What to Know When Starting a Project

Over the years I have headed up hundreds of projects for companies as a consultant. One thing that continues to come to the surface in project after project is the need to understand a few key things before beginning. I’ve boiled these lessons down to a set of questions to answer that will help you get the information you need. While I’m gearing this discussion towards business users, this discussion will really apply to just about any project.

Under each of these questions, I’ll explain what I am really looking for when I ask this question and I’ll try to clarify what that tells me. Answering these questions is important, but knowing how to answer them and what those answer mean is even more important. To help illustrate each point, I will include the answers from an example company at the end of each section. The example company we will be looking at is Widgets Inc. They are looking to hire someone to develop a new website for them. Let’s jump right in.

What is the end result you are hoping to achieve?

This is the first place I start. I don’t want a definition of the project, I want to know what you want to achieve. The reason this is such an important question is because not knowing this will cripple a project from the start. When you look at the true end result you want to see accomplished, it helps you better define your project goals. It also helps you know what to compromise on and what to hold fast on. The key here, though, is to make sure you understand the real end result. For instance, the end result isn’t “a new website”. That is a means to achieve the end result. In that specific case, the end result you are actually looking for might be “increased visibility nationally”. See the difference? The first can only be achieved one way and it is very specific. The second is a broad concept that can be achieved in a number of ways, the best of which might be a new website.

Case Study: After wresting through the fact that the end result really wasn’t a website, we figured out that the true end result we are looking for is increased exposure and sales to a wider region than we currently have. Right now we have one storefront in Buffalo, NY. We want to sell our products worldwide.

How do you believe this project will accomplish that end result?

Here is where you get into the means by which you will achieve your end result. You have identified what you believe to be the best way to get your results. Now you need to explain your thought process. This is a great exercise because it makes you really think through your assumptions about why this project is the best decision to move you forward. Take some time on this and make sure you understand and can communicate why you project is the best way to achieve your desired results. When you bring in your project manager/consultant, this will be (or should be) a key question to review. The assumptions that you have made will need to be discussed. It is the job of the project manager/consultant to make sure that those assumptions are correct. Otherwise, even if the project is completed, the project will be considered a failure if it fails to accomplish the desired end results.

Case Study: This seemed like an obvious question. Having a website will allow visitors to visit our (virtual) store no matter where they are around the world and it will allow them to buy from us during that visit. However, we realized that just having a site won’t be enough since people won’t know to go there. We’ve since updated the scope of the project to include advertising and SEO (search engine optimization) of the site in order to get our message out there once the site is live.

What are the alternatives you entertained?

If you have only considered one way to accomplish your desired end result, you haven’t done your homework. In the movie Captain America, there is a scene where the men are given a task of getting the flag off of the top of the flagpole. Multiple guys attempt to climb the pole to no avail. They all quickly identified how they needed to accomplish the goal and then they fixed on that method. They didn’t consider the alternative methods. The man who would become Captain America assessed the situation and then pulled the pins that held the flagpole in place. The pole fell and he was able to easily reach the flag. By considering alternative ideas, he was able to accomplish the goal without a major output of energy.

Having alternative ideas also helps you with a fallback plan. Maybe you have identified the way that you think is best but you know that three of the ideas you considered would be viable solutions. Keep all three ideas in your documentation. That way, if you find out that your best idea is prohibitively expensive or won’t work for some other reason, you can reconsider plans B and C. This also works for different versions of a project. Know what you can sacrifice out of a project while still ensuring the completion of your desired end result.

Case Study: I didn’t think there was an alternative. If you want to sell internationally, having your own website is the only way to do it, right? It turns out that this isn’t true. We could partner with wholesalers or big box stores to sell our products for us internationally. We could leverage their brand to gain a wider audience quickly. The upside here is that we wouldn’t need the advertising dollars we were initially planning. However, we would have smaller profits on our products because of the margins the resellers would require. We also found that we could split the difference and sell our products directly using a third-party website solution like eBay. This would increase our visibility and retain most of our profit margin but it doesn’t look as professional as a fully-branded website. In the end, we still feel that building our own website is the best way to accomplish our goals.

