Art of the project start

Abstract

Why do great projects sometimes die before they even start? Why do so many projects “miss the mark” because they were not properly defined? Why are stakeholder expectations so hard to capture? What's the secret to successful project starts?

Your project success and results depend on those critical project start activities. Your project vision needs to be crafted to ensure consistency of purpose and clear communications. Initial project activities require much more than execution of templates and processes. They require the expert application of soft skills to ensure that expectations are captured and set and that leadership for the project is established right from the beginning.

Pick up where the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fourth Edition leaves off. Learn how to start your projects for win-win solutions and to improve and sustain success. The purpose of this paper is to provide tools and techniques for starting your critical projects. Included are tips and techniques for crafting powerful project visions, selling the project vision, and communicating the vision through powerful presentation techniques.

Introduction

“Pooh looked at his two paws. He knew that one of them was the right, and he knew that when you had decided which one of them was the right, then the other one was the left, but he never could remember how to begin” (Hoff 1982, p. 12).

Great projects are the result of great efforts. Some great projects have the added value of powerful starts. The start of any project is extremely critical. As the leader of various project management offices in multiple industries, I have had the opportunity of reviewing project starts for over 3,000 projects over the last 10 years. The successful projects are successful primarily because they deliver what the project team promises to deliver. Recent technology advances have complicated the project management process and have introduced new gaps in knowledge and process. Great project starts set the tone for successful projects. In my experience, the best projects were those that not only delivered what they promised but also resulted in incremental financial and non-financial value to the stakeholders of the project. Great projects producing new products also tend to produce wealth to the clients and to the providers.

The ideas presented in this paper are based on the premise that the probability of success will increase by more clearly defining the vision of the end product or process to be produced by the project. In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey teaches us to “begin with the end in mind.” Covey states that this habit is “based on the principle that all things are created twice. There's a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation to all things.” (Covey 1989, p. 99). The project start process proposed in this paper leads to the first creation of the product or process. With this first creation as the foundation, the parameters of the project can be more clearly defined and managed thereby allowing for the successful execution of the second creation, the final product, or service.

Additional factors which contribute to the successful start of successful projects include the effective use of soft skills to deliver the project vision and plan and the use of powerful presentation skills to sell the project. This paper will provide tools and techniques for starting critical projects. This paper is organized into five sections:

  • Factors for Powerful Starts—a presentation of the factors that make a powerful start powerful. This will include factors that contribute to a faulty start.
  • Art of the Hard Skills—a presentation of the hard skills (tools and techniques) which can help shape the project and get it off to a smooth start.
  • Art of the Soft Skills—a presentation of the soft skills required for a successful and powerful project start.
  • The Art of the Presentation—this section addresses those first impressions through presentation techniques that collapse the complex into easy to discuss components; use the art of the presentation to establish project leadership at the beginning.
  • A Seven Step Approach—this section presents a seven step approach to delivering winning project proposals.

Factors for Powerful Starts

What Makes a Start Faulty?

In order to understand the factors that make a project start effective and powerful, we should examine the factors that make a project start faulty. Faulty starts contribute to the premature deaths of many projects, even potentially great projects. The following are indicators of faulty starts:

  • Failure to obtain executive approval. Regardless of the soundness of the project proposal, if the project fails to obtain executive approval, then the project start is ineffective.
  • Failure to obtain funding. Although a project may obtain buy-in from the approving executives, funding may be another issue altogether. Sometimes, funding may be provided provisionally or may be delayed because the project start did not effectively promote the need for immediate funding.
  • Missed vision or objectives. A project start can be considered faulty, if the project ultimately delivers results that differ from the originally promised vision or objectives.
  • Faulty expectations. Setting up false or misleading expectations (over promising) can lead to problems with project delivery, project closure and stakeholder satisfaction.
  • Unrealistic objectives. Unrealistic objectives (unrealistic delivery dates, high value results for smaller than practical budgets, etc.) can also lead to disastrous project results and stakeholder satisfaction.
  • Loss of business. A faulty start can lead to the loss of future business with a client.
  • Damaged relationship. Faulty starts can also damage a relationship by creating an environment of mistrust. Personal relationships may also suffer as a result of a faulty start.

Having personally reviewed thousands of project starts and having an approval role in the majority of these starts, I have collected several primary reasons that cause project starts fail. While I am sure that this list is not conclusive, these factors or a combination of these factors do contribute to a majority of project start failures.

