Three Questions for Project Teams

I’ve been reading the excellent book Product Strategy for High-Technology Companies, and the three elements the book suggests for a company’s visions statement are also quite apt for a project team. While I’m paraphrasing a bit, those three questions are:

  1. What does success look like?
  2. How do we get there?
  3. Why are we uniquely positioned to get there?

While seemingly rather simplistic, these questions call for some critical thinking and decision making as a project is initiated. Let’s review each in more detail:

What does success look like?

Many project managers fail to ask this most basic of questions, and may even be smirking a bit that one would suggest asking what should be such an obvious statement. “Success is meeting the objectives of the project, and checking off all the nice little boxes on the project plan,” they quip. Not so fast. While carefully tracking and monitoring deliverables, managing critical resources, and sticking to timelines might get you a sea of green checkmarks in your project planning tool, it may not actually solve the business problem your project is meant to solve. When mired in the trenches of project management it’s easy to forget that our endeavor exists to solve a business, organizational, or human project, not merely as a self-serving entity.

Frequently considering the question “What does success look like?” will reduce the risk of delivering a completed project that solves the wrong problem. Notably, the answer to this question may evolve over time as your project proceeds, and will drive changes to your project plan that would otherwise be missed.

How do we get there?

Answering this question has been the traditional specialty of project managers. We expect a well-defined objective, and trust that others have done the homework of asking what success looks like. With this complete, we come in with our planning tools and methodologies and get the work done.

While many of you are exceptionally competent project managers, and quite capable in managing the most complex endeavors, it doesn’t hurt to continually review how you’ll get to the solution to your business problem. The picture of success may have changed, or your solution may have been thrown off track by environmental or external factors. Looking at where you currently are, and asking “How do we get there” should create a feedback loop of growing clarity on your project’s performance as you move through the timeline. In short, never let your answer to “How do we get there” remain static; your project plan must be able to accommodate changes in the destination, as well as detours along the way.

Why are we uniquely positioned to get there?

This is another question that’s often poorly considered. Sure, we can create resource plans and identify gaps in skills that might require training or outside talent, but there’s limited time spent identifying the unique strengths of a project team in light of its goals and plan of how to achieve them.

Perhaps your organization has an exceptional program management office that provides unique capabilities, skills, or tools that give your team a particular advantage. Perhaps you’re working on a product or process that’s a critical element to corporate strategy, and you’ll have access to senior management to move traditional organizational roadblocks out of the way. Spend time assessing the unique advantages your team has, and make every attempt to regularly deploy them. This exercise is particularly important if you’re like many project managers who work across a wide variety of business units, or act as consultants and regularly interact with vastly different companies and people, where each project may present a unique set of assets that will change your approach.

Simple questions can often have grand implications, and taking the time to ask these three is an excellent way to ensure your project connects to the business problem it’s trying to solve, stays on track during its execution, and leverages the unique assets at your disposal.

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