BIZTIPS - September 23, 2007

Biz Tips: This Pilot Makes New Projects Fly
Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007
By Art Hill

What kind of "pilot" doesn't have anything to do with an airplane, but you don't want to fly without it? It's a pilot for a new business, new product, new program, or new idea. In this case, a pilot is the scaled-down version of the full project. It gives you a chance to test your concept quickly and economically, and to avoid disaster if it doesn't work.

Pilots have been around for years. Perhaps the best known are test runs of new TV shows. They give networks a chance to test ratings before investing millions in production. The manufacturing version is the "prototype." These one-off models are usually expensive, but they're a lot less expensive than making thousands of copies before finding a serious design flaw.

There are as many ways to do a pilot as there are products and services. But for simplicity, let's consider just two: the short time period pilot and the limited number pilot.

Returning to the TV show example, short time period pilots are usually complete versions of the planned project, but allowed to run just long enough to prove their worth. During that time, the project team carefully measures performance and pays lots of attention to details. Does product performance meet specifications? What do target customers like (or not)? Has anything been overlooked ... high cost of operation, unexpected "real world" conditions? Will it meet revenue and profitability goals?

Like a short time period pilot, a limited number pilot can take many forms. It can be a market test of a new food product that's only sold in a few locations to test consumer reactions. It can be just enough titanium fasteners to conduct stress testing. It can be a few stripes of a new reflective highway paint to measure durability before applying it to an entire freeway.

As simple as they sound, pilots are often overlooked, especially by small businesses. Blinded by the brilliance of a new idea, owners "bet the farm" on a full-scale launch when a pilot would have given them a chance to pull the plug before losing their shirt, or make critical adjustments before alienating their whole customer base. "Classic Coke" was an awkward recovery from a world-wide marketing blunder that could have been avoided with a short-time or limited number pilot. More recently, failure of a pilot project indicated that new scanning technology could not successfully identify airport security risks. Good thing to know before installing one in every airport!

The adage "Fail often, fail early" applies to pilots. A failed pilot is actually a success. It achieves its goal of saving your company precious time and resources. Many failed pilots lead to far better products and services as a result of learning what works and what doesn't.

So remember to pilot that brilliant new product or service first so the full-scale version doesn't fly your company into the ground.

Content © 2007 East Oregonian