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…But What’s the Most Important Thing?

By May 29, 2019 No Comments

I’ve had a role doing and managing projects for four decades now and I’ve been teaching project management for nearly thirty years. The basics are pretty constant. We have seen incremental improvements in processes and some nice development in tools for sharing, managing, and presenting information – but the fundamentals remain:

1) Get agreement about goals and constraints (and write them down)

2) Identify the work necessary to achieve those goals

3) Build a credible schedule

4) Estimate the effort and cost to perform the necessary work

5) Identify and address risks

6) Figure out whether the project can be accomplished within the desired timeframe and resource constraints and with acceptable levels of risk

7) If plans survive step 6, start work and monitor progress to respond to new information

8) Repeat step 7 until the project is finished or it no longer makes business sense to continue

When I’m talking with consulting clients or students about project management, one question that comes up frequently is, “Sure…. But What’s the most important thing?”. It’s a question I don’t relish… I think all of these processes are important to success. I DO have a recommendation about where to start if your organization doesn’t currently have basic processes in place, and that is DEFINITION (step 1 above).

There’s a great exchange in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” when Alice meets the Cheshire Cat. She is lost in the woods and relieved to meet someone she can ask for directions.

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”

Alice: “I don’t much care where – -“

Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”

Alice: “- – so long as I get somewhere”

Cat: “Oh, you’re sure to do that, if you only walk long enough”

I’ve had variations of this conversation when brought in to consult on troubled projects. “What should we do next to get the project done?” comes the inquiry.

“What is it, exactly, that you are trying to do?” I ask.

A scary answer I’ve gotten more than once is, “We don’t have time for that now, we are behind schedule!”

Effective project management practices start with developing an effective (written) project definition – a clear and unambiguous description of what “done” and “success” look like. This

takes practice, and it sounds a lot easier than it is. One of the most challenging parts is identifying who gets to define success. Who should we be asking? What does that person want? How would we know if we satisfied them? These can be difficult questions because sometimes there are multiple constituencies that must be satisfied, and sometimes we can’t satisfy them all.

That’s why project definition is so important. If we can’t build a written definition that all key stakeholders agree to, the best course of action might be not to do the project. That thought can be frightening to an organization, but if key stakeholders don’t agree what the goals of the project are it is better to discover that BEFORE expectations have been set and the money has all been spent.

Article by Payson Hall.  Payson Hall is a Consulting Project Manager with Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento.  He is scheduled to teach a 3-day Project Management Course at Impact Foundry June 13-15.  For more information click here!