Poor Concept: If the concept of the project or the vision of the project is poorly stated or presented, the project start may fail to get executive buy-in, funding, or stakeholder commitment. The project idea may suffer from being understated, overstated, or not stated at all. If the concept is not easily understood and embraced by the audience of the concept, then the project start will most likely fail.

Weak Justification: Sometimes the concept may be properly stated but the justification for the project is weak. Perhaps the financial perspective of the project does not support a strong enough business case for the project. As an approver for many projects, especially technical projects, I often had a hard time approving a project that did not show some strong financial benefit or built a very strong case of non-financial benefits. Many times, in my observation, the lack of justification indicated a lack of commitment on the part of the team to build a compelling business case. If the team could not commit to a strong business case, I had lowered expectations regarding the outcomes of the project.

Lack of Planning Skills: Project starts can become faulty, if the presentation of the project does not convince the stakeholders that the project team has planned effectively or displays the use of planning skills and techniques in the presentation of the project proposal.

Lack of Financial Understanding: Lack of financial understanding can also contribute to the failure of a project start. If the numbers do not “add up” or the financial return on investment does not appear to be properly thought through, then the project proposal may be rejected. Sometimes this lack of financial understanding is not a lack of financial knowledge but a lack of understanding the expectations of the stakeholders focused on the costs or financial benefits of the project. In my experience, many failed project starts due to financial reasons fail because of incomplete cost analysis.

Lack of Communications: Lack of communications or a failure to understand and overcome communications barriers can often lead to a failed project start. Take the example of a highly technical project. If this type of project is presented to an executive group for approval and is stated from a technical perspective, the project proposal may fail simply because it was not stated from the executives’ perspectives.

Lack of Understanding the Business: If the project start or project proposal does not adequately reflect that the project team has understood the business objectives, needs, or environment, then there is a high probability that the project may not obtain approval. Sometimes it is only the appearance that the project team does not understand the business that can contribute to a faulty start. In my personal observation of failed project proposals, even “experts” may fail to convince the stakeholders that they understand the business.

Lack of Understanding Project Management: A faulty or failed start can be the result of not properly applying proven project management techniques. If the triple constraints of scope, time, and budget have not been properly balanced, then the start may contribute to a failed or problematic project. Without the benefit of project management knowledge upfront, many projects may suffer because the basic principles of project control (baseline management, scope control, etc.) were not introduced as part of the project start. Additionally, without the benefit of project management knowledge, the project objectives may be significantly overstated or understated.

What Makes a Project Start Powerful?

A project start is considered successful when it is approved. A powerful start occurs when approval is usually accompanied by other factors of success: clearly defined expectations, executive support, stakeholder commitment, a solid project plan, and sound project execution leading to a successful project—one that meets or exceeds the stakeholders’ expectations. Powerful starts leading to successful projects also lead to repeat business and enhance customer relationships. Trust in the provider is significantly enhanced after the project has successfully delivered what was promised in the project start.

The Art of Hard Skills

This section briefly addresses the application of techniques (“hard skills”) to effectively develop project starts. These are techniques that are easily taught but not always consistently applied. With consistent application, project starts can be significantly enhanced.

Project Management Knowledge

An application of even basic project management knowledge to the project start process can enhance the probability of success. Armed with even basic project management knowledge, the project manager can effectively “begin at the ending.” The project manager can demonstrate a credible plan for achieving the vision of the project by better stating the end result and the plan to achieve that result. The project manager can sell the adage that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” The trained project manager can emphasize the importance of scope development and scope control and will often take a lead role in educating the client or sponsor on these concepts. The trained project manager will also enroll the client in the process of building a credible plan. The project manager can also introduce the concepts of risk identification, analysis, response, and management. An effective project manager will also use the project start as an opportunity to introduce a project management methodology and the importance of project controls.

Knowledge Collection and Integration

In addition to project management knowledge, the effective project manager will obtain the knowledge necessary not only for the acceptance of the project proposal but also for the effective planning and execution of the project. This knowledge should not only be collected but should also be integrated into the project approach and plan. The following list, while not conclusive, indicates some of the knowledge areas that should be considered in the development of the successful project start:

  • Environment—this can include the environment of the client and the environment of the provider. Knowing the environment can better address issues of constraints or culture.
  • Organization—knowing the organization of both the provider and client can help address issues of scope, control, power, and acceptance, to name a few.
  • Industry—knowing the industry of the client can significantly enhance the credibility of the project start.
  • Clients of the client—knowing the needs of the clients of the project client will add to the value of the project start or proposal.
  • Product—a great guideline for understanding the product is to understand the product better than the client understands the product.
  • Politics—understand the politics of the client of the project. Presenting an understanding of what is important politically to the client can help sell the project start.
  • Getting things done—understanding how “things get done” on both the client side and the provider side can significantly enhance the power of the project start. This type of knowledge can also improve the time to approval for a project start.

