When you observe large organizations, the kind that have MBAs, experienced managers and directors, a savvy CEO and a lot of resources, you would assume they succeed at every single project they do. They have the brain power, the money and the experience. Why would they not succeed?
But the reality is, projects fail all the time. They take longer than expected, are often over budget, conflicts emerge, sometimes people get fired, others quit and the project is doomed.
Why is that? Why do projects fail? Why do they fail despite the talent, experience and resources, etc?
Not long ago somebody explained it to me like this. The reason projects fail is because the people that are working on the project don’t know what it is they are doing. There isn’t a unity, a clear goal, a finish line that all involved are working together to reach. The fundamental issue is this:
In both large and small organizations projects fail, not because of lack of skills, resources, talent or experience, but rather because of lack of clarity.
If lack of clarity is the core reason projects fail, how do we make sure we have the clarity? The answer is somewhat underwhelming. It consist of asking the right questions. Questions that get to the essence of the project.
Here are a few you and your team can ask to get you started on the right path.
What is the project?
It is important to write down the project because writing it down actually means something. If you have it in your head, you don’t really have a project. You just have an idea. Furthermore, writing down what it is that you are trying to accomplish will be a solid reference for yourself as well as your team members.
When is it due?
This one seems obvious. But in my experience, we don’t set dates nearly enough. Putting a date down will provide a sense of urgency. It will also keep people focus while keeping procrastination at bay. The more specific you can be with the due date, the better.
Who is responsible for this project to succeed?
You may be tempted to add all the team members involved, but ultimately, it is better if there is somebody that is THE responsible person. Think about it in terms of a professional sports team. The coach is ultimately responsible for the team to win even though it is the players that are tasked with the execution.
Who is your customer?
List the names of people that you are trying to please. It could be your boss, your patients, your patient’s parents, voters, the board of directors or anybody else. It is important to list them because there is a good chance that you might lose sight of why you are doing this project. And when you do, it is helpful to know who you are doing this project for.
Who are the authorities, influencers and gatekeepers?
These are the people that actually matter to the project. These are the only people you need to pay attention to. Define who they are. Everybody else, you can ignore.
Who is essential to the success of your project?
In every project, there are key people that must embrace the project for it to succeed. This group of individual are not the same as the authorities, influencers and gatekeepers. These can be committees, specialized groups, financial backers, that without their involvement you are dead in the water.
What does perfect look like?
Often times, we start out a project without really thinking about what the end results is supposed to look like. Consequently, we lose direction. For this question, it is important to be as specific as possible. Much of the clarity comes from answering this questions appropriately. Take your time with this one. It is an important questions and should not be taken lightly.
What does failure look like?
Failure is an important aspect of a project one must consider. For starters, failure is almost a sure thing. Thus, understanding what it looks like helps one steer away from it.
How would you plus it?
Here is the stuff you put down when one says, “you know what would be cool?” List 5 or 10 things that would make your project that much better. But make sure addition to the projects become distractions that can delay the timeline or take away from the final product.
How would you minus it?
Just like adding little things to make your project a little better, there are other things that you ought to consider that don’t add anything to the project. These are the things that if you take away from your project, you will actually improve it. Steve Jobs asked a version of this question frequently. I don’t remember the quote exactly, but I remember somewhere reading Jobs saying something like, you know when you are done, not when you can’t add anything else but when you can’t take anything else away.
Of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list. Notice, for example, budgeting isn’t addressed. It’s absence doesn’t mean it isn’t important. However the purpose of these questions is to help you and the team begin defining the project in a way that is clear and concise for the benefit of all.
What would you add to this list of questions?
Editorial Note: These questions were inspired and others borrowed from Seth Godin’s book Ship It.