How to start a project: Going from zero to green lights

The start of a project is one of the critical phases. You want to do it right. A lot of your future success depends on how you start off.

Unfortunately things can get hectic and you usually don’t have a lot of time to sit down and think.

In this article I walk you through all the important steps. This is how I tackle any new project.

We can break down the work into these action points:

  • What is the project about and what is its goal?
  • What are the activities in my project?
  • Who needs to be involved to get the job done?
  • Who will be affected by the project?
  • What will be the timeline and cost?

The project goal is the purpose of the project — the end goal you are trying to reach. Usually it’s the project sponsor who defines the project goal. There is also a wide range of people and organizational entities that are affected by your project. They have a “stake” in what you’re doing and thus are called stakeholders.

Get an understanding of the subject matter

Your first step should be to get a good understanding of the subject matter of your project. You don’t have to become an expert but you should be able to speak confidently about it and understand how everything ties together.

Where to get all the information from?

By reading and talking to people:

  • Read relevant studies, articles or books
  • Talk to people in your organization
  • Talk to experts in your field
  • Ask people in discussion forums online
  • Talk to people who have done similar projects (contact other companies if necessary. You’ll get VERY valuable feedback here.)

Whatever insights and pieces of information you find, collect them in a single place — for example an Word or Powerpoint file. Gathering information of course is only half of the story. You need to qualify everything and decide how it it could affect your project.

Your research should also give you indications about whom to involve and who will be affected by the project’s activities.

My rule: Don’t be afraid to ask questions

The best way to really grasp a topic is by asking questions. As you’re having conversations with subject matter experts, people with similar project experience and those in your team, ask questions like these:

  • Why can’t we just do X instead of Y?
  • What would happen if we did X?
  • Why was it done this way?
  • What would we have to do in order to achieve X?

Most people feel uncomfortable asking. They worry too much about what others might think. That should not be your concern! Your job is to run a successful project and not to worry about how you appear to others.

ColumboI would like you to adapt the investigative style of detective Columbo. If you haven’t heard of Columbo: he was the detective in a very successful crime series.

What was so particular about Columbo?

He had an incredible eye for detail and despite his absentmindedness, always hit the nail with the right questions.

In a typical situation, he would leave the room, turn around and confront his counterpart with an uncomfortable question: “Just one more thing …”.

Usually it was this question that revealed the killer.

Columbo gave a damn of how others thought of him. He was dedicated to solve his case and was willing to ask and dig deep into a problem.

That’s the mindset you should adapt if you want to be a good project manager.

Find out what activities have to be performed (and who is responsible)

Every project consists of a number of activities which have to be performed in a specific sequence. Your challenge at the beginning is to find out what these activities are. This is not easy and it usually takes a couple of weeks until you have a good enough overview.

Knowing what the necessary tasks are and who is going to be in charge is a VERY critical step. You don’t want find out six months from now that you forgot to include somebody whose involvement is required. The consequence would be a delay of your project.

It helps to break down the work into:

  • preparatory tasks (example: concept creation)
  • implementation tasks (example: building the software)
  • closing tasks (example: training of end-users)

What I do at the start of a project: I schedule several meetings with those people that I think have some stake in the project. I give an overview of the project and I ask the folks: Tell me, what are your main work packages? In what order do they have to be performed?

The quality of feedback you receive during the information gathering phase heavily depends on the quality of input you give. Simply giving a one-liner about your project and expecting helpful feedback won’t work. You need to provide detailed information about what your project is about and how it will affect the current processes so that people can visualize how it might affect their realm.

The following will help :

  • slides including a project summary (sent out at least 1 week before the meeting)
  • process diagrams (what is going to change?)
  • organizational charts

Don’t worry if you have to make several attempts until you achieve the desired clarity. Often when I get back to my desk to go through the input I’ve just collected, new questions come into my mind. That means I have to check back with my team and solve whatever is still unclear.

Below you see an example of an Outlook invite as I would send it out to each one I want to talk to:

Outlook invite

At the end of this step you should have come up with a list of activities and the responsible for each one.

