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An Unlimited Budget Is Almost as Bad as No Budget

The worst possible budget for a project is zero. If you have no funds or no time, you have no power to build anything worthwhile. That’s not a surprise to anyone – no one likes working under absurd constraints.

The second worst possible budget is unlimited.

Reasonable constraints provide guidance. They help you narrow your focus and and work on the things that really matter. A well-considered constraint can be a road map for your project: Even if you know where you’re going, the map can help you measure the distance and figure out if you’ll have enough gas in the tank for that side trip you were thinking about.

The design process always creates more ideas than can be built in the available time frame. That’s not a bad thing – an excess of ideas will provide rich fodder for future work. But you must take care not to get lost in myriad possibilities. The risk is this: Even if the project has the funds to build a feature you don’t need, that is time you can never get back. Two weeks spent building something you don’t need means two weeks stolen from a more critical feature, or alternately a release delayed two weeks.

The strategy I have been employing to help keep focus is to make a simple “mission statement” (for lack of a better term) for the next release. The intent is to distill your goal down to the simplest possible terms with a statement following the form: “some person or persona will be able to do something by date.” Here’s an example: “Individuals will be able to order books via our website by March 15th.” By distilling the intent down to its absolute simplest definition, we’ve obtained a statement short enough that everyone can keep it in mind throughout the next phase of development.

This statement is a context – not a commitment. A dozen words is clearly not enough to specify a product – but as you work through your list of ideas a mission statement can help solidify the line between what’s in this release and what’s out until future releases. It’s a very simple tool to help keep everyone on the same page and provide a context for the trade-offs every project needs to make at some point.

“But my project is more complex than that,” you may cry. That might be true, but I’m skeptical. If you can’t cut a release statement to under, say, 50 words, that’s a red flag warning you that you might be building more than you need.

A one sentence release statement may seem like too simple a tool to be useful. If you think so, then please humor me and figure out what yours is. It shouldn’t take more than 5 seconds and if you’re right you’ve lost nothing – and it may just tell you that half your team got different marching orders than the other half.

What is your project’s mission right now?

Mike Swieton (43 Posts)

I live and work in Grand Rapids (or near enough as to make no difference).

I write software – all kinds of software. I’ve written code for worldwide enterprises and startups. I’ve build for the web, for desktop, mobile, and everything in between. I’ve worked in all sorts of different industries and with all sorts of technologies.

I always try to understand whatever I’m working on deeply no matter the subject, for anything from learning about shoulder anatomy (… what a mess that is) for weight training, to investigating using the ideal gas law when working with chocolate in a whipping siphon, or diving into a vendor’s source code to find out what’s wrong.

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2 Comments

  1. Eric3
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Two words: 3D Realms.

  2. Derek
    Posted March 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    Three words:
    Corporate Real-time Synergy