No matter how much planning you do on paper, there will always be a few bumps along the way when implementing a complex project in the real world. There really is some truth to that old saying, “Well, it looked good on paper.”
A big project that impacts multiple stakeholders, especially if new work processes are involved, can put your business at risk if everything changes at one time. In large-scale project management, conducting a pilot before full implementation helps minimize risks and prevent a disaster.
A pilot project lets you segregate the change by first testing a smaller sample area for a specified period. The pilot enables you to find, assess, and fix any issues before a full rollout. Ultimately, this approach allows for better risk management, decision-making, and agility to maximize the chances of success in complex projects.
What is a pilot project?
A pilot project is a small-scale test of a new idea before implementing it on a larger scale. The goal of conducting a pilot is to see if a proposed project is practical, feasible, and effective by gathering data and identifying potential issues. Pilot projects are often used in large-scale project management to evaluate the viability of a new idea without committing too many resources.
Should every project have a pilot first? Well, no. There’s no real hard and fast rule on when to conduct a pilot project. A good rule of thumb is to evaluate the level of risk to your organization. Whether the project is short or long, consider conducting a pilot first if implementing the project could:
Pose a risk to customers or employees
Impact the financial stability of your organization
Disrupt the normal flow of operations
Be difficult to reverse
While not every situation needs a pilot, it’s important to consider conducting one for projects that could pose a significant risk to your organization.
What’s the difference between a pilot and a trial?
A pilot is designed to test the viability of a project idea before creating a plan to implement it. It happens before the idea is officially approved, so you can pinpoint any problems with the proposed project before investing in it further.
In contrast, a trial is a controlled test of a plan that has already been approved to evaluate the risk of actually implementing the project. A trial typically takes place in the earliest stages of project implementation before the main rollout. That way, you can evaluate project factors like logistics, communications, and stakeholder engagement in real-world conditions.
Benefits of a pilot project
Pilot projects allow you to test your approach in a controlled environment and gather insights before moving forward with large-scale project implementation, leading to significant benefits.
A pilot tests new ideas or technologies on a smaller scale so you can identify and mitigate potential risks — from miscommunication and scope creep to mismanaged funds and data security — before they become bigger problems.
Since pilots are smaller in scale, they are typically less expensive than full-scale projects. They allow you to evaluate the feasibility and effectiveness of a potential project without wasting too much time, money, or resources.
During a pilot, you can change or even reject a potential project early on without involving your entire organization. This process will help increase your chances of success and allocate resources effectively. Starting with a smaller project like a pilot allows you to change course quickly if something isn’t working. This is especially valuable in large-scale project management, where unexpected challenges may arise.
Pilot projects provide you with data and insights for better decision-making. You can use this information to refine your approach and make informed choices about whether to move forward with the proposed project and what to alter if you decide to scale up.
Pilot projects provide an opportunity to engage stakeholders, such as customers, employees, or partners, in the evaluation process. This helps build buy-in and support for the project. You’ll also gain valuable insights from key stakeholders who will be involved if the project moves forward about what works and what should change during full-scale implementation.
How to conduct a pilot project
In large-scale project management, full implementation is a complex process. But starting with a pilot can help you build confidence in the project’s ability to scale up. Let’s go over the five key steps for conducting a pilot that leads to project success.
1. Choose your pilot area
It’s essential to choose an area that gives you an opportunity to test as much of your proposed project as possible. The right pilot area will allow for adequate testing while minimizing the impact on the rest of the organization.
Start by looking at the big picture of your organization to identify the areas the project will affect the most. Then you can narrow down to potential areas for the pilot, like a workgroup, department, business unit, or district. Like any experiment, you should control as many variables as possible to assess the pilot more accurately. This could involve limiting yourself to a specific geographic area, function, or industry.
Additionally, consider the level of risk involved in the pilot. A high-risk pilot area may be a good choice if the potential rewards are significant, but it may also increase the chances of failure. On the other hand, a low-risk area may not provide as many learning opportunities, but it may be a safer choice for a pilot project.
Settling on the right pilot area will provide the most useful insights for your project so you can make informed decisions when it’s time to scale up for full implementation. This will ultimately increase the chances of the new project positively impacting the business as a whole.
2. Create a pilot plan
A roadmap is vital for conducting a pilot that will help your organization learn and grow. A clearly defined plan will enable you to stay focused on the pilot’s goals, identify issues early on, and make necessary adjustments before considering scaling up to full project implementation.
Several key areas should be covered in your pilot project plan. Essentially, you want to answer the who, what, when, where, and how of your pilot. Below are some of the most important elements of an effective pilot plan:
Purpose statement or goals: Clearly explain why you are conducting the pilot and what it’s intended to accomplish. Include the planned pilot duration to test your ideas adequately. These details will help to ensure everyone involved is on the same page and set measurable criteria for success.
Pilot area: Define what part of the organization is and isn’t involved in the pilot so it’s easier to track progress. Include as much detail as necessary, such as job roles or titles, to ensure this is clear to everyone involved. Be sure to outline any requirements, like when the pilot team will be available, who will lead the pilot, and the pilot’s priority relative to other projects.
Pilot resources: Detail all the necessary resources for fully conducting the pilot project. This might include funding, new technology or other equipment, different office layouts, extra staff, and additional training. This information will help everyone involved in the project execute their roles and responsibilities effectively.
