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Gorilla Theory Case Studies
Project Failure Can be the Best Teacher for Future Project Success

Gorilla Theory is borne of real experiences in real projects; projects of all types: for tech start-ups, banks, for government organisations, for software and digital agencies, for food, electronics and hardware manufacturers, for television and film businesses, for publishing organisations and newspapers and more.

Both the book and this website aim to promote the principles of Gorilla Theory and to support its values with case studies that illustrate typical and serious issues that can occur with projects and in working in project teams.

Gorilla Theory Project Management Blog

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Silverback Case Study 1: A Dot Com / 3G Boom: Star21 Networks

Star21 Networks GMBH

Established in 2000, STAR 21 Networks was created with the intention to be leading European wireless access full service provider (broadband internet services for consumers and for internet service providers, as well as providing desktop apps in the cloud for consumers and businesses).

Star21 Networks still has a presence in the Czech Republic today, but if they had succeeded with their grand plans back in 2000 - 2002, I believe Star21 would be a technology giant today.

Consider this: The founding management team of Star21 (first called Star One) raised over 300 million Deutsche Mark to pay for the largest number of government-licensed 3G licenses available for Germany and to set up business operations. For any commercial era, this is a lot of money. The world was becoming more web-friendly and internet in the home was becoming popular (remember those AOL Internet connection discs that seemed to be jammed in every magazine or newspaper you bought?).

Star21 seemed set to ride the wave of commercial success on the back of rapidly growing internet usage in the home consumer and business markets in europe's largest economy (Germany). At the time, 3G was believed to be a golden goose for mobile service providers and internet service providers - billions of euros were spent in Germany and the UK alone.

The management team assembled an international team to run and implement the project, including telecommunications infrastructure consultants from the US and UK, management and technology consultants from the UK, Germany and Switzerland. I was on board with Bechtel UK as a humble analyst programmer in the Document & Wireless Licenses Control department. I and my team were charged with the administration and storage of all the paperwork behind the wireless licences Star21 had bought and the paperwork and schematics for the base stations that would be built across Germany to provide the services.

I was a recent graduate, and even newer entrant into the technology sector. I was convinced by the Star21 marketing brochure and thought they would be a huge success.

Which Project Delivery Process Was Used? The management of the build of the hardware technology infrastructure (the national spread of base stations that would comprise the network) was handled mostly by the Waterfall process. This is a popular method with engineering firms like Bechtel. Waterfall is simple enough in theory - it allows for a step-by-step control of a project progress. This is all very well, if the project team and the project leaders are really controlling each stage and ensuring quality and approvals when necessary.

As straightforward as Waterfall can be, there is no focus on the people layer and on progress vigilance, particularly as applied by a large consultancy driven more by profit than project delivery innovation and efficiency. Waterfall or Prince 2 or any other standard methodology can be used as a one-size fits all approach that does not take into account the intricacies of the actual project at hand.

Bechtel were largely in control of the wireless licence, network topology and technology documentation, but the building of the wireless network was the responsibility of yet another project team party - Nortel Networks.

Was The Launch Project a Success? How many of you reading this have heard of Star21 or are using Star21 services? I'm guessing that unless you are living or working in the Czech Republic, you likely have not heard of Star21. in 2002, the plug was pulled on the main German and Swiss operations of Star21. Hundreds of millions of deutschmark ended in the failure to launch a robust business founded upon a robust infrastructure. That is hundreds of millions in funding and the expertise of multiple teams of experts in europe's largest economy.

What Could Possibly Have Gone Wrong? A lot went wrong. It was exciting to be involved in the project, but even I could see - and this was my first job in the technology industry - that the communication amongst the companies involved in delivering the project was not very effective. I do not recall a single full team meeting to update everybody on progress, issues, risks, next steps. There were certainly not regular team meetings to update project team members. The Star21 senior management and Bechtel senior management must have met on a regular basis (an assumption), but the content of these meetings were not filtered down to the humble foot soldiers on the project teams.

