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The Six Disciplines Blog


Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Best 3 Steps to Kick Off a Project the Right Way

Why do so many projects fall short? Here are the most common reasons:

    • Lack of commitment or support
    • Unrealistic timelines
    • Too many competing priorities
    • Unclear outcomes or expectations
    • Unrealistic resources
    • People pulled away from the project
    • Lack of a big picture for the project team
    • Poor planning
    • Lack of leadership

Sound familiar? In our last post, we suggested that your organization run every project, small or large, through this three-step process.

    1. First Initiate the project
    2. Next Plan the project
    3. And then Lead and Manage the project.

Most of the problems listed above can be avoided by properly front-loading projects with what is commonly called the “Initiate” phase. The Initiate phase is all about gathering as much information and requirements as you can to define what you are actually building, or the “scope” of the project. If you start with an unclear set of expectations you are going to experience something called scope creep, where the project just keeps getting bigger and bigger and no-one is quite sure what “DONE” means. To prevent scope creep, follow these three steps in the Initiate phase.

1. Identify Your Key Stakeholders

Start by learning what everyone’s expectations are. You might think everyone has the same thing in mind. But a smart project leader starts with the assumption that nothing is clear. If you do that, you will avoid a lot of frustration and wasted time and work.

First ask, “Who will this project impact? A stakeholder is anyone actively involved in the project or is impacted, positively or negatively, by it. If you already have a project team, gather them up with a blank whiteboard, sheet of paper, or electronic note, and then type as many names and departments as you can think of. This list should be as exhaustive as possible.

Then ask, “Who on this list determines success and what are their expectations?” These are your key stakeholders.  A key stakeholder is any person who determines the success or failure of a project. Once you have identified your key stakeholders, you are ready to move on to step 2 of initiating a project.

2. Gather Their Requirements

Set up meetings with your key stakeholders. Warning, senior leaders often do not see the value of these meetings. They assume the picture in their mind of the project is what you also see. They also often assume they already agree with the other key stakeholders. This is rarely, if ever, the case. It is your responsibility to push the issue and explain why gather requirements are so important.

Prepare good questions to ask them questions to gather their requirements for the project. And be sure to take good notes. There are three types of questions you should consider for your interviews.

    1. OPEN questions – “What does your department want to see come out of this project?
    2. DETAILED questions – “Can you tell me what efficiency % you would hope this project would get production to?”
    3. CLOSED – questions – “Are you good if this project is delivered by October 15th, 2020?”

Listen specifically for what we call the internal project priority. Or the main constraints that affect the project. For example, the red line represents is your natural constraints.

Most key stakeholders are going to ask for big projects, in short timelines, with as little of resources, people and money, as possible (the importance of each of the main constraints is illustrated by the gray circles).  This is not a reality. Your job as a project manager is to figure out which of these constraints is most important to your stakeholder.

If they have a hard and fast deadline, then the timeline constraint is most important to them (the larger timeline circle below illustrates the importance of a short timeline). That means then you might have to limit the scope of your project, take out a few deliverables, or pump more people and money into the project.

If your budget is tight or your people resources are limited, you may still have to deliver on a decently large project, but to do so you are going to need more time. Whatever the case, be sure to use good questions to get the information you need. “If we are going to go over budget, can we extend the deadline a month until more resources are available?”

3. Complete a Project Charter

“We are more in need of….a compass and less in need of a road map. We often don’t know what the terrain ahead will be like or what we will need to go through it; much will depend on our judgment at the time. But a compass will always give us direction.”

– Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”

The project charter is the culmination of the Initiate phase. It is a document that provides a shared understanding of the project. It is your compass for the project. Stakeholders can see, in one place, the why, what, and how of the projects. The project team now have a guide when deciding what to do and what not to do. And, ultimately, it describes what success looks like for the project.

To complete your project charter, document the following:

    1. Describe a clear reason and measurable outcome
    2. Identify who is on the project team
    3. Set up clear accountability with the project sponsor and be sure to agree to their communication needs
    4. Internal project priority – rank and describe these constraints: scope, timeline, and resources
    5. Other key stakeholder interview notes

With you project charter complete, you are ready to begin planning your work. Be sure to check out our next post in the project management series to learn the three steps to plan a project right.

Want to start helping your managers manage all there projects effectively? Click here to learn more about Six Disciplines’ Workgroup Alignment Kit. Click here to book a demo of our management system.

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Since 2005, the Six Disciplines blog offers posts about performance excellence, strategy execution, business coaching, leadership development, innovation, and business process improvement. This blog has received prestigious awards for leadership and management and has been syndicated by several major media sources.