Improve Software Project Success by Conducting a Hudson’s Bay Start
The Hudson’s Bay start is a method of reducing risks when undertaking a project that’s complex, expensive, or susceptible to disaster.
The name is derived from the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was founded in the seventeenth century and is considered the world's oldest continuously operating commercial enterprise. The company outfitted fur traders out of Hudson Bay in Canada.
Given the potential for catastrophe in these frosty northern trapping expeditions, the Hudson’s Bay Company provisioned canoes with all necessary supplies and equipment and had the traders set out—not on a full-fledged expedition, which could take weeks, but only as far as they could go in one day. At the end of the day, they’d set up camp overnight and determine what they’d overlooked, done wrong, or forgotten. The traders would then return, rectify the identified problems, and set forth on the real expedition.
The Hudson’s Bay start is a test . For the company, this test by no means guaranteed success; any number of things could go wrong during the actual expedition. But because the traders had only gone a few miles, they could recover from at least some of the problems that might otherwise have derailed the expedition.
I was reminded of the Hudson’s Bay start by a hiking friend who told me he had a friend, Jim, who was eager to go on a multiday mountain hike. First, my friend told Jim, you have to prove you can handle an easier hike closer to home. Needless to say, Jim could barely handle the easy hike. Likely disaster was averted.
A Hudson’s Bay start can similarly be useful for uncovering potential problems in complex, expensive, or lengthy projects. For example, before having a team undertake a massive, multiyear project, perhaps team members could first carry out a simple, multiday subset of the project.
Several steps help make such a test successful. First, to the extent feasible, the project should begin with the same staff, resources, etc., the full project requires. Second, the project is halted after just a short time, and it’s not allowed to continue, even if persuasive voices claim, “Everything is going well, so why not continue?”
Third, there’s a careful evaluation. The Hudson’s Bay traders probably didn’t use a retrospective format, but you can—or any of several other types of assessment for project success. It’s also important to assess whether the people on the project had the right skills, attitude, and knowledge. And fourth, gaps and errors are addressed.
Then, and only then, the project is started anew and in full.
Obviously, the project can (and probably will) encounter problems and surprises. Still, when there’s a lot at stake, every flaw, gap, misunderstanding, or problem identified early on is one fewer thing to have to contend with later on when it really matters.