As it turns out, though, there are actually multiple ways to create a business website. We could buy a template site for a couple hundred dollars and then put our products in it relatively quickly. The other end of the spectrum would be to have a custom site built exactly to our specifications. It would be much more expensive, but it would be more professional and it would have the features we want. In the end, that was the option we chose and the one we are going to stick with, but now we understand what the alternatives are in case we cannot proceed with our first choice.

Why did you reject those alternatives?

This is an extension of the last question. Basically, you need to know why the alternatives were rejected because you might need to reconsider them at some point. For instance, I mentioned having a plan B and C above. If you have to go to that plan B, knowing what you are sacrificing is key to good communication and to setting expectations properly.

Case Study: We already started to answer this when we figured out our alternatives. We chose not to go with a wholesaler or big box store because it cut too deeply into our profit margin. We decided not to go the third-party sales site route because it wasn’t professional and we didn’t want our brand to be seen as cheap or unprofessional. Finally, we chose not to go with the template website because it does not reflect the level of quality of our products.

How important is this project to your business?

I usually look for the general answer first (very important, critical, not that important, etc.) but then I want to dive into the specifics. I’ll ask follow-up questions like “Is there a financial impact on the company?” and “What will this change in your bottom line once the project is completed?” Note that these are starting to sound like financial questions. They aren’t really always about finances but typically money is a key indicator since the bottom line reason most companies exist is to make money. For those companies that don’t have money as their end goal (non-profits for instance), these questions still apply although the focus might change a bit. For instance, a project might change the bottom line of a non-profit by x dollars a year which will allow them to hire three more staff members to increase a particular area of the business. It is still financial, but the true effect is an improved ability to meet the goals of the business.

Case Study: This is a vital project for our business. If we want to take the next step and grow our company in a significant way, this is the way we feel we have to do it. We want to triple our workforce in the next five years and we cannot do that without being in a large new market. Right now we have good market penetration in the Buffalo area, but that means our business has grown about as large as it can go. We need new customers and we feel this is the way to do it.

What is the cost of failure?

This can be an unpleasant topic. No one wants to fail. However, knowing the cost of failure is critical for two reasons. First, it helps put into perspective the importance of the project. If the cost of failure is nothing, how important is the project really? Second, it helps motivate you to succeed. If you know that the cost of failure is that you will need to cut your staff by 40% that should motivate you to ensure that the project is successful.

Case Study: Failure means we won’t grow. Like I said, we have good market penetration where we are. There aren’t many new customers in our area to be had. If this project fails, we will have invested a good portion of our development budget into something that could actually hurt our business. If we get bad PR because of the website, it could actually hurt the company badly. We cannot afford to have a bad experience with this site. We also can’t look to grow again for a while until we pay off the expenses of this project, so if it fails, it will take us years to get traction again.

Who owns the project?

Someone has to be in charge on the client end of the project. It has to be someone with authority to agree that the project is completed and who can make adjustments to the scope or implementation of the project. In my opinion, the most successful project owners are single individuals or individuals with an advisor or two. Committees or groups as project owners don’t work well. If the project manager does not have the ability to go directly to the decision-maker, the entire process bogs down. Personally, I charge a customer more if I can’t work directly with one decision maker. I know that more time will be taken up working through the process so I bill them accordingly. My advice is to put one person in charge. One role I’ve played before as a consultant is to be the advisor to the person in charge. I can help them work through the issues that come up with the project while still not interfering with their ability to make decisions. If you aren’t confident that the project owner can make all of the decisions on their own, either give them help from another internal person or hire a consultant to help them out.

Case Study: The initial thought here was that the Communications department would head up the project ownership but that major decisions would need to be run past the president and major department heads for approval. After talking it through, and after many heated discussions, we finally decided to put the Director of Communications in the role of project owner. She will have the final say in the project decisions. She will report to the department heads weekly via email and monthly in person in order to keep them in the loop but the final decisions rest with her. Instead of hiring a consultant to help her, we have hired a consultant to run the project. This will provide help to her but it will also ensure the project has a good leader to keep it on track.

