Proof, but not in the pudding!

“The proof is in the pudding”, was my customers endorsement of my decision to proceed with a proof of concept (POC). As discussed in my previous article “Proof is in the pudding!”.

A proof of concept tests key elements of a solution in a simulated environment that mirrors a proposed operational environment. It typically occurs early on in the lifecycle, certainly before a pilot.

PC Magazines Encyclopaedia of Terms defines POC as “The evidence that a product, technology or an information system is viable and capable of solving an organization’s particular problem. A proof of concept is often developed for new products that have not yet come to market. Evidence which establishes that an idea, invention, process, or business model is feasible.” Whereas defines POC as “A proof of concept is a short and/or incomplete realization of a certain method or idea(s) to demonstrate its feasibility. The proof of concept is usually considered a milestone on the way of a fully functioning prototype. These proofs of concept demonstrated ways for the team to accomplish difficult technical tasks, or proved that a particular creative concept “worked” (or didn’t work).” Hopefully you get the idea.

Basically a POC tests the viability of the concept, idea, technology. What one is about to embark on is uncertain, until it has been tested directly. As it is unproven then there is uncertainty as to the outcome of the POC and the project as a whole.

A POC is a common idea in the business world.  It can equate to a feasibility study, but focuses on the evaluation and analysis of a specific area of a project or venture.

In the field of new businesses; entrepreneurs and start-ups frequently use POCs to demonstrate that a new venture, product or service is viable.

In the field of engineering and industrial design; rough prototypes of new ideas are constructed to prove conceptual ideas. In car design, life-size prototypes are manufactured. These concept vehicles are made to showcase new styling and/or new technologies and are often used to gauge customer reaction.

In the field of filmmaking; POCs are routinely used to test new techniques. Pixar has a history of creating short animated films that use unproven or untried techniques, such as “new techniques for water motion, sea anemone tentacles, and a slowly appearing whale in preparation for the production of Finding Nemo”.   POCs give an opportunity perform early validation, such as 1) demonstrate the capabilities of something in a controlled manner, 2) demonstrate whether something is appropriate for use, 3) perform analysis on optional solutions, 4) resolve alternative solutions, 5) serve to inform without large investments.

Prior to execution of the POC, the success criteria relevant to outcomes of the project must be identified. Additionally the stages necessary to achieve the criteria must be clearly defined (plus explicit identification of those project requirements being tested, plus those excluded).

What is important about POCs is that they afford an excellent risk mitigation strategy. POCs help risks to be identified, mitigation plans to be formulated and evaluated ahead of time. Of course, when risks are realised during the POC, then shifts in project approach and/or changes to the overall project can be made earlier ion in the project.

As discussed in my previous article, using a POC to assess the viability of implementing unproven software is a good case of risk mitigation. Obviously any credible project manager would identify this as a risk and manage accordingly. The POC just proved it earlier in the project.

Interestingly, one aspect I uncovered during the POC was the need to develop new skills within the organisation. Earlier on in the project there was an understanding (and resounding belief) that there already existed sufficient skilled individuals, who possessed not only the requisite knowledge BUT the necessary experience to perform the crucial activities in the project. Executing the POC proved that this was not the case. The organisation therefore needed to acquire those skilled individuals before any actual implementation was performed.

When exploring lessons learned and “best practices” I hope future project managers utilise the POC approach to assess whether their solutions should be deployed.

I hope this article illustrates how POCs can help projects succeed in the real world. I would love to learn more, so please share your experiences.

NOTE: A “pilot” refers to an initial roll out of a system into production. The purpose of a pilot project is to test, often in a live environment, whether the system works as intended while limiting the extent of the exposure to the organisation. It may have limited scope compared to that of the final agreed solution (with functions disabled). It is typically limited by other factors, such as the number of users who can access the system.

2 responses to “Proof, but not in the pudding!

  1. Fabulous post, Neil…well written and very interesting!

    I think the POC also has marvelous Business benefits that can really help in a number of ways:
    1. It provides an early, tangible outcome for Business investment. It allows the Sponsor to see progress, understand very quickly the emerging Change Management impacts (stakeholders get excited when they see something tangible…they can immediately relate it to their workplace and grasp how it will affect them)
    2. It builds confidence and credibility – the team gets excited and starts to believe that this thing is for real!…stakeholders see progress and can start talking about it to their networks
    3. It turns participants/observers into Champions – want to turn your senior stakeholders into card carrying evangelists? Give them a working POC that they can touch and feel, then watch them get excited and start telling THEIR networks about the work that THEY are involved in!

    The POC is a powerful tool for driving Business engagement, increasing commitment and building credibility with key audiences. I encourage Project Managers to look at the concept when putting together their plans.
    Thanks, Tony

    • Tony,

      Thank you for your comment. Very much appreciated.

      Indeed a POC is a very effective weapon in the project/programme manager’s armoury. Unfortunately it appears to be one that does not get deployed as much as it should.

      POC assists the project/programme to develop traction and buy-in amongst an otherwise sceptical audience. For the very reasons you mentioned. (I had intended to write a blog post on this thought-provoking area at some point).

      Point 3 is so true. I worked at Reuters in the mid to late 1990s (in a unique group targeted to improve the customer journey and experience) and developed POCs for several of their financial products (exploiting agile project delivery framework, Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM)). These POCs were exhibited to senior stakeholders and customers (both internal and external, typically investment banks). Amazingly previous sceptics became resounding supporters and champions, evangelising the groups (and Reuters) efforts across the globe. To the point that it was picked up by the media and featured (very positively) in the Financial Times, The Times, etc.

      We had customers (both internal and external) create enhanced process flows using Lego blocks (each block labelled with a activity name). It became another powerful tool for driving business engagement (especially with so many people eager to join in and spread the word).

      Thanks, Neil

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