The complexities of the project ranged from the building of the base stations to the development of a sales and product and business development teams to sell the suite of services and products when the base station network was ready. All the challenges were going on at the same time and there seemed to be little coherence in managing the whole programme. The Star21 founders and senior management did not have the in-house skills and experience to build the technology infrastructure themselves, but it seemed to me that there were too many consultants, and too little programme overview and cohesion amongst the various teams. Just to point out, the consultancy businesses who were used were not cheap. This added considerable cost to the operations expenses for a fledgling business.

In addition to this, the dot com bubble was bursting and destroying the tech investment feel-good factor.

[ CLICK to enlarge: How Gorilla Theory Helps Star-Ups - JavaScript Pop-Up ]

Star21 Silverback

Summary of The Star21 Problems : There were so many, but overall, this Silverback suffered from:

  • Process bloat: Too many consultants without a clear goal as to what the consultancy would yield and in what timeframe
  • Lack of precision financial planning (hundreds of millions in funding feels like security and can be frittered away with precise costings, and financial projections)
  • Lack of ongoing market analysis - were the consumers ready for the services in 2001?
  • Lack of a central project management team and programme leadership
  • Poorly defined technology solutions and implementations
  • Poor communication across the various project teams - led to disenchatmnet and factions building amongst pockets of the workers who did not feel part of the vision

Avoid Enterprise Software Project Delivery Disasters

If you are trying to change the world or create powerful tools with new technology and software, ALWAYS treat your project and its scope with respect.

Always understand as best you can the scale of the solution or the business you are setting up and what could go wrong. When you reach your limit of brainstorming the limits and potential issues, ask - ask your project team, business partners, employees, advisors, friends family - whichever is best and most reliable. When it comes to delivering complicated technology solutions or services or businesses, planning is essential and cannot be bluffed or done half-heartedly. When money (especially not yours) is on the line, attention to detail and risks and issues is of paramount importance. Plan, plan, plan and check the viability of your plans.

Gorilla Theory has a specific set of checklists to help start-up founders and members to keep their projects on track.

Investors look at two things, first the idea or the product, then the leadership team. The mix has to be right. If the idea is great, it is never going to turn into something if the founders are not real entrepreneurs. As a founder you have to have industry knowledge but also management skills. You have to have absolute believe in your product in order to convince someone else. If there is any doubt, it only means one thing: the product/idea is not ready yet. That means you have to go back to your drawing board and work on it.
Daniel Mattes, CEO and founder of Jumio, Co-Founder of JaJah

Gorilla Theory helps start-ups to be aware of risks and issues in their new business and to think widely as to what they need, what needs to be done, and why you are doing it in the first place.
For start-ups/new product launches
The Start-Up Checklists Help With:
The Start-up beginning (what's the big idea?)
Brainstorming what is needed
Regular checking-in
Progress and milestones
Get The Start-Up Gorilla Theory Checklists
Start-up Tips: Managing Meetings
Passion and determination and a single-minded focus are all very important for a start-up and young business. The early days can seem like a whirlwind and usually have little structure. This is fine, but you can be so much more efficient at progressing if meetings are more productive.

In the early set-up says, it may seem like you are always having meetings of some sort. These meetings can be wasted if a proper agenda is not set and follow-up actions and responsibilities are not defined and agreed upon. There is no way to make meeting planning sound sexy in any way, but it is essential in order to bring about sexy progress. Not planning and closing and followin-up meetings leads to lost and poorly defined insipration, deadlines, roles and responsibilities and in may cases, this means some meetings are repeated - and more time wasted.

TAKE ACTION - PLAN:  (1) Define a meeting agenda before a meeting - be sure the meeting is necessary and who are the necessary attendees; (2) Circulate the agenda before the meeting and make sure as well as you can that the necessary attendees view the agenda; (3) Repeate the agenda at the meeting beginning and define a time limit, re-iterate the desired outcomes of the meetings (what MUST be covered and then how you will follow-up the meeting at close); (4) Make sure to take as comprehensive notes on the meeting as you can or as is necessary.

The Baby Gorilla
They may seem harmless at first, but they are stronger than they seem and they can quickly overpower you.
The Troop
Several projects on the go? Worried about how to cope successfully? Find out how.
The Silverback
The big beast of a project. Find out how to know you have one, and how to avoid being crushed by the sheer power. Learn to tame one.