How to Start Project in 2019?
Starting a project poorly leads to having to do significant rework later and being constantly behind expectations of schedule and quality. This blog explains How to Start and finish Project within the deadline.
In addition to resulting in constant stress for the project team, projects that start poorly very seldom fully “win” by delivering all expectations on time or early and de-lighting both team members and customers.
What happens when you start a day waking up behind the planned schedule? Often it results in rushing out to work behind expectations, leaving you almost certainly tired, stressed, and worried about what was forgotten.
You hope the day will end better than it started, but it is rare that those days rate high in joy and productivity.
The same is true for a longer period of time, such as a sales quarter. If you start with significant mistakes, such as a horrible transition between customer relationship management tools with incorrect data and angry salespeople, or a problem that’s carried over from the previous sales period, it’s tough to recover even in three months.
So, my Go mentor encouraged me to take my time at the start of the game to think things through properly. She noted that the best Go players would often spend about two hours on the first 50 moves of the game and spend the remaining two hours on the remaining 200–300 moves of the game.
If you want exceptional results, start toward your goals in the manner you expect to reach them—exceptionally!
The Exceptional Start Challenge—the Problems of Starting Poorly
When a project starts poorly, what problems usually follow? Think of a few answers and then compare them to the ones I hear regularly in my leadership seminars.
The project immediately gets behind schedule. This is often true because the team was given a schedule, but even when the team members come up with their own dates, if the project starts poorly they are already behind.
Stress levels ramp up quickly.
This often causes conflicts that take time away from progress. Teams are forced to take shortcuts to make some visible progress. This causes the team to have to do significant rework later to fix the problems they created. Often, the later rework costs more than the original start of the project.
Frequent status updates and requests for recovery plans begin to take up significant time for the leadership of the project and often many other team members, especially the experts. This all takes time out of actually making progress.
The project and the leadership are almost certain to face credibility issues with others in the organization as well as with the executive team. There will be questions, both about why the team is behind and why the team has a bad attitude.
On a personal level of leadership and team members, there can be a loss of will. People will start to lose faith that their mission can be accomplished. People will stop asking for what is really needed; they will just show up and do the work. They won’t put in the extra thinking required to do it well.
If there are opportunities elsewhere in the organization or in the general area’s labor market, projects that start poorly and don’t recover fast enough will face the extra the problem of attrition of top talent.
Projects that start poorly take longer than projects that start exceptionally well. Projects that start well will quickly bypass projects that started earlier, but poorly.
So how do projects start right?
Start by thinking about what you should do. Here, again, are the most effective answers from my seminars.
Have a clear purpose for the project with clear priorities. Why is this project important to the organization? How urgent is it? Are there limits to effort and cost expense that would make it worthless? It is important to have at least an initial high-level answer to these questions and most likely others as well.
Even if the project is an exploration of a possible new marketplace, the project must have a clear purpose defined for the beginning as well as an end result of success in mind.
Understand how important this new project is with respect to the current portfolio of projects. Is this a tactical urgent response to a current problem?
Or is this project intended to be a strategic development to bring new value to an existing or new marketplace? Is this more or less important than current projects?
Choose a project leader whose set skill is commensurate with the project’s overall importance to the portfolio of projects. If this new project is strategically critical and challenging, it is wise to put someone in charge who is ready for the challenge.
Expect leaders to negotiate before the start. The project sponsor who is funding the project should expect the project leader assigned to his project to negotiate. Their mutual expectations must be explored in a way that they are made very clear, such that the differences that appear will be in sharp contrast.
I expect the leader responsible for any project to ensure that the project is starting from a foundation for greatness. If there is no negotiation, this is a clear indicator that no thought has been put into that very foundation.
Start with a small team. Too often, projects start with teams that are way too small, and sometimes with teams that are way too big. Typically, starting a project exceptionally means establishing a strong foundation to add other people to later.
