When your Project Plan Begins to Resemble a Finely Tuned Italian Sportscar, You May Have Overdone It — The allegory of a Ferrari in a Forest
One of my favorite learning stories of failure and confusion comes from a project I was working on around a new business model at a large technology company. I had been tasked with my favorite sort of project — the glorious, for me — “figure it out” type project. No real guidance was given. Just a problem statement, a desired outcome, and a bunch of time. In retrospect, too much time.
In those days my whiteboard was a “playground” as my friend and mentor Sachin puts it. I was overly enamored by my ability to problem solve visually and was pedantic about nudging boxes in PowerPoint to just fit one more bit of 8-point font, text heavy, content into another slide.
For many weeks I worked on a “deck” that turned out to be one of the finest pieces of content I had ever worked on. It was a beautiful 27 page deck with about 33 pages of appendix. It was elegant. It was clean. It told the perfect story. I was in love with the slideware. I was on revision number 73.
I should have known then. In love with slideware? Come on, man!
When it came time to present my plan to a larger than usual cross-company committee I was expecting praise and adulation for the fine work that our team put into this body of work.
“This is amazing work” said one senior vice president.
“Incredible, thorough, complete, well documented” said the head of finance.
“Really well put together” said the vice president of BD.
They all looked at one another — then casually all waited for the COO to weigh in. I was in my glory, just waiting for another ounce of praise.
Her comment was pure gold — concise, cutting, and 100% correct in retrospect.
“You have just built a Ferrari in a forest” she said.
“It really is nice, right — I am so proud of the team” I said.
“A Ferrari in a forest is a bad thing, Marc” she said. “We don’t have the budget, infrastructure, resources, or people to go build freeways and roads to drive it on.” She went on to explain, that while my solution and approach would be terrific if we had infinite time, money and resources. The reality was that we had built an overengineered approach and our project would never work as I had architected it.
Taking the metaphor a bit further. The committee then explained the gap in our approach. We had no roads, only foot-trails, our widest opening in the forest was perhaps 3 feet wide. The topography was undulating and rocky. There were no gas stations for hundreds of miles, no service stations — certainly not for a Ferrari — for thousands of miles.
The lesson I learned here was to really consider scope and dependencies — coupled with budget, time and resources, before beginning my project plan build out.
If I had been diligent in the early stages, surveying the landscape as it were. I would have known that at best we could have built a mountain bike to handle the trails and undulations, perhaps later affixing an engine. Even hiking boots — a bare bones pilot project — would have been the most effective and pragmatic solution.