Product launches are a period of particularly high pressure for the brand team for one simple reason: you only get one chance to launch a brand. Timelines are always short, visibility is incredibly high and resources, particularly human resources, are always limited. Careful project planning of the product launch is therefore absolutely critical if you are to hit your deadlines. What is interesting, however, is that very few brand team members ever have any form of project management training.
In this article, we explore some of the basic tenets of project management required of a brand manager within the context of a brand launch. Let’s begin our discussion with a basic framework for managing a project.
Products should only be launched if they are aligned with the broader organisational strategy. If there is no alignment with organisational strategy, you take the risk of diverting limited resources onto a product that does not form a key part of the organisation’s future. It is at the strategic alignment stage that the launch / no launch decision should be taken, for the simple reason that cancelling a launch after this stage means wasted time and resources.
In addition, the timing of the launch should be carefully considered – are other launches, either own or competitor, planned for this time period? Are critical internal resources assigned elsewhere during this period? If the product or timing does not fit within the context of organisational strategy, it should be carefully reconsidered.
If you have carefully evaluated the product launch within the context of your corporate strategy and have decided to proceed, the next step is to carefully scope the project. Scoping the project entails clearly stating the project dates, goals, deliverables and budget estimates. The scoping document can also be used as the initial brief to internal stakeholders and should be the document that guides all future project decisions.
It is at the scoping stage where you must gain internal stakeholder agreement and sign-off. Changes in scope at this stage will have far less of an impact on time, cost and quality of the project than if the senior management team, for example, decides to alter the launch parameters at a later date.
Changes after the scoping phase tend to cause frustration, impact project team morale and cause project-creep with all its resultant quality, cost and time implications.
3. The Project Plan
Once the project scope for the launch has been agreed and signed off, it is time to develop the launch project plan.
The rather trite phrase of “plan your work and work your plan” was probably first written for project managers. Planning your work is generally important in the daily life of the brand team but if you wish to deliver a product launch on time, to standard and within budget, planning becomes absolutely vital.
The reason for the importance of project planning stems from the fact that projects, such as product launches, differ from the usual day-to-day business in that they have fixed start and end dates. These fixed dates mean that knowing what you need to do and by when is essential if the project is not going to over-run.
In our consulting roles, we are continually surprised at just how many product launches go ahead without a formal written project plan in place. This was driven home once again when we presented a seminar on product launches were amazed to hear that a number of the marketers attending the meeting claimed that they did not have the time to plan their projects. Given the complexity and budget involved in delivering a product launch, this is sheer folly and really is setting you and your team up to fail.
Detailed project plans ensure that everyone is clear on what needs to happen, by when, and who is responsible for delivering that particular sub-project. Detailed, visible project planning is therefore absolutely critical to the successful delivery of a project. Whether you choose to use Word, Excel or a dedicated project planning tool, such as MS Project, really doesn’t make a difference, the critical thing is that you have some form of physical representation of the plan that can be shared, agreed and monitored.
Once you have developed the launch plan and are happy with it, you must review it critically with your project team. This will happen at your first project team meeting but is also an on-going process as the project progresses and ensures that you are able to take into account any changes that could affect the critical path of the project. By updating the project plan, particularly if you are using a dedicated project-planning tool such as MS Project, any impact on delivery dates is immediately apparent.
4. The Project Team
In order to be effective, the core launch team must be multi-disciplinary and include the main parties involved in delivering the project. It must be chaired by the project lead and include both key internal stakeholders and any relevant agencies.
A key point to make here is that the team must be empowered to make decisions. Requiring senior management approval for each decision takes up huge amounts of time and has a distinctly negative impact on team morale.
5. Manage the Project & Stakeholders
We now reach the heart of project management. There are plenty of excellent books out there that will give you an in-depth breakdown of exactly what to do and when to do it, so we’ll limit myself to some basic, practical guidelines based on our experience.
