Checkpoints for design phases

The best way to manage ideas is to start any major design work with clear checkpoints for how the time should be used. Instead of having only two checkpoints, requirements (or problem definition), and spec writing, some intermediary points need to be defined before creative work is going at full speed. It's the project manager's job to make sure these points in time are created (and that everyone understands their usefulness), although it might be best if the designers or engineers define the specifics for when those points in time occur and what the criteria should be for reaching them.(2) There are many different ways to do this, and the best way will vary from project to project and team to team. But, as a basic rule of thumb, here are the key points in time (illustrated in Figure 6-3).

Figure 6-3. Checkpoints for design.

Figure 6-3. Checkpoints for design.

• Vision and proof-of-concept. If the vision document is delivered with a proof of concept prototype, the design and creative effort has a head start. There will already be design ideas and engineering concepts to investigate and build off of (or reject, but with improved understanding of the problem). It's not a good vision if it doesn't have at least a rough proof- of-concept design prototype.

• Idea groupings/lists. After the initial wave of new ideas and possible approaches are raised, someone has to organize and consolidate them. There should be a point in time when this happens so that the team can expect it and plan for it.

• Three alternatives. After the halfway mark, the goal is to narrow the possible design directions into three to five alternatives. The more complex the project, the more alternatives there should be. How much each alternative differs from the others depends on the aggressive/conservative posture of the project, the confidence of the designers, and the problems the project is trying to solve.

• Two alternatives. Investigate, research, prototype, and question until it's possible to confidently eliminate down to two alternatives. There should be two clear directions that define the largest remaining decision point(s).

• One design. Investigate, research, prototype, and question until it's possible to make a final direction choice.

• Specification. Document the single chosen design. Use the remaining time to investigate, understand, and decide on lower-level design issues.

These checkpoints should be defined by the team around the same time the vision document is completed. If schedules are short, scale the number and size of the checkpoints downward or skip some of the intermediary points. And if there aren't enough resources to invest in checkpoints for all the work, prioritize around the most important design challenges.

It's important to realize that these checkpoints are not used exclusively to control the process. They also serve to guide the team, break the work into manageable chunks, and give the project manager a way to understand the state of the project. When changes happen, the checkpoints give everyone a frame of reference for discussing what's happening and why. For example, after reaching three alternatives, new information or ideas might develop that temporarily expands the field of alternative designs to four or five. This might mean the design is still alive, and new thinking is being used to improve the design. But it could also mean that unnecessary directions are being explored. The checkpoints force the team to figure out which one it is, and acknowledge when the design space is growing larger than it should be. The checkpoints create natural opportunities for project managers and their teams to discuss how aggressive or conservative they need to be in their next decisions to keep the project on track.


These checkpoints can be used at the project level or for any individual design problem from a feature to an algorithm. It's a tactic for shepherding work; it applies at any scale of the project.

From my experience, it's the earliest checkpoints that are hardest to get right and the easiest for engineers to ignore. If the first steps can be managed well, a foundation is formed for the rest of the creative process. People will see the value and buy into the process. So, take care to manage those first few checkpoints. With particularly resistant teams, simplifying the process into just three checkpointsproblems defined, the three alternatives, and writing specificationsmight be a workable compromise the first time around (see Chapter 10 for more on team process creation and adoption).

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