Managing a feasibility study can be a major challenge, even for a seasoned project manager. The work differs from the typical development project in many ways. I’ll examine some of those differences and offer some tips for completing and presenting a successful feasibility study.

Feasibility projects are about minimizing risk
Your colleagues may assume that, because you’re adept at managing product delivery, you’ll be just as well equipped to show that their latest commercial idea is technically valid. This confusion can easily arise in the feverish enthusiasm of those Monday morning marketing meetings, as a response to an exciting opportunity.

But several aspects of a feasibility project differ from regular project work. A typical project involves maximizing resource usage and effort, but a feasibility study is about limiting an organization’s exposure to future risk. For example, Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corp., had professional accountants on the board to answer the question, “How much will we lose if this fails?” He believed that they would naturally prefer to expose the company to zero risk (in the short term) by undertaking no new major developments.

Another way that a feasibility study differs from normal development work is that a study of this type can grind to a premature halt if evidence of infeasibility emerges at an early stage, perhaps because of a massive increase in the cost of components, sudden competitive developments, or a reliance on a demonstrably false technical claim, such as faster-than-light communications.

The output from a feasibility study will be unusual from a project manager’s point of view too. At most, it will consist of a written report, a presentation, and perhaps a proof-of-principle demonstrator. Be particularly careful that your demonstrator doesn’t get misinterpreted as a full prototype, or worse still, as an “almost complete” product.

Feasibility involves more than technical issues
Of course, a feasibility study doesn’t just require a technical answer. It incorporates commercial, organizational, and political elements. As a project manager, you need to be very clear about what parts you’re going to address and how to work with your business colleagues to construct a coherent view. It’s common for academically gifted people to start companies and falsely assume that the technical feasibility of their ideas will be enough, but you should never take it for granted that your ideas will proceed to full-fledged projects unless the commercial aspects also get the green light.

In any feasibility study, there’s usually one employee who is championing the idea in question. Obviously, political issues can arise from the possible need to tell a senior manager that his or her idea won’t work. This isn’t so different from the day-to-day diplomacy required of any project manager in dealing with customers.

In managing a feasibility study, it’s important to understand what the work is actually for. I’ve managed several projects that were intended to show that a particular perceived competitive threat couldn’t be real (i.e., to prove infeasibility). The challenge of demonstrating that you can make something work can actually turn into a time-wasting trap. So, remember that even if something is possible technically, it may still be unfeasible.

What to do when testing feasibility
Feasibility is hard to prove. To control this vagueness, implement a written plan of action. The inherent uncertainty makes planning a feasibility study harder than usual, although the project can fail only if the final report is inconclusive.

Doing a feasibility study takes time up front, and it will probably result in a later start date for a software project. Since feasibility studies are often seen as unprofitable, they tend to be starved of resources. There’s nothing novel, of course, in having a limited budget. The upside of this is that you’ll have a much smaller team to manage.

Team members and other stakeholders all need to gain a clear understanding of the prospective project’s fundamentals—its objectives, scope, and constraints. It’s particularly important to know when the work must stop and when to draw a conclusion.

First, establish a general definition of feasibility and apply it to the case in question. You can plan this by checking how the proposed development measures up. The task is to identify a small range of reasonable alternatives and recommend one, if possible.

Ending the project should always be an option. Projects that are deemed unfeasible usually lack management support, carry too great a risk for the potential returns, or can’t be pinned down to a meaningful set of requirements. A project may simply be unfeasible because the resources are insufficient for management to be reasonably sure of success.

The successful feasibility study
The focus of a feasibility study should be two primary questions:

  1. What’s required to actually undertake this new development?
  2. Should we do this project?

A good feasibility study will contain clear supporting evidence for its recommendations. It’s best to supply a mix of numerical data with qualitative, experience-based documentation (where appropriate). The report should also indicate a broad outline of how to undertake any recommended development work. This will usually involve preparing an initial, high-level project plan that estimates the required project scope and resources and identifies major milestones.

An outline plan makes everyone focus more clearly on the important implementation issues and generate some momentum for any subsequent work. This is especially true if feasibility teams suspect that the development itself will become their baby.

A sound, thorough feasibility study will also ease any subsequent development tasks that gain approval. The feasibility study will have identified major areas of risk and outlined approaches to dealing with these risks.

Recognizing the nature of feasibility projects encourages the successful implementation of the best ideas in an organization and provides project managers with some novel challenges.