What if you can’t figure out who can fulfill a specific deliverable? Your HR department may be able to help you. Give them a list of skills and required knowledge and they can check through their network. If nobody inside your organization can take over the work you have to look for an external resource.

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Get to know your project team

Every project is a team effort. Make sure you know your people well and build trust with your team.

Whenever one of my projects faced a challenging situation, I could count on the extra commitment of my team. I could ask my developer to work extra hours to figure out a technical workaround. My process experts were willing to brainstorm other ideas if our initial plan wasn’t working.

It was because I had put in a lot of time for building trust within my team. Everyone knew that I sincerely appreciated his or her contribution.

Building good ties with those you work with takes time, so you better start early.

Here are some tips for connecting with team members:

  • Have 1-on-1 conversations
  • Invite them for coffee
  • Ask them about their job
  • Ask them about their hobbies
  • Most importantly: listen

Prepare for failure

As a project manager, you are like a commander of a boat who has to navigate his ship through rough waters. If you know where to expect cliffs, dangerous currents or heavy storm, you are much more likely to arrive at the destination.

So you sit down first, and you think thoroughly about everything that might go wrong. Any obstacles that could jeopardize your project’s success.

Put everything down in an Excel table.

Then, as a second step, brainstorm possible measures that would either help to eliminate a risk completely, or that could reduce the impact.

To give you an example:

If you have a technical expert in your team, there’s a possibility that he will be unavailable in a critical phase of your project, be it due to sickness or because he changes jobs. As a mitigating action, you could add a second programmer as backup and require that both colleagues work closely together, so the knowledge is shared.

If this is not possible, you could at least check for an external person that could be taken onto the project in case of emergency.

Now, if you just draw from your own experience, chances are that you miss some potential risk. This is dangerous. That’s why I always talk to other people to get a second opinion. It’s also very helpful to talk to project managers who have lead similar projects.

Any problem that you have thought of before means less trouble along the way! You will be prepared if something goes wrong, and instead of falling into a frazzled mode, you can react calmly and with a clear state of mind.

This is one of the most important points, and I want you to internalize the concept of preparing for risk.

Here are some examples of how we dealt with risks in some of my own projects:

  • During our India project the biggest risk was failure to meet Indian tax regulations. Indian tax regulations are terribly complex! We easily could have missed something or gotten a wrong understanding. The consequences would have been devastating. You cannot use an IT system that produces wrong tax statements! That’s why we started VERY early to immerse ourself in the tax regulations and build up an overview of the tax rules and the corresponding scenarios.
  • Working in different timezones
    When you work with distributed teams you have very little overlapping time to make phone calls etc. Tasks which could be completed in a matter of hours take days or even weeks to complete because you have to rely on email communication. In order to limit the negative impact of this, we installed a local project manager who coordinated the resources at the other location.
  • Resource bottlenecks due to parallel projects
    Usually you have to ‘fight’ to get the resources you need because your people are also supporting other projects. If people have to put in extra time for another project, they may not meet the deadlines in your project. This is a common issue in big companies. What we did was to constantly monitor the progress of “competing” projects. The earlier we knew the other project was in trouble, the faster we could respond to resource bottlenecks.

Create a project plan

All the steps before were mostly thinking and talking to people. Now it’s time to actually put something on paper.

You will now create the first project plan. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Remember it won’t be the final version, so don’t worry! Take the insights you have gained from your initial research and the discussions, and write down the main project tasks in the appropriate order.

Here is an example:

project plan in Excel

Here you can download the Excel project plan template

Personally, I have always used Excel in my projects. It’s very easy to use and anybody can open it. Stay away from complicated project management tools including MS Project unless you are managing a multimillion dollar project with complex dependencies (I’ll cover MS Project here on tacticalprojectmanager).

Why?

Your most precious resource as a project manager is your time.

As it is the case with most software, it takes a long time to get really familiar with it. Making a simple change to your project plan isn’t that easy, and you will find yourself wasting time. Focus your attention on the things that really matter: Checking in with your team and see if tasks are progressing and handling all the communication.

Besides the project plan, you usually also have to provide a couple of other documents: a cost estimation and a resource plan.

Make a cost estimation

Your cost estimation (project budget) should give the approximate cost per cost category. Typical cost categories are:

  • labor cost
  • material cost
  • investments
  • travel cost
  • other cost

Again, keep it simple. Put everything into an Excel worksheet and add up the numbers. If you are required to provide a breakdown by month or by specific categories, then do so.

To calculate the cost of internal resources, you usually multiply the number of hours by a pre-defined hourly rate. Your HR department or the guys from internal accounting can give you the hourly rates of your organization. For external resources you anyway pay a fixed rate per hour or day which you can find on the quotation.

Material cost is the value of goods and services that have to be procured as part of the project. What items go into this category really depends on the industry and type of the project

Very often projects require investments in buildings, machinery, software or other items. An investment is shown on the balance sheet and it is depreciated over a number of years. You have to discuss the numbers with your accounting department, as they have to make sure the investment is correctly accounted for on the financial statements.

Create a resource plan

Other departments who provide resources for your project need to know the approximate effort they have to contribute. That is, how many hours or days each colleague has to contribute per week / month.

Here is a simple example of a resource plan. I usually put in percentages and later multiply the total by the number of working days each month (20 on average) to get the number of workdays. For example, 0.8 means you are using the resource 80% in a specific month. 0.8 x 20 = 16 days.

project resource plan

Let everybody know about your project

The best way to inform everbody involved is through a kick-off meeting. These are the meetings you schedule at the beginning of every project to present the project timeline, goal and all the organizational matters, like who is involved, where does the project take place, how often you hold update meetings, your communication plan etc.

Usually there is a wider audience that should know about your project.

Prepare a set of slides which you can send out for such purposes, along with a note saying: If you have any questions, please contact me.

Don’t forget the organizational stuff

The following section may only be relevant if you’re working in a corporate environment. To be able to do your job, you are dependent on certain resources. :

  • important people (decision makers)
  • conference rooms
  • individual project team members
  • other items like hardware or tools

You’ll need those resources sooner or later in your project. The thing to remember is: you may not get a hold of them if you wait until the last moment where you need them. Just think of managers who need to be involved to get approval from. Their calendars are usually blocked a long time in advance.

So what you do is you reserve time many weeks or even months before you need them. Let’s say you plan to hold a monthly team meeting with 20+ people, you reserve an appropriately sized meeting room now for the entire duration of your project. If you already know you’ll need your director’s signature at the end of July, schedule an appointment through his assistant.

As for your team members, you usually don’t block their time. But I wanted to know when they were off. So I asked everybody to enter their vacation time in an Excel. That way I could see if there were any conflicts, such as somebody being absent in a critical phase of the project.

Think of all the resources and tools you might need in the course of your project, and make sure you have access to them when needed!

So, guys and girls reading this article: Immerse yourself in the topic of your project, and then get things moving! Create a good enough project plan, project calculation etc. Don’t put yourself under pressure to have everything perfect. This is not required. Instead, schedule the first meetings and start with the first activities. Then make updates to your plans if needed.

I’d be curious to know: What do you struggle with when starting a new project?

— Adrian

2 thoughts on “How to start a project: Going from zero to green lights

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article, Adrian!
    I like how to make managing a project so clear and concise.

    Here are a few additional questions that I have after reading your article:
    What do you mean by « work package »?
    How to find people with the right skills for my project?
    (Some ideas of platforms?)

    How to delegate the most important tasks to them?
    (How can I be sure they will do it right?)

    How to make a good process diagram in excel?
    How can I keep track of my project?

    I hope to see more interesting articles coming to your blog soon 🙂

    —Cyprien

    • Hi Cyprien,
      thanks for commenting! These are indeed very important questions. Let me take them up in separate articles. As for the term “work package”, this is just another name for a task (or a bundle of tasks). For example, the development of a script for cleaning up data could be a work package.

      Best regards

      Adrian

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