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In my last blog post, I talked about the digital transformation connecting the Internet of Everything to the changing ways we live, move, work and play. Before high-tech solutions can truly deliver on their promises at-scale, end users and other system stakeholders will need to trust them. Technology developers have several means at their disposal to build this trust early on as they go to market with a mission to change the world.

As highlighted by my colleague Angella Durkin in last month’s blog post, people must be front and center to this digital transformation while balancing the needs for environmental and financial responsibility. In order to help achieve this overarching goal, a pilot project formed through public-private partnership (PPP) can explore how technology solves an unmet need in a real world environment with real people.

NextEnergy is experienced in leading the oversight to plan and execute PPP pilot projects. For example, we are a proud partner to PlanetM on their Mobility Grant pilots, a program to collaborate with local, national and global start-ups and innovation teams to deploy smart mobility solutions in metro Detroit and statewide across Michigan cities and communities. Through our work, we have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about positioning pilot projects for success.

Navigating a pilot project towards successful outcomes can be tricky. There are so many factors and considerations taken into account. In this month’s blog post, and while not an exhaustive list, I would like to highlight 7 pilot project pitfalls to avoid along the technology developer’s journey.


A technology solution in search of a problem.

Before racing to the end, there must first be a clearly defined problem statement.

  • What’s the real-world problem you’re trying to solve?
  • Whose problem is it and do they care?
  • Will the pilot project address an unmet need?
  • What do you want to learn from the experience?

If the pilot problem statement is weak and proposed solution does not present a clear value proposition, then partners and end users will quickly become disengaged as other higher priorities relentlessly compete for their attention. Time is money, friend!


Underwhelming partnerships.

The complexities of a global economy, regional differences in societal values, regulatory changes enacted by evolving legislation and supply chain uncertainty are just a few of the challenges a technology developer must face when bringing a solution to market. Strong and relevant public-private partnerships are essential to exploring these multi-disciplinary challenges.

  • Who are the parties (including end user communities) you must bring together to implement?
  • Do they understand their pilot role and are they highly motivated by the value proposition?
  • Are they ready to move with you?
  • Can they provide the financial and/or in-kind support to overcome your team’s limitations?


The entrepreneurial spirit is missing.

Every project, especially pilot projects, needs a team leader; someone that can rally the troops and keep the pilot moving as you face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. How do you do that? I believe that in many ways the attributes of a successful entrepreneur are applicable to leading a successful pilot project: coachability, persistence and resourcefulness among others. Do you have someone with these qualities to lead your pilot team? Dan Radomski’s blog at the Centrepolis Accelerator shares some additional insights into this important question.


Risk identification, management and contingencies are an afterthought.

Every project has risks. To name a few:

  • Scope creep
  • Budget overruns
  • Time delays
  • User rejection
  • Partners bail
  • Unsuitable location
  • Revenue model implodes
  • Or…the technology simply falls short of operating within minimally viable real-world parameters

Pilot projects in particular are more susceptible to risk, specifically unknown risks, as you and the partners are trying something new or different to learn what works and what doesn’t before the all-in solution launches or expands. Developing a risk management plan upfront to reduce unknown risks, along with defining ‘Plan B’ contingencies, is a meaningful exercise that will increase the likelihood of accelerated progress.


In the absence of SMART objectives, success is unknown and subjective.

Pilot project objectives should be clear, concise statements that describe the desired results of the planned work tasks and represent the high-level stakeholder value propositions. But when objectives are incomplete, it is difficult during and after the project to validate progress and to show if results constitute success or not. It can literally make or break follow-on funding to scale the solution if the objectives are not well thought out in the project plan.

SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) objectives help paint a better “big picture” upfront and give stakeholders the means during and after the project to justify actual value. In particular, the importance of metrics (measurements) should not be overlooked:

  • What are the key measures of success?
  • Do you have access to the underlying immutable data that needs to be collected, aggregated and analyzed?
  • Is the measurement methodology (including procedures, statistically significant sample sizes, assumptions, etc.) accepted by pilot partners?


The pilot evaluation plan overlooks human-in-the-loop feedback.

So, you complete the pilot project, meeting and/or exceeding all the SMART objectives, making your private and public partners happy. Your technology solution has been validated in a real operating environment and you’re considering next steps for a launch or expansion. Except for one thing. You forgot to include feedback from real people, in particular the end users that directly consume the pilot product or service. They were never surveyed or interviewed to quantitatively and qualitatively measure before-and-after perceptions, behaviors and experiences.

You might think the passive autonomy of sensor fusion, edge computing, artificial intelligence and other fancy infrastructure tools and methods will give you the understanding of what’s going on before the user does; perhaps it will at first. But a pilot cannot draw conclusive results without the human-in-the-loop element.


Underdeveloped business administration acumen.

You know the technology inside and out. Your domain knowledge is second to none. All the many pitches to investment groups have prepared you to sell a ketchup bottle to someone wearing a Ralph Lauren purple label luxury white dress shirt. Suddenly, your investors demand traction beyond fancy utopian market value projections and a minimum viable product sitting on an exhibit table. The investors now want to see some actual execution in the real world, with real partnerships and real users (maybe not real paying customers, yet).

A pilot project makes sense now but does your team have the business administration proficiency to execute the essentials on the back end? What goes into creating an invoice and tracking the payment, including handling different payment methods and even international payments? Do your funding partners require timekeeping and equipment expenses documentation showing hours spent and receipts for contracted work tasks? Speaking of contracts, now your team must understand another language of terminology and conditions that are legally binding. Along with a contract comes the actual statement of work; the work plan along with associated tasks, milestones, deliverables, scheduling, budget, etc. that form the basis for how the project will be managed.

The reality is, you don’t know what you don’t know, and unless you have the financial means to hire or outsource the talent to take care of the necessary business administration, you’ll need to learn quickly and adapt as you go. Knowing upfront you’ll need to study the basics in these areas will pay dividends later to ensure the successful execution of your pilot project.

A trusted partner for pilot projects

NextEnergy has the experience and the talent to oversee planning and executing pilot projects with public private partnerships in a real-world operating environment with real users. Our team can help you navigate the pitfalls noted above to transform your smart city ideas into scalable solutions that place people at the center while balancing planet and profit.


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