The Project Notebook

A Plan for Success OR A Recipe for Failure?

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 This article focuses on factors that need to be addressed early in the project life cycle in order to avoid later problems.  Many times, these critical considerations are either overlooked or deferred.  If an issue seems particularly loaded with political maneuvering and ramifications, someone is bound to say, “We can worry about that later”.  Typically, the project manager will be the one who then has to deal with the deferred issues, which always get worse over time.  Let’s look at a few of those considerations that need to be addressed “now” rather than “later”.

Executive Support

Generally, a least a few senior people in an organization can be persuaded to appear at a “kickoff” event, say a few words, and then depart.  The “troops”, who have been through this scenario many times, are then left wondering if they will ever see these people again during the project.  Executive support comes in many forms, so an astute project manager defines what types of support and timing are necessary to provide the true demonstration of belief in the project.  Appearance at kickoff sessions is valuable, but both the team and all people who will ultimately be impacted by the project implementation need to see executives at important points in the project’s progress.  Examples of executive support include visible recognition of completion of interim project deliverables, occasional appearances at team meetings, and reinforcement of project goals with middle management personnel.  When a project manager guides executives through the types of support that are needed, he/she also ensures that the executives will not engage in activities that could actually harm a project.

“We Don’t Need Goals — We Need Solutions”

Goal setting is viewed by some as a real waste of time, particularly if a project has an aggressive timetable.  “We’ve all agreed on the solution, so we must agree on the goals” is a common statement made to cover the fact that there is actually much hidden discord.  Early in a project the “solution” is often framed in vague terms that lead to multiple interpretations.  For example, an organization may undertake a project to build a new corporate headquarters.  While the “solution” is a building, there are many types of structures that could conceivably fulfill that definition.  The goal that the organization really has to determine at the beginning of the initiation phase is “What do we want to accomplish with a corporate headquarters?”  Depending on the goals that are defined, the actual solution could range from not building anything to building a multi-million dollar “state-of-the-art” facility.  A common statement is “the devil is in the details”.  That statement really highlights that people have not agreed on the goals, so they will never be able to agree on the means (“the details”) to achieve disparate, undefined goals.

“Somehow Everything Will Get Done”

Project managers often are coerced to accept unrealistic project schedules, inadequate personnel, and/or insufficient budget.  They grimly dive into these types of projects knowing that the outcomes will not meet expectations.  Yet they feel that somehow miracles will happen.  If a project manager perceives that one or more of the three constraints (time, budget, and quality) is not being adequately addressed at project initiation, he/she needs to determine how the constraints can be modified upfront.  Once a project is underway, there is a perception that the constraints are not issues.  A project manager is in a far better position to address the constraints in the initiation phase with solutions than to march bravely into defeat knowing that the obstacles are insurmountable.  Upfront negotiation beats last minute wailing every time.

The bottom line to these examples is that project problems identified early in the life cycle don’t “go away”.  They need to be addressed proactively, or they will explode at some unforeseen point later in the project.

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.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  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 advisory committee.  She can be contacted at

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