5.1 The Kick-Off Meeting
The kick-off meeting is a particularly important milestone in the launch process. It allows the brand manager responsible for delivering the launch to fully brief the project team and, equally importantly, allows the team to meet each other. Critically, it also allows the project lead to set expectations for the team and to start establishing the team culture.
Typically, this will be the longest of the project team meetings, as the discussions should include a detailed review of the scope of the project and the project plan and deadlines. Each project team member must be completely comfortable with their tasks and deadlines by the time that they leave the room to prevent any unwanted complaining after the fact. Once everyone has bought into the plan and it has been updated with any requested changes, you are ready to baseline the project and move from project planning to project delivery.
5.2 Regular Project Team Meetings
Different project managers have different ideas of what “regular” means and it will also depend on the duration of the project. Typically we prefer weekly telecons with the entire project team to allow everyone to be aware of what the others are doing, particularly if one sub-project impacts on that of another team member. These are then supplemented with a monthly or quarterly face-to-face meeting, depending on the project duration and scope.
5.3 Keep Focused on the Project Plan & Update Regularly
The project plan must remain at the core of every launch team meeting. It should form the basis for any meeting agenda and should be updated regularly with any progress (or lack thereof). Timelines and deadlines should also be carefully monitored and the plan updated regularly to reflect any changes and their subsequent impact on the critical path.
It is at this point that we’d like to introduce the Iron Triangle of project planning. The Iron Triangle concept holds that there are three core variables in project management: project cost, delivery time and quality of the finished project.
Within any given project, you can only ever have two and a change of any one of the variables will affect at least one of the other two. For example, if you wish to have a high quality project delivered within a set time, it will result in a higher cost. In addition, once the project baseline has been set, any change to the project scope will have an impact on one of the three variables, affecting quality, deadlines or cost.
A final point to make is that the project lead must trust in the expertise of team members, and this particularly includes agency partners. We have seen a number of brand managers trying to micromanage projects without drawing on the expertise of their agencies. This really does not allow you to get the best from your team.
5.4 Manage your Stakeholders
Product launches are very high profile events in the company and can consume a large proportion of the marketing budget. It is therefore rather unsurprising that everyone wants to be kept updated on progress, particularly in the weeks running up to launch.
Not taking the time to manage your internal stakeholders properly will result in a world of frustration and wasted time for both you and your stakeholders. The key here is to communicate early and often with your stakeholders. Involving those further up the food chain at regular intervals should reduce the amount of emails and phone calls as you approach launch.
What is essential, however, is to ensure that you do not allow the product launch to be disrupted by trying to appease all of your stakeholders. Once you have the project scope signed off and you have established the launch plan baseline, we would strongly urge you to resist all efforts by stakeholders to try to change the project scope. As soon as you start to allow this to happen, you are in danger of project-creep with all its resultant quality, cost and time implications.
The best way to ensure that you learn from your experience of delivering a successful launch is to fully debrief the team and ensure that all of the action points are noted so that they can be shared with colleagues and key stakeholders. It is at this stage that you will add your notes to the project file and close it off.
For the debriefing and launch evaluation to be fully effective, however, it needs to be conducted in a safe environment and approached in an open manner, with a minimum of defensive behaviour. Not always easy, particularly if you work in an organisation with a blame culture, rather than a learning one.
Product launches are extremely high profile events within the brand manager’s role and they are becoming more and more challenging as the complexity of the business environment increases. Trying to keep a product launch on track is therefore difficult at the best of times and next to impossible without effective project management skills.
Thankfully, these project management skills are easily learned and are an essential training requirement for anyone responsible for delivering a project launch. It is for this reason that Project Management for Brand Managers is one of the subjects that we focus on within our new Launch Excellence training programme.
By teaching our Launch Excellence learners the core skills of project management, we help them to deliver product launches in a way that reduces the risk of wasted resources and missed deadlines, and increases the potential for a profitable and successful product launch.