How to Break Through the Difficult ‘Phase 2’ of Any Project

    by Andrew Whitacre
    March 18, 2010

    If you want to know what it’s like pitching a new media project, just go to the experts:

    This South Park clip, a classic in its own right, is a favorite around the MIT Center for Future Civic Media because every single new media project — ours and those from our Knight News Challenge colleagues — inevitably hits a wall at “Phase 2.”


    For South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, “Phase 1: Collect underpants” is like every great idea we’ve all had: It doesn’t quite make sense to everyone else yet, but we know it’s gold. We also know it totally will lead to reinventing the news industry for the better. It will use technology in a new way, it will draw upon existing competencies in communities, and it will be financially sustainable. Totally. It therefore leads to “Phase 3: Profit.”

    But the sound of crickets at Phase 2 is the challenge. You have that revolutionary idea, but how can you be sure you’re meeting an information need of a particular community before you spend your time and money?

    Pony Diving


    Rick Borovoy, one of our researchers and a veteran of a few media startups himself, calls Phase 2 “pony diving.” What’s striking about his explanation of pony diving — of diving into the muck that you think is evidence of something awesome — is that the idea plays only a small part. To come out of the muck with a full, finished project, you have to have other things in place. You need a sponsor on board. You need a staff ready to move. You yourself need to be able to communicate a vision of the finished product. (Adam Klawonn discusses these points in his post Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report.) Phase 2 is all about ripping your own project apart, having disinterested people critique every aspect, and then seeing if you’re still excited about it. That’s how you prepare for Phase 3.

    Be Open to Change

    Being well prepared also means being open to, and even expecting, change. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no project survives first contact with the real world.

    Traditional project management would dictate that Phase 2 has to include contingency planning. You need a stack of notebooks or (here at MIT) a roomful of whiteboards to list the thousands of things that could go wrong, and what you’re planning to do to mitigate those risks. (In fact, the News Challenge application process has put increased emphasis on contingency planning.)

    But when you’re developing new technology, at the top of your contingency plan should simply be a directive to be open to change. You discover new things. You want to incorporate those new things. And if you have a sponsor willing to support experimentation, you can take comfort in the remarkable history of accidental inventions:

    • Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, presumably during a dramatic slow-motion dive, after he dropped nitroglycerin in a pile of sawdust.
    • George Crum invented potato chips, literally out of spite, after a customer kept complaining that his fried potatoes were too thick and soggy.
    • Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber during a failing sales pitch when his floppy rubber fell onto a stove top.
    • Ice cream cones, Play-Doh, Post-Its, penicillin, the pacemaker, and even Viagra were all discovered while trying to invent something else.

    And therein lies the lesson for developers of civic media technology facing Phase 2. “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” Louis Pasteur said. Or, as Jeff Israely recently put it, the only straight line from point A to point B is where B is failure. Keep at it, but no matter how much you love your idea, be ready to seize — or propose — unexpected applications.

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    Tagged: center for future civic media knight news challenge management mit project management

    5 responses to “How to Break Through the Difficult ‘Phase 2’ of Any Project”

    1. Dear .Edu/Fdn CivMedia Gnomes:

      Phase 1. Collect civic media
      Phase 2. ?
      Phase 3: Democracy

      People have been trying this for decades now; bound to work somewhere, sometime soon, right?

    2. You’re between a rock and a hard place, unless you can find someone with cash to fund a promotional pilot. The difficulty is that too may start-ups crash and burn, and you’ve got to convince yourself and your patrons that your project has legs. Be prepared for rejection, but don’t let it stop you. An old cowboy saying applies here” Never was a horse that couldn’t be rode and never a cowboy that couldn’t be throwed.” Persevere and persist!

    3. 1,747 if us are fighting the CDC Facebook page to make it accountable for the postings they are making regarding our health and safety. They have to comply real time. They should be telling us that their information on H1N1 Vaccines is corrupt and we need to not take them. “A central figure behind the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) claims disputing the link between vaccines and autism and other neurological disorders has disappeared after officials discovered massive fraud involving the theft of millions in taxpayer dollars. Danish police are investigating Dr. Poul Thorsen, who has vanished along with almost $2 million that he had supposedly spent on research.::::::::::::Easy action to start today to fight PHARMACEUTICAL ADVERTISING BY 2011: USE YOUR FAVORITES BUTTON TO SELECT PROGRAMMING THAT IS GOOD AND NOT SUPPORTED BY PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY.THIS ALLOWS ME TO SURF EASILY OVER TO MSNBC OCCASIONALLY BUT USUALLY IT DOES NOT LAST TOO LONG.CUT AND PASTE BETWEEN LINES———————–MISSION:Ban Pharmaceutical Advertising in USA by 2011 JOIN NOW!We can do this. It is banned all over the world and is immoral.http://www.facebook.com/group.php?v=info&gid=47226199245

    4. Stanford Social Innovations recently said the idea is quite sound and ready to go to the next level.

      Carolyn Spector Gillis has developed idea since 1997 when her son had a Boston Trader sweater he never wore and she thought she could sell it in the Falmouth ME school for $60, donate some of it then keep the rest. Then why not our neighbors’ outgrown Cedar Play gyms ..and..why not everyone to make money for the schools. Read the story in USA Today:

      This is the story in USA Today.

      It is a nonprofit eBay type site that is unique.
      You sell items you no longer need then donate your choice (1-100%) of the sale directly to your school group or charity through a link on our Classroomclassifieds.com Donation Page. There are no fees and all the rest goes into your pocket which is increasing important in this dire economic situation.

    5. Carl Adkins says:

      Great article,..you gentlemen reaaly put some flesh on the bone of the tired old catch-phrase,..”out of the box thinking.”

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