How to Set Up a Successful Project
Don Mize
© 2007, Don Mize

We abruptly discover that, contrary to our wishes, we must manage many projects at
once.  However fogbound we feel, tasks intrude, cactus-like.  A homemaker is not
merely a baby-minder but also a project manager juggling laundry, cleaning, cooking,
social events, and childcare.  A businessperson cannot dabble while the whirlwind of
change swirls.  None of us can make a treaty with time, negotiating projects into
simplicity and honored responses.  The unexpected will deliver a body blow, and the
assumed will take revenge.

However informal, projects enter a thorny wasteland when actions involving other
people occur over time.  Increase the actions necessary, extend the time line, and
multiply the people involved, and you sail into a storm of uncertainty.  Whether getting
Sally ready for camp or planning a nationwide campaign to sell widgets, long-term
actions involving other people often disappoint us.

Rather than trembling with uncertainty or hauling out the war club, writing up a project
assures attention to detail, careful thought, and success.  Moreover, writing up a
project reduces stress.  Writing is, after all, thinking, a foolproof method for sorting
out emotional issues as well as clarifying needed actions.  The satisfaction of
achievement makes the effort worthwhile.

However, the write-up up must follow an exact plan.  Poor thinking leads to a poor
outcome.  The correct plan will result in a series of deadline dates, which, in turn, will
allow you to administer simultaneous projects.  Few spectators realize that the
deadlines emerge from plumbing the depths.  Thus, we are going to discuss the waves
of thinking that defend against the vandals of project management.  Each section
discussed below should be written up.

State project requirements

Before you do anything else, make a list of the project requirements.  In other words,
if this project is successful, what will be the results?  These results should be stated in
measurable terms.  For example, in an advertising project for widgets one requirement
might be that we are going to sell 500,000 widgets.  Another requirement might be that
the widgets will sell for $100 a unit.  You can go back and add deadline dates later, so
the first step is to state in writing the measurable results you want to achieve.  After
all, if the results cannot be measured, how will you (and others) know you have

Gather facts

When confronted with a project, most people obsessively list actions and neglect
writing out a summary of strategic facts.  Thus, before they are clear about the
environment in which the project must function, they neurotically act.  Many waves of
thinking must occur before action steps are listed, otherwise you will be mauled by
unnecessary conflict, entombed in confusion, addled by stress, and prosecuted by
ineffective outcomes.  Gather facts.

Review the state-of-the-art

In gathering facts, review the state-of-the-art in a written summary.  Depending on the
complexity of the project and the degree of professionalism required, thinking through
the state-of-the-art can require the steel of a major assault or can just be a passing
excursion.  If your widget project is a major business project for which you are to
develop the advertising campaign, you need the steel of a major assault.  What is
working?  Who is doing what?  What are the most recent successful advertising
campaigns?  What are the latest developments in Internet advertising?  If you are an
advertising specialist, you probably are abreast the state-of-the-art.  Otherwise, call in
a specialist or do in-depth research.  Remember, every person is a fool outside his/her
field; do not hesitate to bring in experts.

If you are in charge of getting Sally off to Camp Exclusive, the state-of-the-art may be
a brief excursion.  However, if you drool over status, you might sample the latest
fashions and visit the electronic arcades.  For anyone, some knowledge of the camp,
the peer group, and the usual dress will help Sally not be that different kid who looks
funny.  Thus even in informal projects, a state-of-the-art exists.

Review your previous experience

As you continue to gather facts, write out a summary of your previous experience.  
You will have less to recant if you face your previous experience squarely.  Perhaps
you are not the advertising specialist, but you must be concerned for advertising as the
manager of the widget project.  A lack of experience in dealing with advertising
professionals can be like listening to a foreign language.  In fact, you can quickly fall
victim to double-speak when dealing with any specialist.  An early commitment to
asking questions and demanding concrete answers can help you avoid falling off the
unseen cliff half way through the project.  All specialists tend to retreat into technical
language while project managers need concrete, pragmatic language.  If you have
stated your project requirements in measurable language, and if you do not view those
requirements as decoration, you can discover the questions to ask.

Even in a relatively simple project like sending a teenage girl to camp, facing the fact
that you have not done that before can help you realize the need to consult.  Perhaps
you need to focus on the fact that this is Camp Exclusive rather than your usual
camp.  Different settings introduce us to different people with different standards.