Starting with a small team with the attitude to start the project correctly will make the project go faster and faster as the right team members are added.
Start with the right leadership sweet spot for the type of project.
Test pilots who love trying out new prototype airplanes are not the perfect candidates for making regular flights between Rochester and New York City. If your project is exploring brand new technology and marketplaces, you want a leader who is fearless about being wrong and learning quickly from taking those risks.
If it is a project to build on current technology for new features or services for a well-established customer base, you are not expecting multiple experiments that could be wrong.
You want a leader who will ensure that the current technologies continue to work well for your customer base. Look for the right type of leader for the project context.
Start with a good social mix. Many people taking part in these exercises have noted when executives assigned people who were known to never get along to start a project.
You can start with a volatile mix, but if you are going to start that way, you’d best have a very strong leader who knows how to make the inevitable conflicts consistently constructive. Again, you can start with a volatile mix, but personally, I would save adding those ingredients until a bit later in the project.
Time the start to enable momentum to build quickly. Many of the items on this list are based on the experience of starting up projects poorly. Many times, projects start poorly for the simple reason that no one looked ahead to see obvious conflicts that should have been anticipated.
A common example is starting a project two weeks before a long holiday season and having everyone come back after the holidays to find they have to do almost all the start-up work over again.
When you are deciding on a specific start date to gather the people, make sure there are ample time and low conflicts for the leadership and the team to start exceptionally.
Do you agree with this list? What items would you change, add, or delete?
Most importantly, for your organization, how many of your initiatives start with the criteria you believe are needed to start a project to be great?
I have asked this question in multiple workshops, and in every single workshop, a mystery has been exposed. The attendees had always created a list very similar to the one I presented here. Yet, their answers were that the vast majority of the projects in their organizations started poorly.
This was hard for me to believe, so I asked the attendees to create a matrix of the criteria they defined and score multiple projects against the criteria. The detailed results showed the truth of their statements.
There were occasional projects that scored well on six of the eight criteria listed here; however, the vast majority scored poorly on most of the exceptional start criteria.
There appeared to be a mysterious barrier between the leaders and what they know and what is actually done to start initiatives well.
The Exceptional Start Mystery Explained
We know that we should start projects well. Yet most sponsors of projects fail to do so. Most leaders who are given a project to lead accept the bad start, often without question.
Even if they do question it, most eventually just agree to “do their best.” We know that if a project starts this way, it will have bad results later. Yet most organizations do this.
The explanations I have heard from many leaders are very similar.
Explanation #1: We Had a False Understanding That Starting Projects Earlier Would Mean They Finish Earlier
Many people have explained that they believed that starting things earlier meant they would be done earlier. There is truth in that if you start earlier correctly, and then run the project well, the initiative will be more likely to have earlier success.
This belief is dangerous, however, if you believe that it means starting projects as fast as possible, no matter how poorly, means finishing earlier. It does not. Starting early incorrectly will not have the desired effect.
As noted previously, it leads to rework, conflict, multiple project delays, and many reasons for the project actually finishing later than if the team waited and started the project correctly.
Explanation #2: The Critical People Needed Were on Other Projects
The second most common reason stated for starting projects poorly was that the leaders did not want to move resources from current projects and initiatives until they were complete. This often led to starting projects with less busy people—who were usually people with less experience and skills.
So even if it did many other things correctly, the project still started with a poor base and had subsequent problems, making it difficult to achieve an exceptional finish.
Explanation #3: We Just Had to Get It Started
The third most common reason given for starting poorly after I asked the question “Why did you start if you knew it would be a problem?” was a very honest response. Many leaders have admitted to knowingly starting projects poorly just to get them started. They did so for political reasons to show progress.
It was the only way to stop having to give status reports when they were constantly asked: “Did you start project X yet?”
If you know how to start projects correctly, and most people do, those are just excuses. They are not the real root causes behind starting projects poorly. The following are the real root causes.
