When the Fuzzy Front End Reappears – Beware!


It would be nice if projects were as easy to manage as a teddy bear. Image by estherase via Flickr

I will honestly admit, I didn’t know what was meant by the fuzzy front end until I was looking for some resources about keeping custom application development on track. I had heard about the agile methodology and the scrum methodology, but I hadn’t heard the phrase the “fuzzy front end” until recently. Part of the reason I’m sharing this is because I’ve been in a situation where some of the tenants of what marks the fuzzy front end have reemerged towards the end of a project that I’m working on. It’s really scary because the fuzzy front end should really be the beginning of a project.

For those involved with innovation, the fuzzy front end is that odd period of time at the very beginning of a project when you know that you have to do something and you are gathering all the requirements and desires about the project, prior to developing a project. What is interesting to me is that in the articles I have been reading about the fuzzy front end, almost all point out that the key activities that go on in the fuzzy front end are not always the same. More importantly, even within the same organization, this period of time does not happen with the same steps.

Now, I’ve been in a project for a long time and I’m seeing a lot of the things that we were seeking answers for at the beginning of the project, occurring again right before we are ready to wrap up the project. After spending so much time trying to prepare for what was needed, a new wealth of ideas, concerns, and requests are flooding in. In reading material by Johan Frishammar and Henrik Floren titled “Achieving Success in the Fuzzy Front End Phase of Innovation“, they outlined 17 success factors. I’m well beyond the fuzzy front end, but I am finding out that several of their success factors are really good strategies to combat this second wave of input that feels a lot like I’m at the beginning again.

  • The presence of idea visionaries or product champions – This success strategy that Frishammar and Floren outlined really harkens back to a person or persons who are forward thinking and can think of the large picture. I have found that a lot of the reasons why we are struggling to complete and we are re-evaluating stuff that was done years ago, is because the focus was now on the nitty-gritty details, and not the overall picture. I’m too in the trenches right now to be seen as the idea visionary or champion – so I had to bring in someone else to be that person – our CEO. The entire team had a discussion on the history of the project and how it is to fit into the bigger picture. It was a nice shot in the arm for some.
  • An adequate degree of formalization – I haven’t heard too many stories of other nonprofits being really rigid in their structure, but I know that formalization varies from agency to agency. I tend to believe that I’m in an organization that is pretty darn flexible. While that is great for almost everything we do, it also makes project management difficult. As this project has had bumps in the road, we’ve had to put more formal methods of documenting what is going on into place. If this was done at the very beginning, and assignments given, it wouldn’t be seem as a band-aid  for the situation. But now that we have identified the struggles we have had, putting in a structure has helped out. It is perfect to know that you are sending out minutes of meetings outlining decisions that were made. It gives a formal outline of what was done and tangible proof of agreements.
  • Project management and the presence of a project manager – It was hinted to in the last step that I identified. Now, I cannot stress how vital it is for someone to play this role. If you are struggling with a project and no one has really stepped up to be the leader in coordinating efforts, take the time to either identify the project manager, or take the lead yourself and be the project manager. It might mean more time on your side, but the group will gain traction and start moving forward again with just this simple change.
  • Beneficial external cooperation with others actors – I believe that the agile methodology and the scrum methodology shows how a team can move forward a project in development. But if you are having new ideas or requirements arriving at the table, late in the game, it can be harmful. I believe that you are never going to build a project that satisfies every single persons need, but when new people are inserted into your group, if they know nothing, someone has to give them the guided tour. Someone has to educate the new member to where you are and how you are operating. If you get too many new members, your entire group changes and adjustments have to be made. I wish I could include every bell and whistle that is desired by every user, but it isn’t possible. What’s important is to get the most important and critical items, and know that it isn’t all going to happen.
  • Project priorities – This success step can be awfully difficult to address if you are in a project that crosses between multiple departments. I like to compare this to when upgrading to a new version of Microsoft Office. There are some departments that the biggest concern is how different is Outlook. There are other departments that are more concerned if Word operates better. Of course you then have the accounting department that is all about Excel. When you have a mixed team working together on a project, each member is probably going to have a different priority. If you have to stop forward progress and identify what are the priorities of this project overall, then stop and do that. It gets everyone back on the same page and you combat the feeling that you are heading back to the Fuzzy Front End.

I know that this is a process and also realize that while we near the end of this particular project, we are also nearing the beginning of the fuzzy front end again. It happens when you start mentioning “phase two” or “next version”. These aren’t bad things.  But it can be a game changer if you cannot find a way to identify these items for this next cycle and find a way to close the project that you are on right now.

I’m finding the reading about the fuzzy front end interesting and exciting. I want to learn a lot more about it because I know that as a nonprofit techie, I am going to really be involved with it more in the future.


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