Training required: Determine the amount and type of training needed for the pilot participants, how long it will take, and when it will occur. The right training will help your team acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to execute the pilot. It also reduces the risk of errors and delays, which can significantly impact the pilot’s success.
Feedback loop: Daily feedback is critical when conducting a pilot project so you can identify issues as soon as they arise. Plan for at least a 15-minute feedback with the pilot team every single day. Discuss what is and isn’t working, and adjust as needed to make sure the project stays on track.
Communication plan: Report on pilot progress regularly to maintain transparency and trust with the rest of your organization. This will also help keep your team aware of how the project may impact their work in the future. If your pilot involves customers, communicate any changes that may affect their experience to reduce the risk of negative feedback.
Although a detailed pilot plan is very useful, try to limit it to only the minimal requirements you need to prove your idea — nothing more. If the plan is too broad, it might be challenging to evaluate the results and determine which elements contributed to the success or failure of the pilot.
3. Conduct the pilot project
When you’re ready to go, start the pilot with a kickoff meeting for the participants and provide a detailed overview of the pilot plan and schedule. Clearly outline what you hope to achieve from the pilot project and what success looks like. That way, everyone involved will understand what’s expected of them and the timeline for the project.
Throughout the pilot process, emphasize the importance of the participants’ involvement and encourage them to ask questions and share feedback. Give everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions in team meetings, one-on-one discussions, brainstorming sessions, and anonymous surveys. Participants will feel more open to sharing their insights while enabling you to address any issues or challenges promptly.
Make sure to keep track of the progress of the pilot project and analyze the data collected throughout the process. Rigorous data analysis will help you identify any trends, patterns, or issues that arise during the pilot and make informed decisions about what to do next.
You should also be prepared to make changes to the pilot as it’s happening based on the data and feedback you collect. This will help ensure that the pilot remains aligned with the goals of the project and the needs of the organization.
4. Assess the pilot’s results
Once the pilot has run its course, compile the data gathered. What worked? What didn’t? What had to be changed on the fly? This analysis is vital for determining the viability of the proposed project before you move forward with full implementation.
It’s a good idea to get the pilot team(s) together to talk through the pilot’s results and add additional insights that might not have been captured otherwise. During this discussion, encourage participants to provide honest feedback and identify any challenges they faced during the pilot. This will enable you to address any issues before rolling out the project on a larger scale.
Use all of this information to modify your full project implementation plan. Changes may include:
Revising the budget
Identifying additional resources needed
Incorporating additional training
Updating the risk management plan
Making changes to the project team, such as adding or removing members
Taking the insights gained from the pilot seriously will enable you to create a stronger, more effective project plan.
5. Go for it!
At this point, you should be ready to go with the full implementation of your project. Whether that happens on a phased schedule or all at once depends on your project. In either case, have a follow-up plan ready to maintain momentum when it’s time to scale up. That way, you won’t feel like you’re starting over.
Once you wrap up a successful pilot project, you might be tempted to strictly follow the approach used in the pilot for the full rollout. After all, creating an effective project plan is why you conducted the pilot in the first place. But when scaling up from a pilot, you will inevitably encounter the wide variety of skills, conditions, and limitations found in large-scale project management. These factors make it nearly impossible to follow a plan that was developed on the smaller scale of a pilot.
Instead, when scaling up, allow people to adapt the plan to their unique workflows and take ownership of their role in the project. Encourage collaboration and innovation, even if it deviates from your “proven” plan. For example, you could give a few teams the opportunity to conduct 100-day “success experiments” where they are free to explore other ways of implementing the project. This method can help you discover new strategies, obstacles, and other variables to keep in mind as you continue to roll out the project.
Real-world examples of successful pilot projects
Your pilot should be unique to the goals and circumstances of your proposed project, but there is still a lot to be learned from real-life pilots that have succeeded.
In the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, RKM Media Lab developed the app WeMindYou to assess the emotional wellbeing of underprivileged children in India. They collaborated with a rural child welfare unit to launch a pilot project that used the app in a children’s welfare program. The app used questionnaires and facial analysis to evaluate children’s mental health, then offered them recommendations like yoga and meditation to empower them to take action.
In 2022, a Kentucky-based partnership between a real estate group, a waste/recycling digital marketplace, an environmental remediation startup, and a construction recycling company completed a successful pilot project to learn more about recycling construction waste. This “first-of-its-kind pilot” experimented with an innovative approach to diverting asphalt shingles from landfills: mycoremediation, where fungus breaks down waste materials. By conducting a pilot, this collective group discovered a novel approach to creating a second life for hard-to-recycle materials common in construction projects.
Another example is an infrastructure pilot project in California completed in 2019. During the pilot, city planners temporarily restricted a small part of a busy intersection to only pedestrians and bicycles, then monitored how this impacted traffic flow and community engagement. The pilot earned overwhelmingly positive feedback from community members, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers for how it improved safety and mobility in the area. Because of these results, the City Council adopted a resolution to permanently close the entire intersection to cars in 2021.
Start with a pilot project to avoid disaster in large-scale project management
A well-designed pilot project enables you to test an idea and identify potential roadblocks early on before you commit significant time and resources to full implementation. This provides a valuable learning experience so you can refine your approach before rolling out the project on a larger scale.
The process of conducting a pilot will also demonstrate the value and feasibility of the proposed project, which helps grow support from stakeholders when it’s time to scale up. To learn more about how to build strong relationships with stakeholders, read about successfully managing relationships in complex projects.