Finding Project Insight by Asking the Right Questions

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Project insight is not easy to achieve due to the fact that not all projects are created equal. Some offer us a crystal clear path to completion, while others take hours of bushwhacking before we can even see some semblance of a path. In all cases, and as most great project managers will attest, getting off on the right foot is crucial—even if it takes a ton of work before that first step can be made.

It’s all too easy to rush that first step, or to otherwise lose sight of its importance as you’ve got your eyes set on what that shiny final project will look like. Once you’ve got the project idea, and your team is in majority agreement that it’s the right idea to pursue, what should your first step be as a project manager? What’s the best way to begin building out a plan so the pursuit of that idea can get off to a strong start?

My first step is always to write out the answer to the question ‘What’s it for?’” began Robin Kwong, Special Projects Editor at the Financial Times. “This is often a harder question to answer than you might expect—especially if you try to distill it down to a few short sentences that can be easily understood and agreed on by the team.”

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For Kwong, maintaining productivity in one of the world’s preeminent business and economic newsrooms demands maximum project insight from the outset. This simple but challenging practice of answering “What’s it for?” helps get his team off to a good start. As he put it:

This generally becomes the basis for setting out the goals of the project, which then allows me to start building a plan with concrete steps to achieve those goals. It also helps make clear who this project or product is for, and therefore whose worldview and mindset I have to really empathize with in order to make the project a success.”

But even once you’ve made it that far, there’s still the work of keeping project goals clear and keeping your team on the right track.

As Kwong made clear in his piece, Why newsrooms need project managers, there is perhaps no better place than newsrooms—places typically filled with antiquated management templates yet trying to modernize at breakneck speeds—to see the importance of project management in action. While many project managers view it as maintaining project insight throughout, Kwong sees it as staying true to the roots the team first rallied behind:

I find that if I had clearly set out from the beginning why we are doing this project, how we are doing it and what we are doing (and have the team’s agreement on it), then not a lot more has to be done during the course of the project to make sure we stay on track.”

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It comes back to writing down the answer to that original question. For Kwong, having this answer written down gets the idea out of his head and in a place where his team can see it. This helps him drive projects forward. “You can easily refer team members to a document or a post-it note or an email,” he says. “You can’t refer them back to thoughts you had several weeks ago.”

Still, new ideas and challenges are bound to pop up along the way. Will pursuing a new idea take you down a rabbit hole slightly different from any channel within your original project plan? Is a challenge worth overcoming, or is it a red flag alerting you to change course?

For Kwong, getting closer to project insight through new ideas and challenges should be met with two simple questions:

   -Does it change the original goal?

   -Does it affect the constraints you are doing the project under?

Assuming you thought deeply and clearly about your goals from the outset,” he says, “it will generally be the latter case.”

In either case—whether deadlines have been moved up or there’s a resource constraint because a team member has fallen ill—Kwong recommends keeping project goals clear by taking these three steps:

1) List out what resources and assets you have at your disposal. Have you ignored or underutilized some because of the assumptions or the frame you operated under? (so, for example, instead of “I can’t meet these new deadlines,” try thinking “I can meet these new deadlines, if….”)

2) Ignore sunk costs. The situation has changed and the only thing that matters is how you can reach your goal from here. Assess the work done so far to see whether they actually are an asset or have now become irrelevant.

3) Figure out the key dependences. In particular, separate out what is important vs. what is urgent. This is a lot easier to do if you have clear goals and a clear idea of what the project is for.

Lost productivity cannot be reclaimed, but it can serve up lessons that help us carve out a better path for the next project we pursue. The process of learning from such lessons is, in part, how Kwong has achieved such success in leading projects at the Financial Times.

We’re all pursuing different projects and doing so in different environments, but if there’s a thread running through all of our work it’s this: Starting with clear goals provides the architecture and reference point all projects need to maintain project insight, clarity, and ultimately stay on a path to success.

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