What are the skills you are looking for in your project manager?

Before you put someone in charge of the project, you need to figure out what they should be good at. For instance, I’ve seen quite a few projects where the person in charge is the person that knows the most about how to complete the project. Unless you have a very small project, that usually isn’t a good idea. If the person knows the most about accomplishing the project goals, let them do that. Put someone else in charge of the project, who can handle the communication, the organization, and the overall management of the process. Personally, I recommend that you find a good communicator as a project manager. In my experience, projects fail unnecessarily as a result of poor communication. Find a person who can properly set expectations and keep everyone in the loop. Obviously there is more to project management than that, but this is a great foundation to start with for a project management candidate.

Case Study: As we said before, we decided to hire a consultant to be our project manager. We didn’t plan to do so but once we figured out the skills the project manager needed to have, we didn’t feel that any of our employees were up to the task. The skills we identified were in the areas of project management experience (have they done something similar before), communication (can they clearly explain difficult issues to people in a way that the listeners will understand), and technical ability (do they have a good understanding of what it takes to design a website). In the end, we found a project manager who had a deep technical background to help us. Since this project is important to our business, we felt that the extra cost was worth it to dramatically increase the likelihood of success.

What type of support to you plan to give to this project?

We’ve already established how important you feel the project is to the company. Now we need to back that claim up. When people here support, the first thought they typically have is financial support and this is a part of it but it is more than that. For instance, you need to budget time with stakeholders. When I implemented a large data system at an organization, I needed access to stakeholders from every department. We spent hours with each group, going over their needs and then identifying how the system would integrate with their particular departmental processes. During implementation, we needed access to everyone for training. That meant that departments had to be understaffed while we trained half of their people at a time.

Support might also take the form of dedicated or semi-dedicated employee resources for the project. For instance, you might assign one of the area experts to work on the project nearly full-time even if the project is being outsourced to a consulting agency. This may feel like a waste, since the project is being outsourced, but the opposite is true. First, it will give the consulting agency an invaluable resource that will increase the likelihood that the project will be successful. Second, having a dedicated resource helping out will encourage the agency to work harder on the project since there is a level of transparency that might not otherwise be present.

Case Study: We have dedicated a significant budget to this undertaking, with 20% extra beyond the expected costs being set aside so that cost overruns won’t immediately kill the project. We have also hired a consultant to be the project manager in order to raise the chances for success for the project. Internally, we have dedicated our Director of Communications to work at least 20 hours a week on this project and she has been given the full-time assistance of an intern to help with the simpler tasks. We have also scheduled company downtime near the end of the project for corporate training. Throughout the project, we have also scheduled time for each department to interact with the project team to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

How do you define success for the project?

Spend a lot of time here. This should a set of measurable, achievable statements. These may not directly relate to your desired end result. For instance, your desired end result might be more sales but the project might be to open a new store location. Therefore, your definition of success might be the following:

  • Training of the 3 staff members and one manager to company standards
  • Complete stocking and preparation of the store for business
  • Project completed in time for being open on October 1, 2013

While this is a rough set of success definers, it does highlight a couple of key points. First, note that there are multiple items here. Rarely does a project have the opportunity to meet one simple requirement. If you find yourself with one item that defines the success of your project, make sure you don’t have hidden expectations. Second, note that there are specific keywords in these items like “finished” and “complete”. These qualifiers ensure that you are clear about what you mean. For instance, the first line could read “opening of a new storefront at at 123 Wallace Street”. The problem there is that you can open a store before everything is complete. This raises an important point. Once the project satisfies the definition of success, the work is complete and the project needs to be closed shortly thereafter. This is important both for the project manager and the project owner to understand. This makes communication much clearer and it prevents a lot of frustration on both sides.

