The correlation between project size and project failure is well known in the software industry. Despite this well documented danger, companies continue to sponsor huge projects. It's unlikely we will talk executives out of their dreams of huge projects, but we can talk with them about ways to manage the inherent risks. Often a short story is worth a thousand words. The "Hudson's Bay Start" is one of these stories and a great risk reduction technique.
Let me tell you a story about how the world's longest-thriving commercial enterprise tackled its most inherently risky project.
The "Hudson's Bay Start" Story
England's King Charles II chartered the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670. It is considered by many to be the world's oldest continuing commercial enterprise. The company outfitted fur traders for expeditions out of Hudson Bay in Canada. In this part of Canada, referred to as "north of summer," having the right supplies in the correct amounts was literally a matter of survival. And, of course, the company's survival also depended on productive—and completed—expeditions. So the company provisioned the expedition's canoes with the necessary supplies for the trip. Then they sent the expedition team a short distance in their canoes to camp overnight. This was a test. The first camp was merely a "pull out," commonly called for many years a "Hudson's Bay Start" (HBS). Said Sir Samuel Benfield Steele in 1874, "[This was] very necessary so that before finally launching into the unknown one could see that nothing has been forgotten, or that if one had taken too much, being so near to the base, the mistake could be easily corrected." This risk reduction technique was not free. It cost the team precious time in a short trading season. They had shipping deadlines to meet. I can imagine them saying "Yes, but we really have to be on our way or we'll miss our shipping schedule."
Defining Your Project's "Hudson's Bay Start"
On our projects, we keep searching for ways to find and fix problems early and to involve quality assurance and testing staff earlier in the work. A "Hudson's Bay Start" is one possible avenue for early involvement. How do go about defining an HBS? Start by identifying the risks you are most concerned about managing on your project. Then, carve out a small portion of the work that will test your team's ability to manage these risks. Schedule and complete this portion of work early in the project. Once you've completed this work, conduct a mid-project "lessons learned session" to identify what worked and what didn't. Keep what worked and change what didn't before moving to the next phase.
An HBS Example
A client hired my partner and me to review their plans for a very large project that they were about to begin. This project will affect all of their customers and most of their staff members. It will involve redesigning parts of their organization that have worked in functional silos for many years, with all of the history and relationship issues that brings. It will involve changing their business processes to eliminate work duplication developed over decades.
During our review, we identified a huge risk around their management's ability to make structural and process decisions together. We also identified the project director position as critical to their success. So we recommended they do a "Hudson's Bay Start" with a necessary yet small portion of the project work. This work would require their managers to make some difficult choices together about future organization roles. This will test their decision-making process and their ability to work together across functional areas. This will also give the project director a taste of the challenges ahead. This HBS would give the executives an opportunity to see how the project director handles difficult situations and what kind of support they will need to provide. We recommended that, when the HBS is complete, they conduct a mid-project review, to learn what worked well and what didn't—then make any changes needed in the team and the decision-making process before they proceed to the rest of the project.