Stakeholder Analysis

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”—Sun-Tzu (The Quotation Page, 2008, Sun-Tzu ¶5 )

For an effective and powerful project start, conduct a stakeholder analysis. Learn your stakeholders. Understand who the project allies are as well as those stakeholders who may be opposed to the project or to a project component. As Sun-Tzu's quote implies, you may need to spend more time understanding the motives of the project opponents versus the project supporters. A simple methodology to perform a stakeholder analysis includes identifying the stakeholders of the project (those positively and negatively impacted), identifying and grouping the stakeholders by common motives, prioritizing stakeholders, evaluating the motives, and planning to respond to the stakeholders’ motives.

Clarification of the Triple Constraints

The project start provides an opportunity to present the triple constraints of the project (overall scope, project schedule, and project budget) and to quantify them to the extent possible given the knowledge obtained up until this point in the project life cycle. Clarity of these constraints is important and should be presented in a simple to understand format. Oversimplifying the project constraints can lead to miscommunications and a faulty start. As Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” (BrainyMedia.com).

SWOT Analysis

A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis can contribute greatly to the success of the project start. I recommend involving key stakeholders if possible in the development of this analysis. Identifying strengths and opportunities can help identify potential support for the project proposal as well as areas of positive risk. Identifying weaknesses and threats can provide insight to project risk and help provide a more solid plan.

ROI Analysis

The ROI (return on investment) analysis, if effectively performed, can sell the project and its benefits. This analysis should be performed with an understanding of the thresholds required to obtain approval. It is also important to have a clear understanding of the audience of the ROI analysis (i.e., who is the audience and what do they care about the most?). It is also important to know the system used to obtain project justification and to work with that system. A lesson learned regarding project justifications is that completeness of project financial information is more important than financial exactness. It is also important to understand and use the concept of total cost of ownership (TCO) when presenting the financial picture. ROI analysis is not always about the numbers. Many projects can be justified on non-financial benefits.

Assumptions, Constraints, and Risks

By investing upfront time on the assumptions, constraints, and risks of the project, the project can be better clarified for the benefit of all the stakeholders involved. A general guideline to be used should be that if you assume it, it should be documented. Another reason for being diligent about documenting assumptions is that every assumption has some element of risk in it. Constraints are an opportunity to clarify to project limitations. Sometimes constraints are not constraints at all but are points to be negotiated. Documenting major risks early on and obtaining agreement on these risks can help contribute to a sound project approach.

Templates and Toolkits

Take advantage of any templates or toolkits already developed. These could exist in the provider's organization or in the client's organization. The nature of the project may lend itself to a new tool or technique but be cautious that the amount of time required becoming proficient with the new tool or technique does not detract from the project's objectives.

The Art of Soft Skills

The successful deployment of soft skills during the project start process is critical to the life of the project start and the proposed project. Soft skills can help the project manager. The most effective project managers are those that become the sponsor's champion and are considered an extension of the sponsor's organization. Effective soft skills can help the project manager solve difficult problems, navigate the organization's politics, and get things done effectively to help achieve the objectives of the project start.

Soft Skills List

The following, while not conclusive, is a list of soft skills essential to the execution of the project initiation process:

  • Developing vision,
  • Communicating vision,
  • Interviewing,
  • Facilitating meetings,
  • Negotiation,
  • Writing,
  • Decision making
  • Persuasion,
  • Presenting,
  • Sales,
  • Active listening, and
  • Active questioning.

The Vision

Developing a powerful vision and effectively communicating that vision is, in my opinion, the most important factor in selling a project proposal and getting the project off to a powerful start. Vision statements should be clear and simple, yet effective in defining the “why” of the project. Why is the project necessary and why do we want to commit resources for this project? Why is this project more important than other projects competing for the same resources or funds?

The Art of the Presentation

Although packaging the presentation using hard and soft skills can represent the majority of time and effort on a project start, an effective presentation is the key to winning the project proposal. An effective presentation will not only sell the proposal, it will also establish credibility and establish or enhance the relationships with the project stakeholders, particularly the project sponsor or sponsors. A great project proposal combined with a poor presentation will usually result in a missed opportunity. A poor project proposal combined with a great presentation will result in a chance to win the business. A great project proposal combined with a great presentation will almost always result in an automatic “win.”

