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Rule One of Project Management: Clarify the Project Goal

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To succeed in a project, you must mentally start at the finish and work backward. The clearer you are about the end result of your project, even though it may change, the more effectively you can plan the best way to achieve it. Find out the specifics here.
This chapter is from the book

Goal setting takes time and energy, but you can't be successful without a compelling project goal.

The extremely critical first step in building supercharged GOCART-S for each of your projects is to set a clear and compelling Goal. What is the desired end result of your project? What problem will this project solve? What need will it fill? How will this project change the way we do our business? Amazingly, many people managing in a project environment cannot readily answer these questions! Consider the result of this lack of knowledge. As illustrated in the famous example from Alice in Wonderland (see Figure 1.1), "If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there (somewhere, but where)!"

Figure 1Figure 1.1 Without a Goal, You May Never Get There

To succeed in a project, you must mentally start at the finish . . . and work backward. The clearer you are about the end result of your project, even though it may change, the more effectively you can plan the best way to achieve it.

Ever worked a jigsaw puzzle? You've got a thousand pieces to the puzzle—all the necessary resources to complete the project. How do you begin? By looking at the cover of the puzzle box and studying the picture of what the pieces will look like once they are assembled properly. In other words, you start at the end result and plan backward to the beginning. Then you begin to work toward the final goal you have defined.

And since most projects require the involvement of other people, you must be able to articulate this clear project goal to all stakeholders and team members if they are to help you succeed. If the project team lacks a clear goal, even excellent skills and the best equipment will not be sufficient to ensure the team's success.

For example, suppose you gave a highly skilled archer the best equipment available and told her to start shooting, but did not tell her where the target was. The archer would have to shoot the arrows where she thinks is appropriate, but this would likely not be at the target you had in mind (Figure 1.2). It's not that the archer isn't trying; she just does not know where to aim. She soon winds up frustrated in her efforts, and you are disappointed in the results. Time and energy are wasted. The archer has wasted her expertise and the money you spent for her fine equipment.

Figure 1Figure 1.2 No Bull's-Eye for an Expert Archer Without a Clear Target

No Bull's-Eye for an Expert Archer Without a Clear Target

Whose fault is this? Yours, because you did not clarify the goal, nor did you empower the archer to ask questions to gain clarification.

If you don't point people in the right direction, if you don't give them the big picture (for instance, showing them the picture on the jigsaw puzzle box), if you can't get them to imagine how they would feel using the product or service (the end result of your project), you are locked into an activity trap! People will be busy spinning their wheels, but nothing significant will be accomplished. Your team may have all the skills and equipment needed for the project, but they will fail because they don't know where the target is and do not feel responsible for helping define the target.

But there is even more to the task of setting an overall project goal. Without emotion, passion, and commitment to the goal, team members will fall into the "day at work" mindset discussed in the previous chapter. No matter how mundane the project may seem, it is your job as project leader to reframe the project and continue reframing it until you and every member of the team feels a passion to get the job done. You, the team members, and the end user need to feel that the project has real, significant, and compelling meaning. The questions to ask yourself are "How can we feel a tremendous sense of pride at the end of this project?" and "How can we scope this project so the end user will become a Raving Fan of our team and its work?". Until you, the team members, and the stakeholders feel a burning passion for the project, keep working to reframe the goal until that passion is sparked.

Do not pass the start line of the project race until everyone feels a burning desire to get to the finish line in first place.

Setting Project Goals That Are Clear and Compelling

Many managers, as well as those in upper management, think it is easy to set goals for a project: just state them. But it is not easy. It's hard work. It is also the most important action you can take at the beginning of a project's life. What does it take to set a good project goal? What are the criteria of an effective goal, and what process will yield the clarity and passion you need?

In setting a project goal, you are trying to do two things:

  1. Focus yourself, your end user, and your team on the target.

  2. Create agreement, commitment, and energy for the project goal.

From where does this clarity of focus and energy come?

Ineffective project leaders often complain that they cannot get direction from customers or upper management. We have often heard people say that end users can state what they do not want, but not what they want. This statement is a cop-out by the project leader. When the goal is not clear, you must lead the end user through a process of goal clarification. And it is this process that takes time, energy, and dialogue. It is a process that involves conversation and discussion with the end user as you work toward a clarity of direction for the project. It is a process built on listening, dreaming big, and involving a significant number of people.

Since each project is to varying degrees unique—not something that has been done before—it is difficult to be clear on a goal right away. And since goal setting is a process of dialogue, it can start in one of two ways:

  1. End users can tell you what they want.

  2. You can tell the end users what you understand is the goal for the project.

Print it out on paper and personally show it to the end user while you say, "Here, this is what I think your project goal is. Have I got it right?" This gives the end user the option to say, "Yes, I agree. That's correct. Proceed." Or "No, that's not what I meant. Here's what I meant." As you go back and forth in this dialogue, you move closer and closer to achieving clarity about the direction and end result of the project. Too many project leaders feel they do not have time for this kind of dialogical goal- setting process. Yet it is amazing how many seem to find the time to correct the problems that result from poor goal clarity!

The best way to capture the project goal is in a statement of project results: How will we know we are finished? What will the end result look like? What will be different or better about the way we do our business? Effective project leaders do this by stating their goals in user terms. Think about this for a moment. Who is the user of your project? What does your user—client, customer, account, patient, or manager—want from you? What does the end user want this project to "fix"?

A user doesn't care, for example, that you are trying to produce a new accounting system (one ineffective way to describe a project's goal). The user cares about obtaining certain information about inventory and sales at the end of the day. Providing a system that meets the user's needs is your goal; designing a new accounting system is your process for doing this. Putting yourself on the user's side improves your chances of hitting the target.

In fact, if you do not define the goal in the end user's terms, the project may be done for the wrong reasons. For example, an information system was installed at a teaching hospital to provide the faculty with patient information for medical research purposes. Every faculty member was provided a personal computer tied to a network for access to the data. When the system was installed, no one could understand why the faculty did not use it. Hospital administrators wanted the system installed because they thought it would help the faculty with their research. Since they were the ones who made the contract with the consultants and paid the bills, they were perceived as the end user. But, in fact, the faculty members were the true end users, and they were never consulted about the system. A great system was installed, but it did not consider the needs of the actual end users. It failed miserably!

Setting a project goal requires a two-way dialogue with the end user to create clarity and buy-in.

But lest you move too quickly, you must consider how to involve the team members in this dialogue as early as possible. This can sometimes be difficult because the team may not yet be identified or "signed on to" the project. But don't let that stop you from expanding the conversation to include others in your organization. You need perspective from as many team members (or potential team members) as possible. Why? First, it helps you "dream big" in reframing and clarifying the goal to create a compelling vision of the project's end result and its value to the organization. Second, it begins the building of a shared passion about the project that will drive the team's desire to get the job done in exceptional fashion.

As you work to articulate the project goal, try to boil it down to its essence and then run this by team members. Ask if it makes sense. Ask if they have better ways to shape the goal statement. Ask their take on the problem this project will fix or the opportunity this project will seize. You want to draw widely to yield the most compelling and useful project definition you can. At the same time, you want to begin building a burning desire in people to want to be a part of your project team (even if they are assigned to the team by no choice of their own). You want and need clear vision and passion from your team about the project goal.

Setting the project goal requires a multichannel, team-wide dialogue that creates clarity and passion for the project team.

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