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How To Initiate Projects

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Projects fail when executives and stakeholders initiate projects like they’re ordering lunch at the drive-through window of a fast-food joint. In this situation, you, the project manager, can’t control the scope so the project finishes late and produces very little business value. Consistent project failure usually starts when PMs and sponsors initiate projects with fast food order-taking techniques. Let’s see how this order-taking process works. Project Phases Main Page

The project manager stands at the drive-through window wearing a red and yellow cap that says “Projects Are Us.” The executive drives up in a shiny black car, stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by March, 30th.”

The project manager nods eagerly, gives the executive the “thumbs up” signal and screams at the project team:
“You two, put some new software on the grill!”
“Dan, dump some training into the deep fry!”
“Monica, we need more service rep cubicles and new computers, now!”

The executive smiles, “Wow, you know how to manage a project, no needless meetings or endless paper work.”

The order-taker project manager gives the executive another toothy grin and says, “We are cranking and everything is in green light status. We’re already about half done.”

The executive leans back thinking, then says,”I’d like a network with 30 nano-second response time and 50 gigamondo disk drives. And…can we add mauve wall coverings in the computer room? How about multi-lingual training?”

The order-taker project manager grins and says, “No problem; we’re flexible. I can make any changes you want.”

The executive frowns, “I’m in a hurry, so speed it up.”

The order-taker project manager whirls and whispers to the project team, “Let’s go! Get something slapped together by the due date…we can tweak it later. Let’s get to it!” Then he smiles at the executive and gives the thumbs up sign.

The executive returns two weeks later and says, “Your crappy software doesn’t work. No one knows how to use it and the new computer room is a fire hazard. The customers are still howling about being on hold too long. That’s what I wanted fixed. This is another project disaster!”

Happy Executives at the Beginning… or at the End of the Project

The sad thing about this order-taking technique to initiate projects is that it makes some executives and users happy. When you initiate projects like this, you and the team start work quickly and executives like that. They also like the fact that they can avoid deciding exactly what they want the project to produce. That lets them off the hook for committing to the project deliverable(s). However,  the odds are nearly zero of the PM delivering a successful project and having satisfied executives/users/customers when the work is done. This order-taking approach begins a process that allows changes every week. Why is that? Because the order-taking process does not produce a scope definition that is objectively measured or controlled. Order-taking does not make the executives commit to what they want. Even worse, when the PM acts like an order-taker, that’s how the executives perceive them. So what is the best way to initiate projects?

Use The Best Practice to Initiate Projects

First, you must abandon the order-taking process of listing vague requirements and starting work quickly. Instead, you must ask enough questions and learn enough about the executive’s business problem that you can subtly help them define the scope.

initiating projectsExecutives who are not used to project managers asking questions may resent it. But a successful project manager responds to these objections with a reasonable statement like, “How can I deliver the business end result you want if I don’t know precisely what it is?”

Executives may not like that push back. But it is worth a bit of early executive dissatisfaction because it helps you define a measured business result for the project scope rather than a list of ever-xhanging requirements. Let’s return to our story and see how to do this correctly.

Here’s How to Initiate Projects

The executive stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by the end of March.”

The project manager answers, “Exactly what result are you looking for?”

A flash of anger washes across the executive’s face, “Just get started. I want a project and I’m also in a hurry. When are you going to start work?”

The project manager says, “We’ll start immediately after I understand the results you’re looking for. What’s the result you want from the project?”

“I need better efficiency,” snaps the executive.

The PM says, “I understand. How much improvement?”

The executive frowns in anger again, “Why are you asking all these questions instead of starting work?”

The PM politely responds, “Because you won’t be pleased with our work if it doesn’t help you achieve your objectives. So I need to know what they are. What amount of efficiency improvement do you need?”

“Enough to cut costs by 12% from the customer service department. We need training, new systems, new cubicles, etc,” the executive says.

“Well, if you want to have a 12% cost reduction by cutting staff, each customer service rep will have to be able to handle 12% more customer calls.”

The executive smiled, “Right. Then we could gradually let attrition reduce the staff. Now let’s get into the details of how to do that…”

With this approach, the project manager avoided starting a project that was almost certain to fail.

Initiate Projects Summary

A results-focused approach to project initiating and planning produces benefits in the entire portfolio of projects. Learn more about how to initiate and plan projects.

You can learn these techniques in our seminars for companies or our online courses for individuals who manage IT, construction, healthcare, general business and consulting projects.