Overcoming Anxiety

Fear or anxiety when presenting a critical project presentation is normal. In my experience working with and coaching project managers through many project presentations, anxiety can usually be relieved or at least, minimized, through one or a combination of the following four strategies:

  • Understand the fear—Try to understand what is causing the fear or anxiety and then actively analyze that cause. A simple analysis often proves to you that your greatest fears have no foundation. One common fear, for example, is the fear that you will make errors in your presentation. So what? No one is perfect. If you have an important project, the biggest error of all is not to give the presentation!
  • Visualize—Visualize a positive outcome and be specific with your visualization and more often than not, you will achieve your visualization. If you take the effort to visualize and mentally rehearse your presentation, your mind will remember the live presentation as something you have done before, thereby reducing your anxiety and making your presentation more professional and polished.
  • Remember your mission—remember your mission in presenting the project. The life of the project is in your hands. Remembering the importance of your message will give you strength and will help you overcome any anxiety you may have.
  • Preparation—preparation is the key to an anxiety-free presentation. By thoroughly preparing for the presentation, rehearsing the presentation, and taking steps to understand your audience and the presentation environment, you will have less anxiety as you present the project proposal.

A Formula for a Powerful Presentation

 A formula I have taught to project managers and have used to effectively prepare for my own presentations is a formula I call the “4PM Formula.” It includes the following ingredients:

  • Four strategies for overcoming fear (see previous section)
  • The first “P”: Purpose. Clearly define the purpose of your presentation. Is it to educate stakeholders, to obtain buy-in from a difficult team member, or to obtain funding? The clearer your purpose, the easier it will be for your audience to accept it.
  • The second “P”: Preparation. As noted earlier, this includes preparing for all aspects of your presentation. If done properly and with enough discipline, you will have given your presentation before you ever begin the live presentation.
  • The third “P”: Passion. Passion adds another dimension to your effectiveness as a presenter. Believe in your message first in order for others to believe and to be affected by your message.
  • The fourth “P”: Perseverance. Use perseverance in your preparation for the presentation. Continue to enhance and improve your presentation to ensure you will get the results you desire. Seek feedback and selectively use the feedback to improve your presentation. I say “selectively” because we all have different styles—what may work for one person does not necessarily work for everyone.
  • The “M”: Magic. Magic is the secret ingredient that is often overlooked. It's the pinch of salt that an experienced cook can add at just the right moment to enhance the taste of a dish. It's the twinkle in the eye that says there's something special here. It's the fun and entertainment that anyone can add to any presentation. It is the ingredient that you naturally bring to the presentation when you are working in your “magic zone” or when are in the process of self-actualization. It's the ingredient that you bring when you are doing what you are meant to be doing.

A Seven-Step Approach

The following is a proposed seven-step approach to delivering and winning a project proposal. This approach is not meant to be a specific step-by-step process but a general guideline for developing a winning project proposal.

  1. Capture the vision—as noted earlier in this paper, capturing the vision is one of the most important aspects of a winning proposal. To effectively capture vision requires a combination of hard and soft skills.
  2. Define scope, schedule, and budget—aim to understand the factors defining success for the specific project and use these to help define the basic project constraints.
  3. Define the approach—invest effort to define the “how” of the project; how you will accomplish the vision and objectives of the project.
  4. Enroll key stakeholders—enroll key stakeholders in the preparation of the project proposal; seek input to the approach and work on obtaining buy-in from the key stakeholders on the project's vision.
  5. Package the proposal—using the hard skills and knowledge noted in this paper, package all the elements of the project proposal. Use the resources of the project available to ensure completeness of the package.
  6. Prepare to deliver—as noted in the presentation section of this paper, focus on the preparation for the presentation of the proposal. Rehearse the presentation and anticipate objections. Address objections before they are even raised.
  7. Win the business—deliver the presentation using the presentation skills and soft skills noted in this paper and you will not only win the business, you will enhance your relationships with your project stakeholders.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to offer that successfully winning project proposals and starting your projects with power, is not due to luck. It is the result of artfully applying teachable hard skills and soft skills to accomplish your project's vision.

BrainyMedia.com. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. New York: Free Press.

Hoff, B. (1982). The Tao of Pooh. New York: Dutton.

Project Management Institute. (2000). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (2nd ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

The Quotation Page (2008). Retrieved from http://www.quotationspage.com/

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2009 Eddie Merla
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress – 2009 Amsterdam, Netherlands

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