Many leaders do not have sufficient self-confidence to say with great assuredness what the right thing to do is.
They have irrational doubts such as “Maybe this time, starting early even with the wrong people and with insufficient resources, will have really great results.” If they said it out loud that actually would help them!
FEAR OF UPSETTING PEOPLE
Starting new projects correctly sometimes means that you must take time and money and resources from other projects. This often means either delaying the start until key people are done with existing projects or delaying the new project.
Both of these call for making trade-offs and dealing with a number of people who may be very attached to the status quo. Fear of causing this conflict stops many people before they even ask.
FEAR OF FAILURE
If a new project is worthwhile, it is likely to be a project with risk. There is a possibility of failure. The proposition of a new project is saying “Let’s start this new project with benefits that may never come to fruition while upsetting the current projects that might be doing just fine with a bet on the future that we might lose.”
There is some reality to those problems. But they can be overcome with the right mindset and with mastery over the proper sequence of steps for an exceptional start.
The Mindset Required for Starting Projects Exceptionally
Changing the mindset changes the actions taken. The following are the key mindsets to fully acquire that will make starting projects exceptionally natural and as expected. Doing so will make you exceptional among leaders.
A Commitment to Excellent Results
The first critical mindset element is committing yourself to excellence. You may think you do this but re-examine this.
Commit yourself to be part of projects that will have a positive impact, projects that will provide great value to those who are part of them and the customers of the products or services provided.
This commitment means that you will consider closely how to start these projects well. This commitment will be true for your thinking if you are a sponsor of the project (you’re paying for it!), or the leader of the project, or even a team member of the project. If you have this commitment you will be ready to speak and have your voice be heard!
Consider the TopShelf executive team from the previous blog. If you asked any of the team members if they were committed to excellence, their answers would have been “of course!”
The results betrayed that commitment, however. They had to change not just what they did but how they thought to get the great results they achieved by the end of the blog.
A Focus on Realistic Expectations
The next critical mindset is to be realistic about the situation. In being realistic, there may be many challenges. Do not let the challenges define your response. Do not let the challenges you face kill the effort before you begin.
Face the challenges realistically. Choose to start small with a focus on a simple, powerful value as opposed to starting with all the ideas you have.
No Is a Powerful, Positive Word
Accept in your mind that no is a powerful, useful, and actually positive word. The lack of ability to say “no” is what drives many projects to start so poorly.
The leader did not say “no” to other projects. The leader did not say “no” to starting a project with incorrect expectations or resources. By not saying “no,” leaders are saying “yes” to trouble. By saying “no” to other projects to enable a new project to start well, you are saying “yes” to building rapid momentum to success.
Commit yourself to learn how to start projects well.
This whole blog provides many ideas. I am sure you have many more ideas. Each person’s style and the situation is different. Develop your own process for starting projects. Be like a scientist and observe the results and adjust your process to achieve better results.
Accept that this is a learning journey, a journey of mastery. On this journey, you shall have bad starts with bad results that are fodder for learning.
You shall learn how to say “no” in ways that will make people say “thank you.” You will learn the starting process that works best for you. You will learn how to teach others the benefits of the starting game, and how to master it themselves.
Clean Starts Versus Restarts
It is exciting to start projects from scratch. Often, we do not have that opportunity. It is much more likely that leaders are involved with long-term projects or long-term teams, or that they inherit projects already in motion.
Many leaders find it rare to start a project from scratch. It is even rarer that you get to start a brand new project and have that be your sole focus.
Also note that even if your project started well, it is likely there will come a point when the team’s plan and also the team itself may begin to deteriorate and even fail. It is not just about starting. It is about keeping it fresh and alive and driving toward an exceptional finish.
Here are some typical examples in which situations may need a restart.
You inherited a project underway, and it is behind expectations.
You are given a new project, but it is supposed to use old technology, perhaps even a defective base to build on top of.
