8 productivity lessons from the Red Zone project

Projects are a field of opportunity for learning. They offer scope for experimentation that’s difficult to incorporate into the business-as-usual world. Capturing project lessons lets you refine and promulgate techniques that worked well and identify things to do differently next time.

Nathan campus Red Zone

Nathan campus Red Zone (photo credit: Justin Ma courtesy of Griffith University)

All worthwhile project management methodologies include a process for recording learnings. It’s also one of the most frequently bypassed processes. A backlog of new initiatives means project managers are whisked off to their next assignment well before the first project wraps up. The Star Wars movies illustrate what happens when you don’t learn from past experience1.

To close the loop on the Red Zone project, I want to share some lessons from the most daunting, complex and interesting project I’ve worked on to date. I’ve covered the specifics of this interactive showcase in an earlier post.

To say that this project was a learning experience is an understatement. Each day presented new challenges and new problems to solve. There were difficult periods during the project where I wasn’t sure that it would get across the line. Challenges getting the technology to behave, plans that didn’t always match the actual construction, small oversights with large downstream consequences, and different interpretations of standards all made for some interesting times.

The lessons fell into three broad themes but this post covers lessons related to focus and productivity. A big thank you to readers Cass and Andrew for helping me condense the first draft to something more digestible.

1. Outcome and next action thinking will get you there eventually

Projects like this don’t come with instructions. You have to make it up as you go along. It’s a matter of developing a shared understanding of the desired outcome and deciding up-front what the next action is and who will do it.

The transformation from a nondescript seminar room into the Red Zone

The transformation from a nondescript seminar room into the Red Zone. Click to enlarge (photo credit: John Scullen and Justin Ma courtesy of Griffith University)

Several teams worked on different aspects of this project. Asana was invaluable for assigning tasks to team members, tracking progress, and coordinating people in different locations.

2. Understand whether speed or scalability is more important

Mike Vardy wrote an article called Do you want it fast or do you want it forever? This question sums up the persistent tension between impatience for quick results and creating something that will last. My default orientation is towards the forever end of the spectrum. But that’s not always the best answer — sometimes fast is more important.

Discarded coffee cup and Stonehenge

Fast or forever (adapted from: waferboard via flickr cc and LASZLO ILYES via flickr cc)

There’s always tension between these two ideals. You’ll get more useful feedback by doing something quickly, testing it and iterating. But if you don’t build enough of a foundation at the beginning, it can be really hard to change it later. In some cases, you need to rebuild from scratch if you don’t allow for essential foundational elements. It’s worthwhile spending some time to think about how a product might need to change and evolve in the longer term. You can then make some allowances in the design for these future needs.

It’s not about building all the features up-front. It’s impossible to anticipate every requirement and how people will interact with something you build. Sometimes customers click with a feature the team doesn’t consider to be important. Other times, something you think will be a hit turns out to be a flop. It’s about making decisions that keep your options open. You may never need to build some of these features or additions. But if you don’t leave space for them in the design you may not be able to fit them in later without rebuilding from scratch.

3. Focused effort can achieve a lot in a short time

We had a mere three months to go from zero to a first release to the public. There was no time to address the design of the room so in this period we:

  • researched and selected the audio-visual technology;
  • procured, installed and commissioned the technology;
  • installed extra power and data outlets;
  • identified potential content for display;
  • revised the raw assets into a package more suitable for the target audience; and
  • developed a basic content platform for the touch screen.
Initial touch screen platform

From zero to a functional touch screen platform in three months (photo credit: Jeff Jones courtesy of Griffith University)

There were some long days, but we got it over the line… just. Plenty of people thought it was impossible. The only way we pulled this off was to have a team working on this project and nothing else. Too often our attention is diluted across too many commitments. Even within the project, we had to make some tough decisions about which content items to pursue and which ones to decline. There were some great ideas we didn’t have the capacity to finish for the first release. We also had to strike a balance with content from science, health, business and arts disciplines.

4. Build buffer time into estimates for unfamiliar activities

Everything takes longer than you expect. I had allowed three weeks to commission and test each room. This was barely enough to get things working well enough for a carefully orchestrated launch. It took another three weeks to get all the systems working reliably. This underestimation was partly down to my inexperience but was exacerbated by persistent technical problems.

