Never design for a theory, always build the solution around reality.

Reality can be a cold, hard, vicious thing. Plenty of ideas that work in theory fail miserably once they are introduced to the cold light of day. It’s a situation that is easy to pretend doesn’t exist but it’s the cause of so much failure.

My favorite example of this is in technology roll-outs. In theory, some new technology is going to solve a problem and make everyone’s life easier. However, after it is rolled out everything breaks. The reality was that the problem turned out to be one that involved people and no change management efforts were implemented to overcome that (considerable) hurdle. It shouldn’t be a surprise but it often is.

Another great example is around finance. Often, an idea makes perfect sense and offers so many “soft saves” or “cost avoidances” or “operational benefits” that it seems a no-brainer to the team involved. Sometimes the idea even progresses almost to the point of implementation. Once finance is brought in to validate the investment everything falls apart because their view of the world wasn’t accounted for in the project planning. Unprovable savings are often useless in a true financial evaluation.

Finally, another favorite of mine is when project assume that user feedback they’ve received was accurate and/or comprehensive. I’ve experienced both extremes of this one multiple times. Users provide a “must have” feature list which a team scopes and prices assuming that it really is “must have” to only later discover that 80% of it is actually “wish list.” On the other side, you get a list of feature requirements that was thrown together in 5 minutes that doesn’t include 80% of what is actually needed. Moving forward significantly based purely on user feedback can be disastrous.

The problem with reality is that it expands the list of variables from a handful to an infinite amount. Operational situations that theory doesn’t have to address suddenly become front and center. If your design process hasn’t gotten muddy, you haven’t actually started. Real project managers always pack a rain jacket.