You are given a new project, but you are given it with a customer base that is shrinking while the expectations are to grow the base.
It is not a new project but one you have been leading and no matter how well it started, there are problems cropping up.
It is a project you have been leading and it has been going fine, but now you are ready to add forty people to the team and that should be treated as a new start.
The project is actually going very well, and it is simply time to shift into a higher gear. This too is time for a restart.
Consider, for example, a project that had started exceptionally. The team was doing very well at the two-month point.
Team members developed small, usable products, which they tested with a number of ideal customers. Some of the ideas they tested were considered great by the customers, while others drew big yawns.
They were also ready to add team members. Meanwhile, outside their control, the marketplace the organization was targeting had added a new competitor. It was time to accelerate the timescale.
The team executed a number of steps to restart the project. Because every situation really is different and calls for your judgment to be applied, you should customize the steps to your situation.
Put dedicated days on the calendar for all the steps that follow. For many organizations, this is harder than actually undertaking the steps. It is difficult for teams in motion to stop and engage in these planning steps again.
Nonetheless, this planning is work that must be done. If you watch team sports on television you know that calling a timeout is one of a coach’s most strategic methods. Use it!
Have the executive team revisit the goals with the project leadership. What has changed? Are the goals still valid? What needs to be changed?
Determine whether the leadership of the project is still approx private. This is a critical step that is often overlooked. Some leaders, for example, are perfect for the start-up stage and not so good at the detailed work needed to take a product to production. This pause to restart a project is the perfect point to consider this.
Analyze where you have been and where you are. This is typically a day-long event with some pre-work and post-work. I like to engage as many of the involved executives, project leaders, and team members as appropriate. What were the accomplishments?
What were the disappointments? What is the data telling us? Oh, so many questions to go through. Done well, this leads perfectly into the next step.
Do a restart with more detailed planning sessions. At this point you may have different team members, you may have different goals, and, certainly, if you are more than two months into a project, your short-term plans are either finished or now just wrong.
The sessions to make plans will reinvigorate the team and give it a clean start. If the team was behind before, it no longer is. It can now start with a fresh opportunity to win.
The Case of the Problematic Diva Solved by Starting Exceptionally
Josh worked in what I shall call the Bridge the World organization. It is a midsize organization with about 5,000 people.
It builds projects for the government that need to be sustainable not just for a few years, but for a few decades. Josh had worked on a number of what was called “team of one” projects in which he created custom solutions as quick wins for the customers.
No one knew it yet, but by working in isolation on those projects Josh had become a diva, and he was about to be a problematic one.
The organization was preparing to kick off the Hot Metal project, and the leaders were going to start this one correctly. They had recovered from the “Case of the Team Divided,”.
After discussions with me, they were ready to try a different method of starting projects as a way to set the stage for excellence and as a way to see trouble early.
Select Project Leadership
This step was a significant challenge. The leaders examined their existing project portfolio and looked hard at how important this was compared to the existing projects.
They forced themselves to rank them by comparing income from the projects for both today and the future, based on projections. They also looked at projected investments to keep the projects alive for the future.
The challenge they faced was that the projects were all important. However, most of the other projects were important tactically. They were to keep today’s customers happy. This project was to create a new marketplace and future revenue to replace what they expected would be diminishing revenue in other areas.
They also talked to many of the project leaders and technical experts in their organization. They soon realized that to build the right project leadership team, they would have to take the most experienced team leader from their previous most important project and get her to become part of this project.
They made the hard decision and reassigned her to this new project. They knew that this would have immediate detrimental effects on the existing projects. They planned for this and put supports in place, and they did not do the denial they did in the past that they would have “no negative effect.”
Negotiate with the Project Leader
Here is where many projects fail to start properly. Not this time. The executive team expected negotiation and got it! First, the project leader they selected was not happy about the idea of re-assignment.
She said she would consider it after she studied the project ideas and got some questions answered. She wanted to be absolutely convinced that this project would be set up for success if she accepted the assignment.
The executives wanted and accepted this dialogue. They worked with their Hot Metal team leader to determine the right team members. She wanted a small team of eight people across three of the other leading projects.
She was looking for the right technical mix. They asked her to consider the social mix as well, which led to one adjustment. The executives again were ready to take a productivity decline in these other projects in order to get a good start to the new project.
They repeated this socialization process with each team member. They wanted each person to accept the responsibilities for this new project. Note that Josh was part of the team the leader requested, and he happily took the assignment.
The final thing she negotiated or, rather, stated was to make clear that there were no committed dates until her team finished a detailed planning session.
The Detailed Planning Sessions
If you haven’t done this in your organization, you really must. This step is the absolute best way to find out what trouble you may encounter on the project later and also figure out ways to prevent it from leaking out in the actual project work.
The leader put her team in a weeklong working session where they had to do multiple things. The executives kicked off the session with their aggressive product goals and marketing goals. The team now had to respond with a realistic plan on how to achieve this.
This meant that the team members had to grapple quickly with concepts of what the design of the product would be, what strategy they would use to build the initial iterations, how long it would take, and who would do what work when.
I love these planning sessions because they bring out great emotions, conflicts, and, even better, great ideas. Team members debated multiple ideas, confronted each other with challenges for those ideas, and ultimately tried to settle on a plan for how they would accomplish the goals as well as what they would need from management to do this.
They failed to achieve consensus on an approach for developing the project and how the tasks would be divided. It was a mess, and Josh was in the center of it.
Josh wanted everyone to follow the method of developing projects he had been using on his very short “team of one” projects. Even when the rest of the group disagreed, he persisted and persisted loudly.
This was on day 3 of the session. The problem had first appeared on the second day of the planning session. On that day, the team was dividing up key roles by volunteering who would be responsible for the main areas of responsibility for the project.
Josh was certain that either he should have the four key leadership roles or that they were not necessary. The team did not allow Josh to do this. Josh relented, but with some anger.
This problem was now back in focus again. A team member complained that Josh was being a diva. Josh said jokingly that he would be happy to play the role of diva.
Josh was starting to get some of the younger team members to gather around him. He was charismatic. Other team members were getting quite angry about the situation. The team leader saw that a schism similar to that of the other project was quickly forming.
The team leader stopped the session and told everyone to take a one-hour break except for Josh. She discussed with Josh the team goals and that this had to be a team project and not a Joss project.
Josh kept insisting that everyone else was wrong. The team leader knew that the group was more important than Josh. She did not see any sign from Josh that he would take the “improve” option.
She made the decision that he would not be part of the team but would continue on small projects as a “team of one.”
The organization did need those projects as well. She asked if he would like to be a consultant on the new project and provide his technical opinions and expertise at the request of the team. Josh wasn’t happy about this, but the team leader was firm.
The planning session continued without Josh. The team leader quickly put the Josh issue into the past. She explained her decision and said the most important thing was for this team to be a team. She put them right back to work on making a plan they believed in.
The team members jelled around a plan they believed in. Josh actually did provide input, and the team listened to and incorporated many parts of it.
It was important to the Hot Metal team leader to get a reasonable plan. What was more important to her was getting a team that was committed to the plan. The planning session turned out to be a model for how the work would be done.
It set the stage for how the team members would work together and showed the limits of what the team leader would allow and not allow. The team had a fast, exceptional start. If this was a track race, they were off the starting line and running fast.
How often do you start projects exceptionally? To ensure that you are being realistic with yourself, list the projects you believe started exceptionally. If you want to go deeper, rate how well the project started compared to the eight items listed in the section “The Exceptional Start Challenge—How to Start Exceptionally.”
What are the barriers for you starting projects exceptionally?
What steps will you take to raise your success rate of starting projects exceptionally?