We all know the rhetorical expression about pigs and lipstick. The conventional thinking seems to be that if you have a lipstick project, it’s all about the lipstick and let’s forget about the pig entirely. My thinking is that a lipstick project is a great opportunity to be strategic in an agile way.
There is often organizational baggage associated with the use of the term “strategic” — and too often this is synonymous with “large-scale investment that goes nowhere fast” or “endless meetings that produce a worthless document and no real results”; it’s often difficult to use the word without having half the room roll their eyes or drift off into thoughts about how to get off this project.
I believe that this is how the lipstick project is usually born — “let’s not do something strategic, we don’t have the time or budget. Let’s just throw some lipstick on and we can tackle the real challenges later.” Here’s some tips on how to do both: be strategic, and also be pragmatic and laser focused on visible outcomes:
- Have a long-term strategy in mind at the outset, but be careful about using terms that will cast your project in a negative light. Just because this project has some strategic objectives doesn’t mean that this needs to be the current team focus.
- Understand the underlying constraints and limitations, make sure that you are not making the problem worse. Lipstick projects should be neutral or improve challenges like technical systems complexity.
- Focus on the desired outcomes, invest in the look and feel and user experience. Lipstick projects should deliver something that is really seamless to the end-user.
- Be sure that stakeholders understand where the lipstick begins and ends, and where the real underlying challenges remain. Quite often lipstick projects are significant investments and sometimes there are expectations that if the challenges are hidden — they are actually resolved. It can be more difficult to build a business case for challenges that cannot be seen and experienced, keep this in mind when positioning and scoping the lipstick business project.
- Be clear on costs/benefits for each decision. Sometimes the right thing to do for the long-term is actually less costly than the workaround: we often just assume that the opposite is true without analyzing this. This also requires that there is some transparency and governance over how decisions are made.
- Keep things small/fast/light – apply only enough process and governance. Use agile or other lightweight iterative methods that partner the business and technology teams in joint design. Ensure that the people who understand both the lipstick and the pig have a voice in how the solution is designed.
When it comes to these types of projects, it’s certainly easier to just apply the lipstick and try to forget about the pig entirely — but it’s also possible to do both something strategic as well as something fast and focused.
What is your experience with lipstick projects? Have you seen some that have achieved strategic outcomes?