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Project phases 101: A 3-minute design lesson from “The Simplicity Cycle”

5 min read


The Simplicity Cycle” provides a roadmap to help people make good decisions about complexity in the things we design and use. One of the ways it does this is by examining the different phases of a project and highlighting different tools for each phase. In this lesson, we’ll look at four key verbs to be aware of as our projects move through the typical stages of development.

1. Start

At the beginning of a project, the key verb is “to start.” That is neither as obvious nor as easy as it sounds. Instead of taking a first step, we sometimes distract ourselves with superfluous activities that prevent rather than support stating.

We procrastinate and hesitate, unsure where or how (or whether!) to begin. We may feel overwhelmed or unprepared, so we spend our time and energy doing something else, anything other than starting. We optimize our paperclip collection. We shuffle documents around. We hold another planning meeting, then plan the next planning meeting.

What we need to do is start the work. Dive in. Make a decision. Take that first step. Hard? Sometimes. But essential — always.

2. Shift

Once a project gets underway, we develop a certain momentum. Just as inertia can make it difficult to start, it can also carry us forward. This is a good thing, to a point. But if we are not careful, our inertia will carry us to places we’d rather not go.

What signs should we look for? If effort remains high but progress slows, if we start to feel worn out or frustrated, if we’re losing track of the project’s goal, it may be time to stop “starting” and instead adopt a new verb. It may be time to shift.

While the early phase of a project involves additive tools, eventually we need to set them aside in favor of a reductive approach. We gathered a lot of material and now it’s time to discern what to keep and what to discard.

This is a different type of decision-making, a different type of problem-solving. It requires different skills and tools than the ones we began with. The key is to watch for signs that previously effective behavior has turned sour, then have the guts and imagination necessary to make the shift.

3. Stop

Sometimes we wait too long to shift. We add, accumulate, and complexify too much, then end up with a jumbled mess of unaligned pieces and contradictory components. Our additive habit has become destructive, and while a change in behavior is still called for, we now need stronger medicine. Before we can shift, we may have to stop.

Taking a pause, taking a break, putting a temporary halt to our activity may feel unproductive, particularly if we are accustomed to equating movement with progress. If that is the case, stopping is all the more essential.

Not every addition is a good addition, and the habit of adding new features, parts, and components can turn into a bad habit. In this case, stopping is the most productive thing we can do. It gives us a chance to reset and recalibrate. When we return to the work after this pause, we do so with new eyes. That can make all the difference.

4. Ship

If all goes well, we’ll end up with a product that is simple and good. When that happens, it is time to ship the finished product, to be done with the work and send it out into the world. That might sound as obvious as the first step, but I have found a lot of people are reluctant to do it.

See, when we’ve been working on a project for a while, it becomes familiar. Comfortable. Part of our identity. We begin to think of ourselves as the person who works on Project X. If we finish it, we might feel a bit lost. Who would I be if I’m not the Project X guy anymore? So that can be hard.

The other barrier to shipping is perfectionism. When I’ve been working on a project for a while I can see all the flaws and shortcomings. It’s tempting to keep polishing and tweaking, changing happy to glad and back again. It’s tempting to never ship.

The thing is these minor fixes are not really fixes – they are not solving problems or improving quality. They are just changes, and they only make the thing (slightly) different, not better. When we run out of substantive changes to make, it is time to see the project for what it is – done. The right move at that point is to ship the product out into the world. This gets a bit easier when we recognize that the next step is to start again.

Quick reference guide
The quick reference guide below shows these four verbs (Start, Shift, Stop, Ship) overlaid on the Simplicity Cycle framework. You might want to post it somewhere handy, as a visual reminder to make sure you’re using the right verb throughout the phases of your project.


Dan Ward is the author of “F.I.R.E.: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation” (HarperBusiness, 2014) and “The Simplicity Cycle: A Field Guide To Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse” (HarperBusiness, 2015). Prior to launching Dan Ward Consulting, he served for more than 20 years as an acquisition officer in the US. .Air Force, where he specialized in leading high-speed, low-cost technology development programs and retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. For more information, visit his website and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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