Even if you have had previous experience in an area, writing the summary has
benefits.  You will focus more intently, remember methods, and clarify your thoughts.  
In addition, you will remember pitfalls, unexpected complications, and people who
failed.  To apply your previous experience, you must remember in detail both the
positive and the negative.  Unless you harness your previous experience, you will
repeat the same mistakes.

In playing out the hand you have been dealt on any project, experience trumps all
else.  Without experience, your best estimates will fall short.  Make your best estimate
and multiply by three.  In other words, allow three times as much time and budget
three times as much money as seems reasonable.  The fact is that the 3X formula
works out to a scary accuracy as the projects unfold.

If you have previously conducted an advertising campaign for widgets, your estimate
will be more accurate.  If you have sent Sally to Camp Exclusive before, you will
know better how much time and money the holiday will really take.  When we put
things in writing, we are forced to think, deal with details, and face the reality staring
back at us from the page.  Writing out your previous experience will save time,
money, and grief.

Consider the qualified/key sources of opinion

The final ingredient in fact-gathering is to consult key/qualified sources of opinion.  
You must stir these opinions into the simmering project to avoid certain failure.  For
example, the janitor may have an opinion about the widget campaign, but he may not
seem a qualified source of opinion.  On the other hand, if you plan to sell widgets to
him, he may be a valuable source of opinion.  Does he feel he needs a widget?  You
may think he needs a widget, but if he does not feel he needs a widget, you are
doomed.  Does your approach offend women?  Polls are merely a sophisticated way
to sample qualified/key sources of opinion.  You may consult a qualified expert at this
stage of the project development to help evaluate your widget idea.

Key sources of opinion (as opposed to qualified sources of opinion) include people
who are in position to make or break a project.  A mate who is not enthusiastic, a boss
who is opinionated, or the office gossip can all complicate if not derail a project.  You
will save time, money, and grief by identifying and gaining feedback from key sources
of opinion.  Knowing how they will react will suggest ways to win them over or to
neutralize negative ripples.

Remember, in any organization some unexpected people are the sirens of alarm with
more informal power than suggested by the organizational chart.  Also, remember that
80% of the people will resist change.  You can scarcely afford an 80% opposition
(carried out as a silent lack of cooperation), so give people time to absorb a new idea.  
Many projects fail because key (however unqualified) sources of opinion are ignored.  
Sending Sally to Camp Exclusive may never happen (or be a blunder) if your mother-
in-law disapproves.

The basic approach

In addition to stating the project requirements and to gathering facts, write out your
assumptions, limitations, and unknowns.  Stated assumptions, limitations, and
unknowns become levers that pry open hidden traps.

List your assumptions

Beware of the obvious fact/truth.  While we cannot live without assuming some truths,
we need to be critical of all our assumptions at this stage of the project.  For example,
while we usually assume that the grocery store will have food and that gasoline
retailers will have gasoline, a hurricane changes normal conditions.  In setting up a
project, we may be unconsciously assuming good weather, people keeping promises,
stable economic conditions, or everyone staying healthy.  Only by writing out all our
assumptions will we become aware of the truths we are taking for granted.  We
become more focused, become aware of alternatives, and realize ways to structure our
project to allow for failed assumptions.  Woe be to the project manager who builds the
project on one person’s skill only to have that person unavailable.  Merely realizing
that a key component depends on one person may lead to training additional personnel
in that function, thus removing the waiting trap.

List your limitations

The limitations may be personal (knowledge, experience, an illness), but generally time
and money also make every list.  Few project managers have a surplus of time (which
would become an additional problem, leading to procrastination).  Also, few projects
have a surplus of money.  The people you work with (their knowledge, age,
experience, health, family situations), the physical facilities, and the season of the year
can all become limitations.  We do not plan and execute projects in a perfect
environment or in a vacuum.  Writing out a list of limitations will suggest ways to
frame the project to overcome the realities involved.

List your unknowns

The more unknowns on your list, the greater the probability the project will fail.  You
may not know details about materials, have an advertising agency, or know your
coworkers.  The student who does not know the date of the test, the homemaker who
does not know the date guests are arriving, and the car buyer who does not know the
gasoline mileage all are in jeopardy.  Unknowns matter.  Writing out the unknowns
removes that waiting trap.

The basic plan

Having avoided the amateur approach to project preparation, you are ready to list each
step to be taken, logically, not chronologically.  Dates will be added later and finally
transferred to a deadline calendar to make project management clear-cut.  First, we
will list the steps to take in a logical sequence and later we will list steps occurring in

Steps in sequence

Now you can write # 1 on your sheet of paper.  What exactly to you want #1 to
accomplish?  Let’s say that #1 is to buy the materials needed to manufacture the
widgets.  We will assume that you know what the materials needed are, how much
they will cost, where you can obtain them, and how they will be delivered.  But even
knowing all that, in order to manage your project successfully, you need to state the
requirements concretely.

