The Project Notebook

If Only We Had Known

By: Susan Peterson, MBA PMP
Copyright 2008, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

There are at least three separate groups of analysts who are assessing the current global economic situation.
• One group is convinced that they “saw this coming a long time ago.”
• The second group admits to being “blindsided.”
• The third group includes those who may have seen something dire coming but didn’t think that there would be a monumental catastrophe.
Project managers know that they must always be in the first group in order to make adequate contingency plans, to mitigate problems, or to avoid catastrophes completely. This month’s column is the first in a series that will focus on indicators that can alert project managers to take preventive actions or to make contingency plans in order to avert disasters.

“Who needs goals?”
Some people think that project goals are actually defined by the final deliverable or target milestone. If the project purpose is to install a new software package, some project stakeholders will perceive that the project goal is successful software implementation. However, the goal of the project is its target accomplishment. In this example as in many others, the project goals need to be determined before the final deliverable (solution) is defined. If the organization actually wants to improve its processes (a potential project goal), there may be many final deliverables other than software implementation that would be better solutions. Specifying a solution in advance of or in place of project goal definition and agreement often leads to projects that are declared failures. Project managers must emphasize the necessity of determining goals in order to provide focus and direction for the project. Specifying the solution without identifying the problem to be addressed is akin to providing an answer without first asking a question. The process involved in goal setting also serves to involve stakeholders from the beginning and to resolve any areas of significant disagreement early in the project activities.

“We don’t know where we’re going, but we have to get there quickly.”
Planning is another classic project activity that can be perceived as a waste of time. “We used to plan, but no one followed the plan” or “How can we plan what we don’t know?” are common reasons given to justify the avoidance of project plan development. While there may have been past bad experiences with planning, no project proceeds smoothly unless there is an effective plan that is followed. Involving all stakeholders in the planning process can be effective in overcoming resistance to planning. This involvement builds an appreciation among stakeholders of the types of activities and related human resources that will be necessary to accomplish the project goals. It can also aid understanding across diverse stakeholders of the responsibilities of the entire team.

“It’s not wise to take only what you’re given.”
Even in the best of times project managers may find themselves in intense competition with each other for money, human resources, and capital assets that are often in scarce supply in organizations. In the interest of the enterprise perspective rather than a single project, it’s not expedient to declare a “winner take all” contest to identify the one project that receives the most and the best of everything. However, project managers need to work with each other throughout their projects to determine what is needed, when it is needed, and what degree of flexibility is appropriate.

Using this practice can result in a more coordinated allocation across current and future projects. It promotes cooperation that results in more effective execution of all projects and reduces or eliminates the time-consuming competition that can occur among projects. The practice can also uncover that the organization is attempting to accomplish too many concurrent projects and that it needs to defer or re-plan one or more efforts.

Project managers know that they have to remain alert and responsive to indicators of potential problems.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at; select “Resources” then “Consultants”. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP