Seven Questions to Ask Before Starting a Project

A Seven Minute Read

One Thursday afternoon many years ago, an executive from our corporate headquarters joined us in Atlanta to projectsreview our annual plan. Our third-quarter numbers had also just come in, giving us reason to celebrate, so an impromptu cocktail reception was thrown together. I also had several key Friday meetings all cancel, so I was looking forward to a day of quiet administrative catch-up heading into a relaxed, fall weekend.

The executive joined me and my colleagues in conversation about our upcoming plans.

“So, Binney, what are you up to?”

Thinking about my upcoming lazy office day and weekend of idleness, I answered honestly. “Oh, not much.”

“OK, great. I have a project for you.”

Nothing good ever happens following that phrase– particularly over scotch and bacon-wrapped scallops. “Okay… What’s it all about?”

“We have a meeting with some folks on Tuesday afternoon.”

Actually, I had some budget meetings scheduled on Tuesday afternoon, but could probably move them to the morning. “I didn’t know you were staying the weekend.”

“I’m not. The meeting is in Seattle.”

“…?”

“Yeah, we’re renovating our restaurant and I really want to change the service culture while we’re at it, and I don’t have time, so you can manage the project for me.” He turned to everyone else in the group, “Good catching up with everyone. Congrats on the Q3 numbers. Binney, I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

Yeah, when I said I wasn’t up to anything, I meant tomorrowHere… in Atlanta…

Organizations have always used projects as a way to drive their business forward: Whether to launch a product, open a territory, celebrate a major milestone or find opportunities to cut costs, discrete initiatives are a great way to break away from the ordinary day-to-day and focus on specific goals. Projects are becoming the norm, and, like it or not, more and more of us are pressed into being “project managers”.

It does not matter if you are an established, PMI-certified, capital-P/long-oh-sound Project Manager or if you have been assigned a proposal for the first time, starting a project always goldfishinvolves a leap into the unknown. Sometimes we are given ample opportunity to assimilate ourselves to the project, its goals, the project team, etc.; sometimes, we hit the ground running.

Before getting bogged down in the minutiae of schedules and budgets, there are some points successful project managers like to clarify. Asking the following questions – ideally, in the initial meeting with the project’s sponsor – can go a long way toward easing pre-project anxiety, for veterans and rookies alike.

What’s Most Important – Performance, Budget, or Time?

The old joke “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it right” is a maxim for a reason. A well-scoped project articulates limits in cost, deadline, and quality (the “project triangle”). Once the project moves from the theoretical and into execution, the project manager will need to make decisions about what gets traded away. Knowing where the priority is in advance (e.g. “downgrade on finish quality to keep it under budget”, “spend a little extra, but we have to be done by Tuesday”, “it doesn’t matter what it costs, it has be less than 0.3 microns”) will reduce delays.

How Much Rigor Do We Need – in Documentation and Reporting?

All but the most insane Agilistas would argue that projects do not need to be documented, but not every project needs the same level of depth in documentation. Whereas one organization might require a work breakdown structure with work packages detailed to “5.3.7.2.3.1 – Correct Torqueing of Lag Bolts Confirmed ”, another might be satisfied reading “5.3.7 – Bathroom Fixtures Installed”. (Another organization might be comfortable without using the “Work Breakdown Structure” format, even). Project managers will want to know how detailed they need to be about the project’s goals and how they will be measured; the specifics of breaking down the tasks (WBS); how specific the estimated resourcing will be (e.g., hours needed, schedules committed); and how tight schedules and deadlines are. Not enough detail and mistakes can happen; too much detail, and the team can get stuck. There is no right answer – as long as the project manager and sponsor are comfortable that the teams know and understand their expectations.

How Will Issues and Conflicts Be Resolved?

Conflicts come in all shapes and sizes – from project resources being over-assigned, or flat-out not doing what they agreed to, to general mis-prioritization across an entire project portfolio. What types of issues will the project manager be expected to handle on her own? When will the project sponsor expect to be involved? What is the project sponsor’s preferred method of resolution – through the executive committee, or by horse-trading in the lunch room? Starting this conversation early demonstrates the project manager is mature enough to know that conflicts will happen, and savvy enough to want to make sure egos are not bruised along the way.

How Much Authority Does the Project Manager Have?

This is a corollary to everything above. What can the project manager decide, vis a vis the quality/cost/schedule conundrum? At what point does that decision escalate? And to whom? When the project manager assigns work to her resources, how much influence does she have, compared to the resource’s reporting manager? Can the project manager requisition funds? Go over budget? Reassign work? Go to the executive team if the sponsor is unavailable? Knowing this will not make anything magically happen, but it will help avoid delays and tension when challenges ultimately arise.

Where Are There Significant Risks?

“Risk” goes beyond assessing the final output; good project managers know where they the pitfalls lie in the schedule, in the budget, my-planin the work assignments, and more. As the plan develops, PMs will dive deeper to both avoid problems, and have appropriate responses at the ready should problems actually occur. At the outset, though, understanding major roadblocks can go a long way to setting the project up for success. Knowing what has gone wrong in the past, what has never been done before, where people are worried, and the like, will help the project manager plan for what can go wrong over the entire life of the project

How Will We Measure Progress During the Life of the Project?

All too frequently, “progress” is only measured once implementation begins – ground has been broken, labs commissioned, campaign materials released. Scoping and planning projects takes time, effort, and resources as well – and should be tracked. Projects often use “stoplight charts” or mark progress as green, yellow, or red on weekly reports. Are there clear rules about how to apply these criteria? Can a project go from green to red in one week, without passing yellow? And what does yellow even mean? If these questions sound too simple to prompt a legitimate discussion, compare two progress reviews from two different project managers and see how consistent they are. I would wager “not very.”

Lastly, How Will We Manage and Maintain Scope?

Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until he’s punched in the face.” By asking the questions above, you will have prioritized the elements of “scope” – time, cost, benefit – and built a solid risk abatement plan. But, as project manager, how will you know if the scope begins to creep? How will you respond? How involved does the project sponsor want or need to be? What changes will you allow your resources to make? What needs your approval? Who can outrank you?

It helps to read closeout reports from similar projects, although it is likely that these do not exist beyond tribal knowledge. Don’t let that dissuade you from taking on the project, but it may be interesting to know what the expectation is around documenting your results.

Not everyone gets pressed into service over cocktails – some get projects foisted on them in less convivial surroundings, and some actively pursue such opportunities. Regardless of how you found your way in a lead role on a project, a little bit of advance intel can set the stage for your success. These seven questions certainly are not the all-encompassing list of everything a project manager needs to know, but they will spark the right discussions.

 

Adapted from the upcoming, Ninety-Nine Questions Your Project Management Process Should Answer

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