001-The First 5 questions to ask whenever you start a new project (part 1/5)
Cheers! Join us for our new podcast, the Project Management Happy Hour! In our first 5 episodes, we are going to look at the first 5 questions you need to ask whenever starting a new project.
When I sit down for the first time with project sponsors or key stakeholders, especially in kickoff meetings, I like to start with one, simple question. The answer they give is the most telling statement about the project that your sponsor & stakeholders can give. Learn what that question is – and how to ask it – in this episode!
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Having done a lot of training and building a lot of processes, Kim developed a model for rapid onboarding of projects. He turned it to a 1-day training workshop and now; he made it to a podcast for the learning to become more accessible to project managers or those who want to become one.
Our topic is divided into five episodes and it will cover the questions you need to ask when you start a new project. You can use this as a guide whenever you got a new project or when you take over with one is in-flight.
First Question to Ask [5:47]
“Can you tell me what is the single most important thing that has to happen for you to call this project a success?”
If you cannot figure out the answer to this question at the very beginning, then you are probably setting yourself up for some trouble later on.
To quote habit number 2 of Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you need to begin with the end in mind. Knowing what you got yourself into is a good start. This will help you get an understanding of the problem you need to solve and how it needs to be done.
There are instances when project managers get excited and they want to jump right into the project, look at the plans and deliverables. But it is important for you to stop, take a deep breath, and give yourself permission to ask deeper questions to put things in context.
Digging Deeper on Success [9:07]
If the goals are clear and the stakeholders are well aligned, it should take them 5 minutes to agree on the answer, then you move on. More often than not, though, it’s not so clear. In very contentious projects or in situations where the project is poorly defined, this conversation can take the rest of the meeting – which is not a bad thing.
You and your stakeholders need to sort out what success looks like for you to get there. As you work to define this parameter, be sure that everyone is aligned. The conversation can easily slip into a laundry list of success criteria and you need to keep the focus on what is the most important.
Here’s a sample statement that Kim use:
“Those are all important points that will lead to a successful outcome, and our project will be lacking if we hit those. But, if we could distill success down to the most important point, what would that sound like?”
You need to dissect what success means to each of your stakeholders and you also need to share your own definition to them. There are a lot of times that the meaning varies per person. It can be credibility and reputation for some, while others define it based on numbers, for example, bonus. If you can understand the personal repercussion of project success (or failure!) for your sponsor and stakeholders, you will be better off.
Considerations on SMART Goals [12:06]
Being well-trained PM’s, we often want to shape success statements in terms of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-based). Forcing the SMART format can muddy the success statement by introducing less critical parameters. What we want is a single dimensional measure of success that you can use to prioritize other decisions down the line.
For example, if the sponsors respond to this question with:
“Success for us is migrating to the new system with no end customer impact.”
Clearly, minimizing customer impact is the most important goal. So, forcing the “T” in SMART may not be appropriate. If customer impact is most important, they might be OK sacrificing additional cost or time. Especially if it means ensuring there is minimal customer impact.
So, when there are major project decisions, you can bring the sponsors back to this point to ensure you are aligned. You can remind them of their definition of success to help them realize that it might be okay sacrificing a little amount of time to ensure minimal customer impact.
To drive the point home, you will often find that success criteria defined through this method are single dimensional, which is exactly what you want – you want to help your client define the single most important success factor, so you can use that for future decision making.
Answering Who and How [15:45]
The statement of success cascades down to the rest of the key parameters. But, there’s more to defining success –
“If this is success, who will determine that we have achieved it? And how will they do It?”
You need to keep digging into these questions until you get to the right level of depth – or find where you have more work to do. From here, it should be straightforward to ensure that those who need to confirm that you’re successful are involved in defining the project, or at least the acceptance criteria.
If you are already well-engaged in a project, don’t worry. It’s never too late to go back and define, refine, or clarify the definition of success. If you haven’t asked this yet, even if you are well underway, you may be surprised to find it’s not exactly what you expected. It is better to find that out now rather than later.
Probing Questions to use when defining success
- What does success mean to you personally?
- What is your overall strategy in this area, and how does success in this project support that broader strategy?
- Do all the key stakeholders feel the same way about this being success? Does it make sense to bring them into the discussion?
You may be in trouble if
- Your sponsor cannot describe project success in one statement
- It’s not clear who will confirm that the project has met its success criteria, or how it’s going to be done
- The sponsor and/or key stakeholders have changed and you have not revisited the success statement
- You don’t know what the sponsor and key stakeholders have to gain or lose by project success or failure
Principles for Success
- Begin with the end in mind (Stephen Covey, Habit #2)
- If your success criteria are not solid, you are building on shaky ground
- Have explicit success criteria, and use it as your guiding principle