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What Is Project Management? Choosing Your Goals, Wisely

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: March 21, 2017

There are a million different things that you could be doing right now.

Every manager at a small company knows this. The daily to-do list at a small startup can grow impossibly long, especially if your startup is growing and constantly encountering new projects and opportunities. In a lean, flexible environment where ‘pivoting’ is the norm, the risk of distraction and losing sight of the bigger picture is ever-present.

What is project management? At its most basic, it is the practice of answering this question in an intelligent way.

One of the most fundamental and important habits that a project planner at a small company can develop is the ability to confront an organization’s never-ending list of to-dos, opportunities and new projects, and choosing what to do next in an intelligent way.

And one of the best ways to start doing this is to start asking a simple question: “Why?”

Why are we doing this?

Why should we take on this project? Why are we working on this? Is what we’re doing really worth four hours of meetings a day?

Maybe the quickest way to cut through the chaos of a small business environment when project planning is to ask yourself why you’re doing something.

One reason why this works is because growing startups are often filled with ambitious, driven people who are ready to move forward and expend a lot of energy towards achieving a goal—sometimes any goal, regardless of whether it actually advances the larger interests of the company. 

This is understandable. By their very nature, startup employees are in “go” mode, not in doubting and asking “why?” mode. More often than not, forcing yourself to justify a business decision or a to-do list can immediately clarify whether or not it’s worth pursuing.

Take the time to connect the project goals to your business goals… This will help keep your project team focused, add purpose and context to the work, and provide a reference point when you inevitably have to triage your deliverables

—Mike Beck, Head of Growth & Marketing,

But asking “why” is even more important because it often leads to a series of other useful questions like: What are our goals as a company? How does this project impact what we prioritize as a business? We are a design company—does this logistics project really make actually make sense for us to pursue? Asking “why” ultimately forces you to consider whether your projects are actually connected to your company’s goals.

Once you get into the habit of doing this—making sure that your project goals are connected to your company’s goals—task management becomes a lot more straightforward.

Saying “no” to things immediately becomes easier. If a project or task has nothing to do with your company’s goals, you set it aside and focus on the more important stuff. 

It also makes saying “yes” a lot easier. If a project seems particularly connected to your company’s goals, you immediately jump on it. When you’re creating a project plan, thinking about how the project connects back to your company goals also makes prioritizing tasks and deliverables easier.

In the short term, beginning to ask “why” can keep you and your team focused and organized. But in the long term, getting into the habit of asking “why” can also ensure that your company is doing meaningful work.

Are we pursuing meaningful work?

Numerous studies have shown that the worst-performing companies are ones where employees don’t understand the connection between their efforts and the overall goals of the company. Maybe you’ve worked a job like this before—spending eight hours a day going through the motions and whiling away at busywork that doesn’t seem connected to any tangible outcomes or goals.

Good managers know that more than anything else, people want to do work that is meaningful. Not world-changing, Malaria-eradicating type work—just something that has a tangible impact on the fortunes of their company. 

Many startup managers fall into the trap of assuming that meaningless work is only a large company problem, when startups can often the most susceptible to it. 

Think about all the startups you’ve encountered that are unable to explain, in clear terms, what exactly it is that they do. Imagine how hard it must be to find meaning in your work if you don’t even know what it is exactly that you do.

Startups also often pay their employees with equity, which is meaningless until the company actually becomes successful. Most startups are also often months away from shutting down, and can feel more like an idea than something solid and value-yielding. More than 90% of startups will fail, and very likely, yours will too.

The best way to ensure that you’re doing meaningful work in this kind of environment is to choose projects that move things forward.

Choosing projects that align with a company’s goals automatically simplifies the task of project management. People become less confused about their roles at the company. Employees become more engaged with their work. People start to feel invested in outcomes and develop a sense of ownership over their projects.

In the end, choosing projects that are meaningful to your company sets the tone for all of the smaller decisions that need to be made in a project. 

If you choose what to do meaningfully, so will your team members. Task management will become a reflex and a necessity, not a chore. Everyone in the company will feel invested in the company’s success, because what they’re doing makes sense to them.

Read on to learn about Simple Project Management Habit #2: establishing a project plan.

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