Off and running - where?

I was with a prospective client and her top project director trying to discover what they wanted.

The client was vague, scatter-gunning ideas, concepts, outputs, worries, risks and so on.

So I suggested making a list of where she wanted to be in six months time. We listed about 10 items on the whiteboard.

I then had to take a pre-arranged call and left the conference room for 10-15 minutes.

When I returned the project director was off and running.

This list of 10 vague, unqualified ‘objectives’ was well on the way to being organized into a program of work for the next six months. Timelines, interdependencies, resources and so on were being assigned to a list not worth printing out, let alone actioning!

However, it struck me how common it is that projects are set off and running, applying all of the rigours of project management, to a poorly thought through, vague and unmeasurable list of client objectives and goals.

This ‘action first, thought later’ approach is unfortunately aided and abetted by many senior executives who want to see ‘action’. “Don’t ask me any more questions, just get on and deliver!”

Sometimes it takes a brave project manager to, in effect, refuse to take off and run when they don’t know where the client wants them to go. Too many just take what they’re given and try to make the best of it. This is a recipe for project disaster and personal job loss.

Many years ago, when I was with Arthur Andersen Consulting, our Managing Partner had a reputation for burning people who did jobs for him. They never got it right in his eyes. This was because, primarily, he could not articulate clearly what he really wanted.

So, when I was asked to do a job for him, after each ‘briefing’ I went back to him with my understanding of what outcomes and end states he wanted to achieve. Three times he said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I want … I want …”. On the fourth occasion I (he) got it right.

Then, and only then, would I start planning my project to deliver his desired outcomes.

Now, he got a bit frustrated that I ‘could not understand his needs more easily’, but I wore this to ensure I really did understand his needs correctly rather than going ahead with what I thought he wanted and then delivering something that would get me burned!

Two of the greatest threats to anyone doing a project are vagueness (lack of exact clarity) and “assumptions” (assuming you understand what the client wants). Combined they can be fatal to a project manager’s career.

So, before starting any project, make sure you know and have agreed in specific detail with your client the exact, measurable ‘desired business outcomes’ to be delivered. This may require you going back again and again until you have full agreement and sign off.

Then, and only then, should you be off and running.

Topics: Value Delivery, Project Controls, Program / Project delivery, Project Governance

Further Reading



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Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Jul 2008) as "Off and Running - Where?"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections