How often are you frustrated at the thought of beginning a project? How many times have you put off starting a project because it’s just too big to wrap your head around? Do you find yourself moving a project in your task list from one day to the next because you just don’t know where to begin? Well, take heart, my friends, we are about to break that problem into pieces. Literally.
Consider these bits of project management advice from Lewis Carroll.
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
“Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
That pretty much sums up this article, but let’s assume you need a few more details.
Like for instance, what the hell that means.
The absolute first requirement for the successful conclusion of a project, or any task for that matter, is a clearly defined description of success. If you don’t know what success is, how will you get there? And how would you know it if you did?
This is the problem with management directives in many organizations.
Vague commands with no definition of success. That isn’t a project, it’s a hamster wheel. You can never get off. You will never get to the end because you don’t know where the end is.
You need to bring in more sales.
That is not a project, it’s just a pointer. Go down that road until you hear me yell stop.
Bring in 10% more sales than last quarter. That’s a project. It has a clearly defined finish. You know where you are going, and you will know it when you get there.
Many managers don’t like to give directions like that because they know how the system is gamed. If your measure of success is 10% more sales, you will stop when you get 10% and sandbag any other sales into the next quarter.
But so what?
Let’s use a baseball analogy. It’s easy enough for the manager to yell, “You need to score more runs.” There’s no clear direction, and you don’t know what more is. But what if the manager says, “I want you to hit a single every time at bat.” Per the previous paragraph, some wouldn’t want to say that because then the players won’t try to hit home runs.
But so what?
If every player on your team hits a single every time at bat, you’d never lose a game. You’d never end an inning. The ump would have to eventually call the game due to time constraints after your team scored a hundred runs or so.
Your team was successful because it knew what success was.
And it’s the same with any project. If you know what a successful finish looks like, it’s easier to create a roadmap to get there.
Once you have a definition of success and can draw up a plan to get there, you only need one more critical piece of the puzzle.
The first step.
You need to know how to get started. But to do that effectively, you have to know all the steps. And that is the second key to successful project management. You need to define success and then create a step by step plan on how to get there. And I do mean step by step.
Imagine opening up your task management system to a new page and writing in the space for tomorrow:
Build a House.
You wake up the next day, turn the page in your to-do list and see that.
Oh, man, I can’t do that. Let’s just put that one off until tomorrow. Then next week. And then the following month. At some point, you will come to that listing again and think, “You know what? I can’t do this.” And so you delete it.
You may have a clear idea of what the house would look like when it was complete, but you didn’t know what the first step was.
So go back to that page that says Build a House and underneath you enter:
- Clear the Land
- Build the Foundation
- Frame the House
- Install a Roof
And so on. You still don’t have the first step, but you have broken the one massive project into many smaller projects. You know the first thing you need to do is clear the land, so start a fresh page entitle Clear the Land, and under that you list:
- Rent a Bulldozer
- Mark the Boundaries
- Flag Trees to Remove
And continue until you have listed all the steps to clearing the land. Now you need to rent a bulldozer which requires:
- Get Quotes on Rentals
- Choose Rental Company
- Sign a Contract…
And you continue from the top down with each component of building a house. This element seems massive, but if done in a step-wise fashion becomes very simple. One method I use is to open up a Word document and switch to the Outline view. This brings up the old-style outlines that begin with A, B, C, etc. and underneath that is I, II, III, IV, and so on.
You begin with the first section as the main headers, then break each piece of each part one level at a time until you are finally left at the beginning with:
A: Clear the Land
I: Rent a Bulldozer
a: Get Quotes on Rentals
1: Call Equipment Rental Companies
Now your massive project called Build a House has come down to make some phone calls. You can make some phone calls, can’t you? You could do that today.
I don’t mean to imply that each step of building a house will be that easy, but it will be that easily defined. One small, finite chunk of the whole thing. Easily identified with an explicit knowledge of when each step is completed.
So no matter what the project is or how large it is, I will go ahead and give you the first two steps:
- Define Success
- Identify the First Task