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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Best Predictor of Project Outcome - Project Initiation

I have developed and deployed numerous tools, techniques and templates that assist in completing high-quality projects on-time, on-budget and on-spec. However, the best aides in the world are of little use, without a framework or a way of thinking that guides their use.

The central idea of the framework that I advocate is that up-stream investments pay down-stream dividends. If you don't start right, it's difficult to finish that way. Simple idea, yes, but in the common rush to complete and succeed in an agency, groups of highly intelligent professionals (i.e. the team) frequently devolve into a 3-ring circus. "Ready, Fire, Aim" is a prevalent and unfortunate reality of day-to-day agency life.
Up-stream activities, such as information gathering, synthesis and dissemination are the preventive medicine that keeps agencies healthy.


Now, one doesn't want to get carried away. This orientation should not be misconstrued as a recommendation that the end-state should, or even can be, known at the outset of a complex engagement. In fact, the very value that project managers bring to the table - thoughtfulness about process, planning and up-stream focus, can choke the life out of the place if applied rigidly. There is value to be lifted and applied from both waterfall (stringent) and agile (flexible) methodologies.

Perhaps a bit overstated in terms of the uselessness placed on plans, this quote frames the issue well:

In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
Ike realized that the very act of planning and the frame of mind that it creates, lays the groundwork for intelligently dealing with challenges.

Do yourself and your teams a favor and apply effort up front. The finest minds in an agency are a valuable resource to be used wisely. Time spent in the early phases of a project is a far more effective than time spent scrambling to find and apply resources hours before a deadline.


  1. I agree with the principal idea of this post in that the project initiation is often a good indicator of the outcome.

    I used to stress out when a crazy project came my way. But, more often than not, the crazy projets that come across my desk have one of the following outcomes:
    A) They have no strategy behind them and are killed before they see the light of day. Once everyone took a moment to step back and analyze the situation, they realized it was off strategy
    B) The project is killed because the budget is too high, OR the agency winds up eating overages because the Account Team overpromised the scope
    C) The 10 week project that had to get done in 2 weeks actually takes the full 10 weeks or even 14 weeks because of inefficiencies and poor planning.

    What I think needs to be added the sentence 'However, the best aides in the world are of little use, without a framework or a way of thinking that guides their use.' is 'adoption of these aides by the team'.

    Without compliance, the best aides are useless. Everyone needs to understand and respect the benefits of the aides or they will be dismissed and the Project Manager runs the risk of the team working around them.

  2. i couldn't agree more.

    i'm not a PM but form a more technical perspective; it feels like every project even if its the same client, starts from scratch. because of the rush or the lack of time/money to invest in a bigger global strategy. if there was a global technical strategy per client it would cost more in the start but would cut costs in the full scope of projects that are related to the client.

    but most of the time what happens when it gets down to implementation there is a rush to finish in the cost of quality/re-usability, there is an exact budget for the quick fix and there isn't much thought invested into the future of a project its almost always the now to now style.

  3. Random Girl -

    Couldn't agree more. Being armed, isn't being dangerous. Simply understanding the way things "should be" doesn't make it so. However, without that alignment, it'll never happen. Thanks for your comment.

  4. I agree 100%. The Eisenhower quote is perfect in that even if you try to follow a plan to the 'T', something will come up that might set you off course for a bit. However, If all the right people are involved in the loop during all phases of the plan, adjustments can be made faster to get things back on track. The plan is the base but the collective planning at the start is where you will meet your team, so you will know who can help right away!

  5. So true. Once the train is moving down the wrong track, it's so much harder to course-correct. Care to outline any of the kinds of discovery paradigms that are most effective in initiating projects? It seems to demand a process that is rarely in place, though I have had the good fortune to work for one agency that employs a fairly standard set of steps that need to be taken before a project actually starts.

  6. Jeff's perspective has proven to transform entropy into zen many times, though "Zentropy" was not an example of excessive up-front investment in the future plan.

  7. Magickbox Man-

    You'll have to stay tuned for more details about effective initiation. Not because I don't want to share, but a single blog post, let a lone a comment, can't quite contain the info.

    However, three key things that should be part this upstream investment are:
    - identification of objectives
    - identification of measures of success
    - the somewhat more challenging: alignment of key stakeholders

    In my experience, the aforementioned, "rush to complete and succeed" is often accompanied by:
    - no clearly identified endpoint
    - no concrete way of knowing if you've arrived
    - an important stakeholder weighing in late with important information that would have caused your proverbial train to head down a different track.

    Would love to hear about your experiences.

  8. In my opinion, there is somehting more important that project initiation. And that's following the plan you have laid out. And this is the biggest failing of agencies. We spend all this time preparing project plan, scope documents, creative briefs, and other strategy documents. but when we're 6 weeks into the project and reviewing creative concepts, its seems very few people come to the meeting with those documents to check the work againt.

    A great PM, will bring the schedule and the SOW. a good PM, will bring just the schedule. In all the years as a PM, I can count on one hand how many times the account team, or rest of the team has brought the initiation and strategy documents to those meetings to refer to.

    It seems more often then not that we create the Initiation documents and the only one refered to throughout the project is the Project Plan.

    The best form of course correction is to constantly review the documents that lead you tho that point in the project.

  9. I am one of those "account" people. I think this is great stuff Jeff. The best part of the whole post is actually in one of your follow-up comments. No account person, or other agency resources, should start work without a clearly agreed upon measurable business objective and success metric and measurement plan. I can't tell you how many senior client meetings I've been in where the "objective" was something like - "I need to have an online community because my competition has one" or "I need to improve customer satisfaction" even though there was no problem there to start or " I want a really cool banner that people will talk about". None of these are objectives and should be accepted as goals for agency work.

  10. Hey Jeff, I gotta tell you, me and the guys at the office follow this blog regularly, you really seem to help us around with your FAQ's and everything, so thanks man.

  11. Thanks for the kind words and for following. Glad to provide some assistance.

    - Jeff

  12. I am thankful to this blog for assisting me. I added some specified clues which are really important for me to use them in my writing skill. Really helpful stuff made by this blog.
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  13. The Best Predictor of Project Outcome - Project Initiation
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