5 Fundamental Questions to Answer Before Starting Any Project
This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.
Invest some time answering these questions before you start a project, and you’ll stand a much better chance of getting the right things done on time and on budget.
While the questions, inspired by the bestselling FranklinCovey book Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager, are roughly sequential, you may need to consider more than one at a time. Or, you may find that an answer to one requires you to revisit others.
1. What’s the main objective — and will the project we have in mind meet that objective?
This question can save you from: Executing a project that only partly meets your goal or gets the wrong thing done; people disagreeing on what you’re trying to achieve.
You may dive into a project with a lot of urgency — and without a lot of forethought — because you feel time pressure, your team’s excited, it’s something you’ve done before, or your boss tells you to do it.
Slow down. Without a clearly defined objective, you could end up doing a project that only sorta meets your goal — or doing the wrong project altogether. For example, let’s say your boss wants a marketing presence at an industry conference and asks you to create 1,000 brochures.
Before leaping to start the project, ask questions like:
- “What’s our main objective for the conference?”
- “How will we know if we’ve succeeded?”
- “How will this project help us meet our overall marketing goals?”
- “What problem are we trying to solve with this project?”
In discussing the answers, you may learn vital information to help you design better brochures. Or you may learn that your boss’s main goal is improving brand recognition and then decide that a splashy booth — not a stack of brochures — is the best way to do that.
Once you have a clear objective, use a project planner to define your project. Then, share the planner with everyone involved — or even get them to sign off on it — so you’re sure they understand what’s happening and why.
2. Who should be involved, or at least informed of our progress?
This question can save you from: Harming other teams because you didn’t check in with them; late surprises from higher-ups needing to review and approve the project; having a project with no “sponsors” and therefore no momentum; dealing with delays because people aren’t available to do critical tasks.
While projects can bog down with too many stakeholders, generally the opposite is true: Projects flounder because leaders fail to identify and involve everyone their project relies on or impacts. It may help to list them by the role they’ll play.
- Doers: Write down not only the overall project owner and those responsible for subtasks but also anyone who will contribute small pieces along the way (e.g., an administrator who will do a data pull, quality assurance reviewers, etc.).
- Those impacted: Consider not only the people and teams who will benefit from your project but also those who may be hindered or challenged by it.
- Approvers: Think your boss and other higher-ups, finance, legal, and anyone else with the power to say no or change the course of your project.
Whether in written exchanges or meetings, ask each stakeholder:
- “What do you want from this project?”
- “To what extent do you want to or are you willing to be involved?”
Not surprisingly, you may find that if you’re able to adjust your plans to better address what people care about, they’ll be more willing to support and promote your project — or let you charge ahead on your own with their blessing.
3. What are the time, scope, and resource constraints?
This question can save you from: Committing to an overly ambitious or even impossible project; allowing a project to sprawl beyond its original purpose.
Just as important as determining what your project will do is determining what it won’t or can’t do because you’re constrained by factors like time, money, and staffing.
- Deadline: Is it fixed or movable?
- Scope: How many elements are there to this project? How complex are they? How polished does the work need to be?
- Resources: How many people can we devote to the project? How much time do they have to work on it? What’s our budget?
Then you can determine what your project can realistically accomplish. Typically, each variable impacts the others (e.g., a larger or more involved scope takes more resources and/or time). So, if you have unrealistic constraints, you’ll need to prioritize the variables and make tradeoffs to succeed. For example, if you must launch a new product on a tight deadline, could you add contract help or pare back features offered at launch? Or, if you must launch with the full set of features, could you extend the timeline?
4. What’s the realistic project schedule?
This question can save you from: Underestimating how long things will take; the chaos of people not knowing what to do by when; failing because something went off track and you didn’t plan for it or course-correct
It’s easy to set an unrealistic schedule for many reasons: decision-making bias, excessive optimism, underestimating how much work is involved. Don’t let poor planning be one of them.
When mapping out your project schedule, be sure to include:
- What needs to be done and by whom: List all the components you and your project team can think of, keeping in mind that more may surface along the way.
- The sequence of tasks: Identify foundational tasks that need to be started or completed before other work can proceed. Prioritize these with early start dates to reduce the time people spend waiting for dependent tasks to be done.
- Task duration: Task duration is how long you need to schedule for each task, not how long each task actually takes — an important distinction. For example, although it might take you only 20 minutes to complete an audit report, if you first need to ask an administrator to pull the background data, wait for that data to arrive, and attend five meetings for other high-priority work, then the duration of your audit report task could really be two days, not 20 minutes.
- Task start and end dates: Plan dates based on your estimates of the task order and duration with enough time so people can get things done, but not so much padding that they linger on it longer than they should.
- Project milestones: Keep in mind that no project ever happens exactly as planned. Identify a few milestones — key deadlines or events — to check your progress, gather feedback, and make adjustments, as necessary.
Pro tip: Spend an extra few minutes considering risks to your plan. What could go wrong, and what impact would each unexpected event have? Anticipating and planning for setbacks now means fewer potential surprises later.
5. How will we communicate during the project?
This question can save you from: Blindsiding people with late news that the project is finished or off track; losing productivity because people are confused or don’t know what do to next; being a bottleneck because you’re the only one with relevant information
While it’s generally better to overcommunicate than undercommunicate, you also don’t want to blast people with information that’s not relevant to them. For each person or group involved in your project, decide what, when, and how you plan to communicate.
- Doers: Daily standup meetings; a shared task tracker so people can see where work is and anticipate when it will come their way; and team and 1-on-1 meetings as needed for troubleshooting
- Those impacted: Email updates at major milestones to share progress and any important changes
- Approvers: A weekly status email that includes progress, challenges, and what’s happening next
Pro tip: Involve your project team in creating the communication plan and have them proactively help share updates so you’re not the only conduit for information.
Finally, once you have a communication process in place, stick to it! Otherwise, you risk losing people’s energy, enthusiasm, and effort along the way.