? They asked you to build a deck, they don’t know what’s involved with building decks so why shouldn’t they expect that if a rock appears that you will handle it? Honestly, this is a perfectly reasonable assumption on their behalf.

A quick note: This is part of a topic for another day, but when something like this does arise you should find away to work with the client. Obviously you don’t want to lose the project altogether.

The next components to consider are milestones and the time line, which I will often combine. In this way it is possible to help the client understand what progress they can expect to see and when they will see it. Going back to our deck example, a time line with milestones might look something like this:

  1. Project starts – April 1
  2. Footings complete – April 7
  3. Frame complete – April 15
  4. Decking complete – April 21
  5. Stairs and railings complete – May 1

Most of the time I am careful to point out schedules are estimated. In the world of web sites this isn’t because I don’t know what my team can do in a day…it’s because I have no control over how long the client will take to provide feedback. In the construction world inspectors, other vendors and materials are all easy ways to blow a schedule. Most of the time, these factors are outside the contractor’s ability to control. However, I also always take the time to talk about the importance of timing with the client. Questions like: “Are you going on vacation in the middle of the project?”, “Do you need the deck completed for a specific event?” or “Will you be open to extending the time line in the interest of improved quality” allow the client to take part in the planning process and give you valuable information you are going to need in order to be successful.

One last thought on timing…although I say schedules are estimated, this is not an excuse for myself or my team to lag. At the end of the day prompt service and completing the project on schedule is in everyone’s best interests. Many, many budgets have been killed by a project that runs longer than planned. I could write pages of content on the importance of strict adherence to schedules.

So, in concluding this brief examination of scope and time line, the key take away is communication. Often times at the beginning of a project our clients don’t know what to expect. In some cases this might be the first and/or only time in their life they spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on a home addition or a web application. Try to imagine yourself in their shoes. Spending a pile of money on something you don’t necessarily understand can be very scary. In order to make everyone more comfortable and save yourself headaches down the road, spend plenty of time  defining and communicating the scope, milestones and time line. In fact, over-communicate. If you can find three ways to reconfirm every detail it might be enough to avoid a costly miscommunication.

Speaking of costs…Monday we’ll dive into budget.