For example, the requirement may be that X will deliver the materials to the factory.  
But how will you know that has actually occurred?  In other words, have you ever had
a project in which some simple step failed to materialize?  You need to state a criterion
for each requirement.

In other words, X will deliver the material to the factory (your requirement) by June
1st.  You will receive a communication from the factory manager on June 1st assuring
you that the materials have been delivered, checked, and processed into the warehouse
(your criterion).  At this point you choose to trust the factory manager, but you want
an email, fax, phone call, or some designated method of communication to assure you
that the step has actually occurred and is up to standard.  On your deadline calendar,
you put June 1st, “confirmation from factory manager.”

On June 2nd, as you plan your day, if you have not received that communication from
the factory manager, you follow up.  You communicate with him (email, phone, or
your preferred method) to see if the materials have arrived.  Perhaps he forgot, but
that is no excuse.  Perhaps they did not arrive.  Perhaps he did not have the people on
hand to check the materials.  You need to know, for until you confirm the delivery
and the accuracy of the delivery, the criterion has not been met.

On a less formal project, the first step may be to enroll Sally in Camp Exclusive for
the summer.  The requirement is that the enrollment occur.  However, the criteria
(how do I know) includes proof of payment and proof of enrollment (some written
confirmation).  Even every day projects have requirements backed by criteria that can
be confirmed, or the project goes astray.

As you can tell by the above examples, each step actually has several requirements,
and each requirement has one or more criteria (how do I know).  It should be obvious
by this point that all requirements and all criteria need to be stated as concretely as
possible.  In other words, the materials actually delivered (requirement) with a
communication from the factory manager indicated the shipment has not only arrived
but has been checked, processed, and is up to standard (criteria).

While all this sounds complicated, it amounts to no more than writing down a step,
listing the requirements, and under each requirement listing the criteria.  Later,
deadline dates can be added, placed on your deadline calendar, and be monitored.

In other words, to manage your project, you check your deadline dates, which reflect
the requirements and measurable criteria. Once you work through the project using
this set-up plan, you will end with a series of deadline dates that you can easily
manage.  You will probably never refer to the written-out project again.  Everything
essential has been  reduced to an all-important deadline date.

That means that you can manage several projects at once.  You will have set up each
project thoroughly, so you can now merely follow up by using your deadline calendar
and know precisely where you are on all of your projects.  While it is wise to set up in
writing only one project at a time, you can manage any number of projects.  However,
remember that things will go wrong, people will fail, and deadlines will be missed.  Set
a five project limit until you gain experience using this method.

Steps in parallel

Unfortunately, you cannot stop everything else in your life in order to manage one (or
many) projects.  You do not need to list requirements and criteria, but do make a list
of all the time commitments you must continue to meet.  Some examples are attending
meetings, writing reports, spending time with your family, the golf tournament you
agreed to play in, buying groceries, taking care of family business, visiting a friend, and
countless other aspects of living.  A list of all the things you must keep on doing in
parallel to the sequence steps on the project will give you a sense of reality, help you
evaluate the use of your time, and maybe help you decide not to take on a new project
until you catch up on some current ones.


Do not forget to write thank you letters, take someone to dinner, write the final report,
and do all the clean-up activities to put the finishing touches on your project.  Failure
to do these activities will create future problems (he/she never said thank you) or hurt
your credibility (he/she only turned in the report when I threatened).

At this point you may feel tired or even discouraged.  The plan for writing up a project
may seem too detailed, too time-consuming.  However, just remember all of the failed
projects, all the people who have let you down, all the money you have lost because
your plan fell apart.

Many of us are not people who naturally focus on details.  If details are not natural to
you, you have even more reason to write out the project.  On the other hand, some of
us obsess on details and do not naturally see the big picture.  If you naturally focus on
details, the writing-up method will force you to see the big picture.  Some of us have
never understood that people and organizations do not fail for lack of ideas but for
lack of execution.  The assumptions, limitations, and unknowns are traps waiting to
spring on the unsuspecting.  Actually, even though you must set aside some time to set
up the project as outlined, the actual managing of the project comes down to dealing
with deadline dates.  The reduction of stress, the lack of confusion, and the sense of
knowing where you are will more than compensate for the time you took to set up
your project in writing.
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