Case Study: Tough question. Our first response was “a website that will allow us to sell products online”. That’s what we wanted, right? But after talking this through for a while, we figured out that we were really expecting our sales numbers to change. That led into a discussion on whether this was a part of the project or an intended result of the project. Finally we determined that increased sales numbers was an intended result but that we did want to see international exposure for our products as a part of this project. In the end, we came up with these success criteria:

    • A custom e-commerce site that reflects the high standard of quality that we expect out of or products
    • The complete website with all areas debugged and working properly by July 1, 2013
    • Multiple training sessions for the staff completed one month before launch
    • An initial advertising campaign completed by September 1, 2013 that includes ads on 10 major websites related to our products, at least two of which should be focused towards the international market

We know we are going to have to maintain our site and continue the advertising, but this will get us launched. We feel that the project will be a success if we can have these things accomplished in the timeframes specified. Once the project is complete, we will begin to be able to assess if our initial assumptions about what the project would do for us were actually true.

What is your communication plan?

Whatever it is, it isn’t good enough. That is the simple truth that I keep finding out on every project I am on. You need to make communication a first-class citizen in your project. It is just as important as doing the “actual work”. Make sure you identify the groups that need to be communicated with and then develop a plan for each of them. Set dates on the calendar for communication and put triggers in milestone events for communication as well.

Case Study: We already know that the Director of Communications will be communicating to the department heads once a week via email and once a month in person. Beyond this, however, she will meet with the president once a week to discuss the progress of the project. Each department will have a chance to talk to the project team at the beginning of the project. The departments will also be consulted as necessary for clarifications. The subject matter expert from each area will be the point person for those communications. That person will then keep the rest of the department informed of the discussions. The project manager will be responsible for keeping the project plan up to date. This plan will be used in communication with each group of people. The employees as a whole will receive email communication about the project at least once a month. Quarterly meetings will also have a timeslot reserved for the project team to communicate their progress. Finally, all milestones will be celebrated. Everyone will be notified what milestone was reached and what it means for the project. Department heads will also get a status report that goes into more depth as to what the status is of the project at that milestone and what adjustments have been made. All of this and more has been documented and put into the project plan so that it will be carried out consistently.

How do you rank time, quality, and cost?

The standard thinking in project management is that you can only pick two of these. If you want something fast and cheap, it won’t be good quality. If you want it to be good quality and cheap, it will take a lot of time. However, this is a simplistic view and it also leaves off two more items: risk and scope. Instead, start prioritizing these five items. If your deadline is January 1st and you cannot miss that deadline, time has to go to the top of the priority list. Start figuring out roughly what is most important to you and what is least important. I say roughly because you may find instances where one item becomes less important at a particular juncture than another. For instance, money might be important but if you are already six months behind schedule it might be more important to hold fast to time now and sacrifice some money. The bottom line here is that you need to know (and communicate) what your priorities are.

Case Study: We decided right up front to put a 20% buffer in our financial budget for this project. We would rather spend more versus see the project fail. However, our timeline is fairly set. We had to schedule the downtime well in advance and we want to hit the fall widget market right when it is opening up so our time is a very high priority. Quality is also important, since we are new to the online space and we want to make a great first impression. As far as risk and scope, we can see scaling back the project somewhat in order to make a deadline so scope isn’t a huge priority. Risk is something we hate but this entire project is a risk. We don’t want to incur more risk if we can help it but we will roll the dice if we have to in order to get this project done.


So that’s my list of standard questions I as at the beginning of every project. Depending on the situation, I’ll ask others as well but this set really gets you established along the path to success in your project. My one last piece of advice would be that if you look for an outside consultant, make sure you get one that is both skilled and relatable. If you can’t understand exactly what they are trying to communicate, find someone else. As for their skill, that is different in every situation, depending on what you are looking for. For example, I’ve got over fifteen years of technical and project experience but I decided that in order to show that I am skilled, I also acquired my PMP certification. That is a visual representation to my clients that I know how to run a project. To the clients I try to target, that is important. However, for you it might be totally different. You might put more value on industry knowledge or other types of work experience. Whatever you choose, make sure you don’t compromise on quality. Doing so greatly increases your risk to the project’s success.

In order to make this post more actionable for you, I’ve attached these questions in PDF format. Feel free to use these resources on your own projects. The only thing I ask is that you don’t remove my information from the document. If you get stuck, please feel free to contact me.

Attachment: Foundational Project Information Checklist


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