The 4Ds of effective small business project management

- November 5, 2021 4 MIN READ
project management

Getting stalled on a project you want to implement in your business? Whether you’re having trouble getting started or are simply not making the progress you’d like, understanding the four phases all projects move through will help you get things moving in the right direction, writes Jayne Tancred.

What kind of projects are we talking about?

For our purposes, let’s define a project as a set of tasks that need to be completed in order to achieve a specific objective for your business.

In small businesses, some projects are client-facing (like the launch of a new product, marketing campaign or website), while others are intended to improve internal operations (like the implementation of software that speeds up your workflow).

Some projects can be completed in an afternoon, while others can continue for months – or even longer.

The 4 Ds of project management

Regardless of their size, duration or nature, almost every project undergoes several distinct phases during its lifespan.

These are sometimes referred to as the 4 Ds – a reference to the key activities involved in each phase, which should ideally be completed in this order:

  1. Discover
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Deploy

You can use this framework to help you plan out a new project and keep it moving smoothly.

And if your project is stalled, assessing which phase of the 4 Ds you’re at will often help you work out what’s interfering with your momentum. (I often find that when I get stuck, it’s because I’m trying to do things out of order, or to move forward on a new phase before completing the previous step).

Discover: What do you need to know?

The Discovery phase is the time you spend asking questions and investigating their answers. Consider topics like:

  • What do my customers want or need?
  • Why is this relevant for them, and why now?
  • What are my competitors doing?
  • What’s the going rate for this type of product or service?
  • What’s trending right now?
  • What benefit will this initiative bring to my business?
  • What logistics will I need to have in place to take this project live?

I sometimes hear small business owners belittle the time they spend in this phase of the process as ‘wasting time’ or ‘spinning my wheels’.

Instead, I encourage you to regard it as something that should be prioritised – but only for as long as it takes for you to get the answers you need. You definitely don’t want to get so caught up in Discovery that you don’t move ahead to the next phases.

Taking the time to focus on this aspect of your project up front enables you to move forward with clarity, conviction and speed.

On the other hand, if you’ve kicked off your project by immersing yourself in one of the following stages without having spent time doing Discovery, you’re liable to end up wasting time and / or money due to needing to change direction midway through.

Design: How will you solve the problem?

How will you pull together the information you learned during your Discovery investigations? That’s what you need to decide during the Design phase of your project.

It’s all about creating a framework, outline or clear intention that fulfils all the project needs so that you know what it is that you’re going to be working on.

In other words, this is where you decide what’s ‘in scope’ for this project. What’s mandatory? What would be nice to have but not essential? And what potential inclusions are actually distractions that should be actively omitted?

Develop: Put the work in

The Develop phase is where the final product gets created. Whether you’re recording a video series, building a new website or keen to get a new product or service off the ground, this is the time when you need to sit yourself down in your chair and churn it out.

If this is where your project has gotten stuck, consider whether you’ve made its scope too large or too complex. If so, you might be better off dividing it into several smaller projects and tackling them one at a time.

Alternatively, if you’re not making progress because you don’t have the time or skills to do the necessary tasks yourself, this is when it might be worthwhile outsourcing some or all of the work.

Deploy: Move into action

When your project is complete and ready to roll, your final step is to Deploy it.

‘Deploy’ is a military term that’s used to describe sending troops out to the frontline, ready for action and in line with the strategic direction of their leaders.

Using this term rather than something like ‘Go live’ reminds me that a successful deployment often involves much more than simply pressing ‘Publish’ or opening a shopping cart.

Those tasks are a critical aspect of Deployment, but in many projects what do you beforehand and afterwards is even more important.

During this stage of the project, your focus should be on taking actions that enable your project to be fully implemented and utilised. For example:

  • How will you get others on board?
  • What training and support might you need to have ready to roll out?
  • Where should you be publicising your new offering to your market?

The bonus D: Debrief

On particularly important projects, I like to include a 5th D too – the Debrief.

Taking even just an hour or two to consider what went well, what didn’t and what you can learn for next time is a great way to help future projects run smoothly and deliver successful outcomes.

Most importantly, I recommend performing this part of the project process while enjoying your favourite celebratory beverage and congratulating yourself for creating something positive for your business.

Cheers to you and your project success!

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