The Project Notebook

It Isn’t Easy Being the Only One Who Is Focused

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2013, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author.

The practice of jumping from one activity to another or worse yet engaging in frantic multitasking can be all too common in project management. It is the project manager who must maintain stability and sanity as project participants and sponsors fly off on diverse paths in attempting to achieve the goals of the project. The following article provides some project management strategies for maintaining focus in the midst of chaos.

Establishing and maintaining focus starts at the very inception of the project concept. There is often much talk about specific solutions or outcomes and “drop dead” dates. All of this conversation takes place in an euphoric atmosphere in which no problems could ever materialize, and no risks could ever be present. According to the project participants, it’s the role of the project manager to make certain that nobody else has to deal with problems and that no other person has to face a risk that manifests itself. It is during this initiation phase that the project manager must establish him/herself as the “voice of reason” to guide people toward specific definition of goals. The project goals are not to be confused with the actual solutions or outcomes. The goals need to be specific targets for accomplishments, such as “to increase market share by 50%” or “to overcome a technology barrier”. A project without goals will never achieve focus and will have no measures of success.

Assuming that the project manager is able to persuade project participants to define and agree on specific goals, the challenge then becomes reinforcing those goals throughout the project. It is easy to set aside goals during the planning phase in the rush to obtain resources and funding. However, the goals are the actual criteria that determine who should work on the project, the amount of money that should be allocated for deliverables, and the timeframe that should be defined.

As the project execution begins, the real threats to a project’s focus arise. Marathon meetings, email flurries and informal conversations can erode the focus of a project. People need something tangible to “hold on to” in order to remain focused. Requiring completion of frequent physical deliverables assists in preserving a sense of accomplishment. When the inevitable change requests occur, the project manager needs to correlate these requests with the project goals and to remind requestors of the goals in a variety of methods. Sometimes all it takes is providing meeting participants with a page that briefly outlines the goals. If the meeting discussion shows signs of drifting, the project manager can quickly re-focus the session by referencing this outline.

As mentioned earlier in this article, project goals are the basis for focus and for determination of success. An astute project manager knows that he/she can achieve success only if there is an actual target. Otherwise, he/she is at the mercy of a multitude of individuals who each employ a unique rating system weighted heavily toward “0” rather than “10”.

 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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