Five Tips for Starting a Tough Project

Project management is hard work, and complex projects are especially tough to get off the ground. In the real world, building momentum at the beginning of a project is an essential skill for project managers, but there is a shortage of practical advice on the right kickoff strategy. To succeed as a project manager in the real world, follow these five tips for starting a tough project:

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1. Take a walk.

Starting a tough project won’t be accomplished while sitting at your desk by yourself.* You need to get out and talk to a wide variety of stakeholders (executives, process owners, team members, managers, internal and external customers, etc.) to get different perspectives on the problem and the solution space. Ask open-ended questions, listen with empathy and take good notes. Avoid letting your own biases interfere with hearing ideas radically different from your own. For many stakeholders, this will be their first impression of you, so be a good listener, and it will be your first exposure to what is truly important to them as you lead the project, so you want to really understand what they are saying and accurately capture their inputs.

Take a walk also means “gemba”: go to the real place where the problem is occurring, the process is being executed, or the product is being designed or manufactured. Talk to real people who are involved in the process. See what they are doing and ask for their ideas. Talk to actual customers or clients about your product or service. It would be a big mistake to rely on stakeholder assumptions, filtered feedback, or written procedures that document what is supposed to be happening. Go and see what is actually happening.

2. Break down the problem.

Now that you have all this great stakeholder input and actual observations of the business process, what should you do with it? This great data isn’t going to just stay on your tablet. You need to organize it logically because you will refer to it throughout the project, for example when developing the project plan, trading off potential solutions, or confirming that you actually solved the customer concern. You will also use it to develop your communication strategy. See what common themes emerged. What were the biggest surprises? What wild new ideas were uncovered? By the way, there are many options for synthesizing the initial information you have gathered. For example, an issue tree diagram is great for a problem solving project. A process map will be important for a process optimization project. STEEPLE can be helpful for a product development oriented project. The culture of your organization and the purpose of your project will help you make the right choice.

3. Wake them up.

To start a tough project effectively, you need to find a wake up call that will resonate with your audience and inspire them to take action. You will use it to convince leadership why they should care about/support/staff/fund your project. It will also help you motivate team members to join your project. The wake up call is part of the business case for sure, but it is not the same thing. It is unlikely that you can use the financial business case off the shelf as the wake up call for all stakeholders, especially skeptical ones who are trading off many must-do, positive net present value options. The good news is that you probably unearthed the right wake up call from the inputs you gathered when you took the walk and broke down the problem. The one pull quote from your customer complaint database that will really fire up the team to fix the problem. The one graph that shows how many sales are being lost to the competition. A good wake up call will be remembered and shared, so it needs to be simple and clear.

4. Make a plan.

Project managers are always making plans or updating plans, and competency with timing plans, sequencing and interdependencies is important. But when you are starting a tough project, Microsoft Project skills aren’t enough. For many types of projects, for example, those that are trying to solve a complex problem for which the specific root cause (and therefore solution) is currently unknown, the exact timing of the project will be impossible to determine at the kickoff. But this doesn’t mean that a generalization like “as soon as possible” is the acceptable approach either.

To start your project well, your planning should be reality-based and at a high level. First, depending on your industry, there is likely a natural change management flow that will help you calendar your project realistically. For example, in retail, the fourth quarter is peak sales season, so a credible timing plan for a retail improvement project would never have a project implementation date of December 31. Instead, the retail project manager would develop her initial timing plan to hit a window where process changes are permissible, say September 15. Industry trade shows and automotive model years are other examples of natural milestones that can guide your project plan. Then, you can build a high level project plan that conforms to the natural timing, with the estimated duration and key deliverables of each phase.

Being conversant in your plan also helps you start your project well. Talking about your plan not only keeps your stakeholders updated, but it also reassures them that you know what is going on, and that you have a plan. At a minimum you should be able to share three things — what happened last week, what is the plan for this week, and what is the plan for this month — with any audience in any format at any time, without notes or preparation.

5. Stake your reputation.

To be a successful project manager, you will need to instill confidence in your project management skills. You will stake your reputation on every project you do. At the start of a tough project, you can enhance your reputation by doing the above steps well, which will help you gain support and build early momentum for the project. Your stakeholders will get a good impression of you like “she took the time to meet with me and hear my concerns,” “he visited the plant and talked with the operators,” “she really understands the market,” “he convinced me that this is a problem for our company,” “she has the right plan to move us forward.” And equally important for your project management success, you will actually understand the problem and your stakeholders, will know how to motivate action, and will have a good project plan.

My intent is to be thought-provoking and idea-generating. Whether you share these visions and are trying to pursue them, or you have a completely opposite view, let’s keep the conversation going at or @mikefenocketti.