Four Questions to Ask Before You Start Any Project

Covered Wagons and the Oregon Trail

As covered wagons made their way along the Oregon Trail headed for the gold fields of California or the lush timber of Oregon, whenever the wagon wheels started to squeak, the wagon driver knew it was time to stop and grease the squeaking wheel-before it failed. Along the trail there wasn’t the equivalent of a Firestone or Goodyear to get a replacement. A failed wheel was inconvenient at best or a matter of life and death at worst.

Originally, I think this phrase “The squeaking wheel gets the grease” implied that problems should be fixed as soon as they are identified. However, over the last 100 plus years, the term has become associated with “the person who complains the loudest gets what they want.”

First Come, First Served

Organizations that rely on a “first come, first served” approach to making project decisions, or worse, the “whoever screams the loudest” approach, might get projects out the door-but are they the right projects?

Most organizations don’t have a problem keeping people busy, the challenge is keeping people busy doing the right things. Evaluating every potential project based upon pre-determined criteria ensures that the business value of every project will be evaluated objectively, regardless of who sponsors it. Making knee-jerk reactions to the demands of influential project sponsors or stakeholders can be expensive. Spending valuable resources working on projects that provide minimal value can be catastrophic.

A Formalized Process for Evaluating Potential Projects

Establishing a process that requires every potential project to demonstrate its value based upon pre-determined criteria gives executives confidence that they are making well-informed project decisions. Some important questions that should be asked when evaluating any project should include:

1. What are the high-level objectives of the project? It’s not uncommon for a project to morph into something very different from what was originally intended. Specifically identifying the goals of every project helps project teams, sponsors, and stakeholders stay on track. What’s more, organizations that insist on keeping those business objectives a secret typically end up shooting themselves in the foot. I once worked with an organization that waited until eight months into the year before they made public their six or seven primary business objectives for that year. Needless to say, with only four months left, it made it challenging for the rank and file workforce to do anything about whether or not they successfully met those goals.

2. What are the estimated costs of the project-and the anticipated rewards: Without the answer to these questions, it becomes difficult to determine if the potential project will provide any business value, let alone the greatest value. Unfortunately, many projects are begun without anyone even asking these questions. Over the last few years, even though project resources in most organizations have diminished, business leaders are still turning to project management methodologies to help them increase their bottom line. Wasting time on initiatives that are costly or fail to produce a positive impact on the balance sheet should be avoided. Many companies are turning to shorter-duration projects that tend to demonstrate value sooner rather than multi-year project investments that may or may not eventually pan out. “Demonstrate value early and often,” has become the mantra of many successful project teams.

3. Does the potential project align with the mission, vision, and values of the organization? Individual projects must represent the execution of strategic direction if the desired result is to maximize every dollar spent in the pursuit of the greatest ROI. It’s not uncommon for direction from the executive level to become “lost in translation” by the time it makes it’s way to project teams. Facilitating an environment with a free-flow of information both up and down the organization is critical in a business climate where how quickly you are able to respond to market forces can often make the difference between profitability or viability. Weekly or monthly status reports are of little value for making informed decisions. Informed decision-making requires visibility into what’s happening with projects now, not days or weeks from now.

4. What are the risks associated with pursuing the project under consideration? If potential project risks can be identified and evaluated while in the consideration process, actions can be taken to mitigate risk and increase the probability of success. A formalized project evaluation process that includes risk assessment facilitates a conversation regarding risk vs. reward and enables executives to make informed decisions. Although not all risks are bad, some are worth taking and some are not. If there is no risk discussion before a project has begun, it’s more than likely that circumstances will force a discussion later, after it’s too late to minimize or mitigate the risk.

A Perfect World?

In a perfect world, every potential project that provided business value would be pursued. However, anyone doing project-based work understands that we don’t live in a perfect world and that there always seems to be more work than there is time or resources to do it. Establishing a method for evaluating every potential project is important. Measuring and considering every potential project based upon merit is the first step to effectively managing demand-and why it’s so important to ask these questions before a project has even started.

Should the squeaky wheel always get the grease? Probably not.