Shaping Your Projects

February 4, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership, Project management 

When it comes to getting a great deal of work done, there’s nothing like defining a project as a means of collecting your thoughts, organizing the activities and understanding the expected outcomes for your efforts. This is true if you are building a fence or a software product, but it also applies when the end result is far less tangible as well. The same approach can be very effective in building a competitive position in the marketplace, or systematically evolving your perspective on a topic.

Often, even in organizations that appreciate the value of effective project management, much of the team’s time is spent in activities that are not associated with an identified task on a specific project. Especially in consulting firms, where billable time is essential to track, client projects can be closely monitored while the rest of the time fits into a generic ‘other’ category. Harnessing this otherwise unmanaged activity can be a huge strategic advantage, allowing you to build valuable intellectual property or improve efficiencies in a planned manner.

Recognizing a broader interpretation of projects and applying a more comprehensive structure around shaping projects can reap huge benefits. Beyond the building of your products, the approach makes sense for determining where your career path should go or which direction your business should take (depending on your perspective, I see them as being very similar), putting structure around what can be a chaotic set of home improvement activities, or extracting greater value out of a family vacation.

First and foremost, don’t get caught in the trap of going with the first idea that comes to mind. Resist the temptation to simply dive in when an opportunity arises, think of it as a starting point for brainstorming alternatives. From the perspective of this broader list, the initial idea may not be the most attractive, and often turns out to look like an awful idea after all.

Ideally, this exercise is done in the context of a clear, consistent set of overall goals and values. If these don’t exist, there is a good chance it seems that you (or your organization) is wandering aimlessly. Step back, consider what is important to the organization beyond revenue, and to individuals beyond having a job.

Once you have a broad range of potential projects (recognizing that those that fail to materialize this time around could still be candidates for later), you need a mechanism for paring down the list. Done correctly, this needs to take into account a broad range of considerations, that take into account a range of perspectives from all stakeholders:

  • How do these projects play to my strengths? Certainly, if you have built up a differentiating area of expertise, it is natural to focus in this direction.
  • Which of these provide the most significant direct value as a result? Here, we look at the value to us, often based on the value we provide to other stakeholders that will make the offering more compelling for them to use.
  • Which has the highest uncertainty? In some ways the inverse of playing to our strengths, we need to recognize that no future plays out with certainty. A project that more reliably can provide value is a safer bet.
  • Which provides the most improved position? Whether this involves a growth in knowledge, capabilities, or more prominent stature in the marketplace, some projects can serve as stepping stones to make future projects more straightforward to tackle. There may be limited direct return, but many opened opportunities. The product you are building in many projects may simply be your improved expertise that can then open up additional opportunities later.
  • Which of these opportunities are manageable now? Given existing resources and reasonable expectations, it is just not feasible to take on projects that are too significant, or involve too much risk. This, again, needs to be balanced against value gained concerns. For software projects, is this a leap we have never taken before? For businesses, is this an entirely new direction that will require significant investment, and do we have the credibility to build a convincing story for investors? Would we be fooling ourselves?

While looking at all of our opportunities against all of these considerations, we need to remember that we will revisit this exercise periodically. The insights we gain here will be valuable to retain for next time around. Dovetailing a number of potential projects into a sequence rather than thinking either/or can help us build a strategic roadmap of activities well into the future. The details several years out will be hazy, to be sure, but this drives us to look further ahead and think about our long-term goals (remember, this is the context we are working from anyways).

This roadmap that we are building becomes a strategic tool that should never be too far from view. While the short-term steps will change significantly, they should always be considered in this overall context. It is an ongoing effort to channel as much of our available resources into projects that support this overall vision of where we want to be, but this effort is well worth it. Indeed, if success is one of your overall goals, it is a necessity. – JB

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