The crawl space behind the touch screen

I spent many hours diagnosing problems in the crawl space behind the touch screen (photo credit: John Scullen courtesy of Griffith University)

More time was siphoned away as we deflected attention from curious passers-by. With the AV equipment installed everything looked finished even though there was still weeks of work remaining. People were understandably curious about the arrival of this conspicuous red anomaly.

The lesson here is to allow more contingency in estimates for tasks where you don’t have as much experience or where the level of uncertainty is greater.

5. Feedback on a real product is more valuable than a “perfect” design

That first iteration of the content platform looks embarrassingly childish next to the final release. We could not have built this more sophisticated environment without the discoveries from earlier iterations. For all its simplicity and limitations, visitors still appreciated and praised what they saw.

Touch screen interface version 1

The first version of the touch screen interface wasn’t that great. The mistakes we made here helped improve subsequent versions (photo credit: John Scullen courtesy of Griffith University)

If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late
Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn founder)

6. You can’t do it alone

A great variety of professions and skill-sets came together to create these centers. Architects, structural engineers, surveyors, electricians, joiners, builders, AV designers, AV installers, educational designers, content experts from all fields, graphic artists, film-makers, photographers, programmers, systems administrators, marketers, and cleaners were among the contributors to a successful outcome. You need a team of skilled people with a shared understanding of the outcome to deliver a project like this.

Tradesmen working to build the facility

Dozens of professions worked together to deliver this project (photo credit: John Scullen courtesy of Griffith University)

This diversity brings different personality types and varying work styles and can be a source of friction. When the pressure is on, everyone gets a bit frayed at the edges. Team members who are easy to get along with and demonstrate adaptability and resilience make everyone’s lives easier.

7. Keep it simple

It’s easy to over-complicate things. The Red Zone has as many screens as a NASA control room yet visitors gravitate to a simple sandpit.

AV rack

Building the control system. What could possibly go wrong? (photo credit: John Scullen courtesy of Griffith University)

Complexity intimidates and repels us. This unusual room design is confronting enough without introducing more technological complexity.

We’ve used technology to simplify switching modes in the room. Everything in the Red Zone turns on or off automatically when the room opens and closes. One press of the touch-based control panel switches lighting, sound and video inputs to the appropriate preset for running presentations. The interactions are as simple as possible on the touch screens with built-in explanation when needed. Interaction methods are consistent between different content pieces so that once you understand how one works, you can navigate others without re-learning.

These common-sense principles are easy to forget when you’re in the middle of it. Watching someone with no previous knowledge of the project use your creations helps uncover hidden assumptions and potential trouble spots.

8. Content creation is the hardest, most expensive part

Content creation takes longer and is harder than you expect. Creating interactive content that engages the audience takes a lot of thought and experimentation. Be prepared to throw a good deal of it away.

Two students using an application on the touch screen

Creating engaging, interactive content takes a good deal of time and experimentation (photo credit: Justin Ma courtesy of Griffith University)

Creative projects don’t have an obvious finish line. You could keep improving the outputs for the rest of your life and still not be finished. There’s an added challenge when the content experts are not the ones funding the development. Since they don’t always have visibility of the cost, they can keep pushing for more enhancements unless the scope and acceptance criteria are well-defined at the beginning. And that’s rarely straightforward with creative endeavors.

Interactivity is crucial to keep people engaged. Tactile exhibits like the Augmented Reality Sandbox and a collection of 3D printed objects attract people because of their hands-on nature.

It doesn’t take long for today’s shiny new content to become stale. New exhibits and periodic updates to existing content keep the facility feeling fresh and interesting. Unless there is something new for people each time, they won’t keep coming back. Ongoing investment in content is essential to keep facilities like this feeling fresh and attracting return visitors. Plan to introduce new content regularly.

We involved student teams in helping to create content. It won’t all be up to standard, but this approach provides a fresh injection of ideas from people close to the target demographic.

This is one area where you’ll need a larger contingency built into the budget (see lesson 4). Chances are you’ll need it.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll explore the management and leadership lessons from the project.

Question: I’d love to hear about your experience with organizations that do a good job of capturing and integrating the lessons from projects. If you’ve seen some techniques that work well, tell me about them in the comments below.


  1. Just in case you’ve missed the story… Thus far the bad guys have made three attempts to build a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. After some successful testing, each exploded in a spectacular fireball as the good guys exploited similar design flaws. 

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