What is a Pilot Project? (Definition, Tips, Examples)

Written by Samantha Ferguson

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Last updated on 20th December 2023

In this article we’re going to answer the question: What is a pilot project? And look at some pilot project examples, as well as some tips for conducting a pilot project. 

A pilot project can help to increase your chances of success, which is extremely important in project management. Especially when you consider that 70% of all projects fail to deliver

So, no time to waste, let’s take a look at everything you need to know about pilot projects! 

What is a pilot project? (A definition)

A pilot project is a small-scale preliminary experiment designed to help you check out the feasibility, effectiveness, and potential outcomes of a project before you get started. 

It’s essentially a trial run that can give you valuable insights into things like challenges, duration, and costs, so that you can make informed decisions when implementing a full-scale project. 

The purpose of a pilot project

A pilot project gives you the opportunity to test out different ideas and identify any unforeseen challenges before you implement the real deal. 

You can also use pilot projects to source valuable feedback from stakeholders and higher ups that will help to inform your project moving forward.

What’s the difference between a pilot project and a trial? 

Although we’ve referred to a pilot project as a sort-of trial above, a pilot project differs from a project trial because it’s conducted a lot earlier in the process. 

By conducting a pilot project early on, you can gather feedback and implement important changes before launching your product. 

A trial, on the other hand, is conducted much later in the process. At this time, you’ve already decided to launch your product and just need to test it out with a smaller pool of people before releasing it en-mass.

3 Pilot project examples

If you’ve never encountered pilot projects before, then it can be difficult to picture what one looks like and how it works. So, let’s take a look at 3 very different pilot project examples in order to understand them a little better. 

1. TV Pilots

There’s a reason the first episode of a new TV show is usually called ‘the pilot’. Typically, new TV shows make one initial episode during what’s called ‘pilot season’. All of these pilot episodes are then shown to television networks and either picked up and created, re-worked and created, or canned. 

During this process, television networks might source feedback from test audiences to understand which TV show is likely to be the most popular (and the most profitable) before they invest in getting that first season made. 

2. Tesla

In a bid to establish themselves as the largest 150 kW+ public fast-charging network in Europe, Tesla embarked on a pilot project in which they opened up their EV charging units to competitor vehicles. 

The 2023 pilot scheme is limited to 158 charging stations in 15 locations across the UK, but the company’s hope is to ‘aggressively expand’ its network after this to promote more EV uptake. 

3. Amazon

Amazon have been conducting pilot projects since they first announced their ambitions for drone deliveries back in 2013. 

And they’ve definitely had some setbacks over the years, such as crashes and reports of alleged safety lapses. But, of course, the beauty of a small-scale pilot project is that these issues never become catastrophic enough to halt the big picture stuff. 

In fact, it can be considered preferable for things to go wrong during pilot projects, because then you know exactly what you need to fix. 

Now, ten years after their first announcement, Amazon have moved from the pilot project stage to running trials. Prime Air is currently being tested in a small number of US locations. 

How to create a pilot project plan

1. Define the project scope

First, it’s important to clearly define the project scope for everyone involved. This means outlining your project goals and any specific challenges you’re hoping to address and overcome. 

Gaining clarity on the scope of your pilot project helps to eliminate any ambiguity and align all stakeholders, so you can move ahead with confidence when it comes to things like resource allocation and strategic decision making. 

2. Create a plan

After defining the project scope, it’s time to develop a detailed plan. Your plan should clearly outline the project timeline, tasks that need to be completed, and any metrics you will use to measure success. 

It can also be valuable to consider any potential roadblocks you may encounter and plan for those accordingly. 

Your pilot project plan document will help you to execute your project in a way that aligns with your vision and objectives. In addition, this plan is a great roadmap to share with the rest of your team, so that everyone’s in the loop and knows what’s expected of them. 

3. Identify resources

When planning your pilot project, it’s crucial that you thoroughly understand what you need in order to be successful. 

Resources can extend to everything from budget and equipment, but also to any team members you need as well. 

Identifying and understanding your resource needs will allow you to effectively implement your project and reduce any potential bottlenecks that could arise (due to being understaffed or under-resourced) and minimise disruptions.

4. Build a team

After identifying your resources and finding out how many people you’ll need on your team (and what skill sets you’ll require), it’s time to build your team. 

This means selecting the people who will be involved in the pilot project. Briefing them and training them, if necessary, to ensure that they understand their responsibilities. And gathering any valuable input they may have before you get started on the project. 

5. Allocate tasks

So, you’ve got your team and they’re ready and excited to work on your pilot project. Now you need to allocate tasks. 

Task allocation will ensure that everyone involved in the project understands – and is reminded of – their responsibilities. This will help to keep your pilot project moving ahead at a steady pace and reduce the chances of you falling behind. 

This is where a project management tool can come in handy. With project management software, you can allocate tasks to different team members and then keep an eye on the progress of these tasks. 

Here’s an example of just one of the task views within Project.co:

Project.co task view

We also have options to view your tasks as a list, on a calendar, or scheduler, and even a Kanban view. 

6. Execute the pilot

You might’ve thought this was going to be the final step in creating a pilot project plan, but there’s more to it than that! 

This is the stage where you bring your pilot project to life. You start implementing your tasks and following your roadmap, executing everything in alignment with your defined project scope. 

7. Monitor and evaluate

While you’re executing your pilot project, it’s important to monitor your progress to assess how well everything’s going – and if things are moving along as expected. 

Evaluating your project’s progress and performance in this way can help you to see whether you’re on track to meet your objectives. This also gives you the agility to pivot and adjust if you find that you need to change tack in order to meet your goals. 

8. Collect feedback

After the pilot project, collect feedback from your team, stakeholders, and any other participants. This will give you an even better understanding of how your project went. 

This feedback can offer valuable insights that will help you understand which areas of your project require refinement, and help you to move from ‘pilot project’ to ‘full project’ with more ease and confidence.

9. Analyse results

Lastly, you need to analyse every piece of data and feedback that you’ve collected. This will help you to identify areas for improvement, uncover any trends, and also highlight your successes. It’s just as important to understand what went well as it is to understand what went wrong! 

You can utilise these insights to refine your approach for future projects. 

3 Pilot project tips 

1. Be clear

If you want your pilot project to run smoothly, you need to be as clear as possible in everything that you do. This means setting clear goals, giving clear responsibilities, and being clear on communication. 

This clarity will allow everyone involved to do their best work and minimise the chances of errors that could result in costly delays. 

2. Be realistic

It’s also important to be realistic. If your pilot project is overly ambitious then it’s almost like setting yourself – and your team – up for failure. 

So, review your resources and the time you have available, and then be realistic with your timelines, objectives, and expectations. 

3. Be vigilant

Finally, be vigilant. It’s important to measure your efforts and then really pay attention to the data so that you can iterate and improve.

Final thoughts

Pilot projects offer a great opportunity to test out your big ideas without worrying about huge repercussions that could cause your company to lose funds and waste time.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like this article: Release Management Explained: Everything You Need to Know.

Written by <a href="https://www.project.co/author/samanthaferguson/" target="_self">Samantha Ferguson</a>

Written by Samantha Ferguson

Samantha is Head of Content at Project.co. She has 5+ years' experience in the project management industry and in that time she's written over 100 articles on the subject and conducted studies on employee engagement and how AI is impacting the industry. She also has a lifetime's experience of being obsessed with organisation and productivity - Samantha is that person who plans travel itineraries down to the hour! Her favourite Project.co feature is the AI assistant.

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