The pilot project is the professional world’s way of ‘trying before buying’. But when does this approach actually make sense? I would suggest that the reasons for doing a pilot project come down to three main reasons:
Whether the project is implementing a new technology or a new process, risk plays a major factor in whether the business stakeholders will move forward with the proposed change. No matter how many case studies from other companies you throw at the problem, the reality is that every company is different and there is some level of risk in implementing something new. The pilot project can be used as an opportunity to implement the solution in a limited capacity where the impact of failure is limited. Once the pilot project is executed, the risks that were identified at the beginning of the project can be evaluated in terms of the actual solution being implemented in the organization. Obviously, a pilot project is limited in its process and/or organizational scope, so it is important to design the pilot to be able to test the most contentious risk areas. Whether this be the most complex business process or the most complex technology being implemented, it is important that the risk evaluation be reasonable in order to be confident with the risk that will be carried forward to a full implementation project.
While risk falls on the cost side of the equation, a project would not be considered unless it had some reasonable perceived benefit. Often times the potential benefit of a solution is an area of much debate and most organizations tend to struggle with understanding and/or quantifying a solution’s benefits. A pilot project is a great opportunity to discover and/or validate benefits by applying the solution concepts in a limited-scope fashion. Similar to the risk side, it is important that the scope is reasonable in complexity and representative of the long-range scope. Additionally, measurement on the pilot’s value is important to have in place in order to gain insight into the benefits side of the equation. If you are looking to determine mathematical return on investment for the long-range solution, it is essential that you are able to measure associated costs and revenues prior to and upon completion of the pilot implementation. If these things are in place, this type of pilot can be one of the best mechanisms for selling the internal stakeholders to the validity of a solution.
The biggest hindrance to change in any organization is the people within it. Regardless of how much you ‘sell’ the solution with ROI statistics and qualitative benefits, there are always those that will only ‘believe it when they see it’. As such the pilot project can be a great approach to appeasing the dissenters of the organization and bringing them along as supporters.
But even beyond the direct detractors within the organization, a pilot project can be great for taking a new idea and spreading it throughout the organization. One of my all-time favorite quotes is:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead.
If nowhere else, this quote holds true in every business organization. Change starts with one to a handful of individuals that generate a great idea for making their organization more effective and/or efficient. Unfortunately, even the best idea will struggle to take hold without sound example(s) of how this idea can work and the benefit(s) it can provide. The good news is that small victories, such as a pilot, speak volumes in terms of bringing other parts of the organization along.
With each of these reasons for executing a pilot project, the key is to obsess over the details that will springboard the pilot into a full-blown project/solution. Without sound details regarding risk and/or benefits, the pilot will be limited in its effectiveness to garner support by the wider organization. As project stakeholders, we tend to stay focused on the functional requirements of the project while non-functional requirements, such as benefit metrics, are the first thing to slide. It is important to keep your eye on the larger goal and ensure that by the time the pilot has been implemented, you have a sound example of success.