Getting Off to a Good Start

By Susan Peterson

It’s a common fallacy that projects are well defined when they begin. After all, executive management states what they want, and functional managers describe results that they expect to see. What more could a project manager expect? Actually, the project manager needs to be part detective, part psychologist, and part psychic to identify what the real project is. The following is a short checklist of questions to ask at the beginning of any project. It is advisable that the questions be addressed to all relevant individuals in order to get a balanced perspective. Be prepared for silence, confusion, or a lot of talk with little focus when these questions are asked. Depending on the audience, indirect wording (“social engineering”) and lots of “coaching” may be an effective approach.

  1. Is this a real project?When faced with problems that no one wants to address, some organizations form project teams or task forces. Often the issue is actually a managerial responsibility, such as leadership, employee performance, or training. When these types of problems are buried in a project environment, there is no good method to define goals or to measure success. Therefore, these “projects” never end. The project manager is apt to become the scapegoat due to “lack of successful project resolution”.
  2. What are the target goals?

    So often people confuse goals with solutions. A “goal” is what one hopes to accomplish. A “solution” is a tangible outcome. For example, a project solution may be to construct a new facility. Possible goals in this situation might be as diverse as to “reduce overall costs of operation” or to “provide a showcase to impress customers”. With the first goal the project manager would emphasize development of operational effectiveness at the lowest cost. Under the second goal parameter the project manager would be required to “ride herd” on a variety of lofty and ever-changing ideas.

  3. Who will approve the project outcome(s)? What measure(s) of success will be used?

    If a project manager cannot get good, solid answers to this question, he/she is doomed to failure. I literally walked away from one project when the response to this question from all of the sponsors was “We just want to feel good.” The rumor is that they’re still looking for a project manager to “buy in” to that expectation.

  4. What can be changed?

    Time, money and quality are the only three components that a project manager can juggle. Negotiating these aspects is a lot easier at the beginning of a project, even if it is not politically correct. It’s amazing how people will forget the names that they called the project manager at the start of the project if it has a successful end. However, an unsuccessful project leaves a lasting negative memory in the minds of the stakeholders.

© 2014 Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved – No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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