IDEAS | BLOG

No Dreams or Busywork: Designing Successful Projects

There’s a saying that goes, “ideas without execution are hallucinations.” I’d modify that to say that, ‘ideas without execution are dreams; while in the reverse, execution without an idea is just busywork.’ The reality is that ideas and execution are symbiotic, and a worthwhile project requires both in roughly equal measure.

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Whether you’re talking about building a new digital platform, developing an outreach campaign, or designing a new program, a strong core idea is an essential first step. An idea on its own, however, won’t get you very far. What matters is whether you can develop a realistic action plan and execute your idea successfully. This is what project management is all about. At Forum One, we focus on digital strategies, campaigns, and platforms, but the same fundamental principles apply for any focused effort your organization tries to undertake.

Recently, I had the chance to run a workshop at the Leading Change Summit, a strategic planning retreat for nonprofit communications professionals to workshop their ideas and campaigns with technology professionals. My session, “Staffing & Resource Planning” focused on how to bring participants’ ideas to life by breaking down complexity, identifying needed skills, and managing a project from start to finish. My talk identified five key steps to a successful project. Here are my slides and handout.

1. Define Your Goals & Audiences

Before you start a new project you (hopefully) have a good idea of what you’re trying to accomplish and who’s going to care. A clear understanding of your project goals helps tie what you’re doing back to what your organization as a whole is trying to accomplish. Asking the question, “what will be different when this effort is successful?” helps identify how to measure success once the project is complete.

Along with goals, it’s also critical to articulate who this project will serve and – just as importantly – who will need to contribute. Your project goals should align with the needs and expectations of your external audience, without neglecting your internal audiences. Depending on the nature of what you’re attempting, investments from your colleagues and allies within your organization and your peer network can be critical to your success. Make sure they understand what you’re doing, why, and how they can contribute before you spend your first dollar. Down the road, having an internal constituency for your project will be worth every minute you spend at this early stage.

2. Identify Your Epic Stories

If you’re familiar with storytelling, you might know the hero’s journey. For our purposes, the important idea to understand is that the journey itself, when taken as a whole, can appear overwhelming and impossible; however, when analyzed and reduced into actionable steps, it becomes more manageable. Many of the ideas I heard discussed at the LCS probably seemed intimidatingly large at first, but a good project manager knows that any big project can be broken down into manageable tasks.

In software development, we often start by defining the high-level features desired in order to understand and set an overall scope for the project. For example, “users can create profiles and upload content,” or, “users can browse various documents in a library.” Often called “epic” user stories, these features are large in scope and too vague to be implemented, yet they capture what needs to be created or accomplished in a broad sense. Through discussion within the team, we break these epic stories down into more manageable pieces that we can define with greater specificity. From there, our developers and designers can create them one at a time.

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Here’s an example using the popular “wishlist” feature used on numerous ecommerce sites.

It’s easy enough to think of almost any project in these terms by asking a few simple questions. What are you trying to do at a high level, and how would you like your users to experience it?

3. Inventory Your Skills & Gaps

Once you’ve identified your epic features and broken them down into manageable tasks, the next step is considering what skills are needed. This is a step where outside consultation can be very helpful. If your project involves, say, building a website, you’ll want to talk to someone who’s done that before to get an idea of the skills involved. Warning: it’s often more complicated than you might think! Professional website builds, for example, can involve at five or more different skillsets (i.e., user-experience design, graphic design, technical architect, front-end development, and project management).

Once you’ve got a list of the skills needed, it’s time to assess how you’re going to get the work done. It may be helpful to think in concentric circles:

  1. What can I do myself?
  2. What can my direct team do?
  3. What can others within my organization do?
  4. What can my volunteers or stakeholders do?
  5. What can I hire consultants to do?

One of the most helpful things I’ve found to consider at this step is expectation setting. Whether you’re using internal or external resources to complete your tasks, it’s important that everyone have a shared understanding of how much effort each task is expected to take. There’s no substitute for talking through each task in detail with the people that will be doing the work, and arriving at a clear, articulated, shared definition of what “done” looks like.

4. Manage Your Budget & Tasks

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. At this point, you should have a list of tasks and associated skillsets in one hand, and a list of potential resources (i.e., people) that can meet those needs.

You can start to visualize your situation with a simple spreadsheet, though there are plenty of more robust project management tools available. Put each of your tasks in a row, and each resource in a column. Review each task with the team, talk through the details, and calculate how much time each person will need to contribute to each task. After this step, you can perform a reality check by summing the rows (to see if you’re spending too much effort on a task) and the columns (to see if you’re asking too much time from any person).

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Here’s an example of a real website development resourcing matrix from one of our projects.

Two Types of Tools

Project management tools are great. At Forum One, we use a combination of tools on projects depending on the nature of the work and the size of the team. I’ve found that PM tools typically fall into one of two categories: collaboration tools and task managementsystems.

Collaboration tools are designed to organize documents, files, links, and other resources associated with a project, and to facilitate communication and collaboration between team members. Google Drive is a great example that most people are familiar with. Other popular options are Basecamp and Teamwork. These tools can help you keep things organized and keep communication flowing between team members.

Where these tools tend to fall short is in task tracking, which is keeping tabs on your backlog of work, and tracking how an individual task is passed between team members on it’s way to completion. For many projects, a simple task tracker may be sufficient, but for highly technical projects like web development, you’ll need something more granular. Systems like JiraTrello, and Redmine can help with managing a large queue of work, and keeping track of who’s working on what and how much time is remaining for each task.

It’s rare to find a tool that’s a perfect solution, and no tool can ensure that your project will succeed, but a good system will help you see the big picture and keep things organized and on track.

5. Balance Your Scope, Timeline, & Budget

If you have any formal project management training, you’re familiar with the triple constraint (popularized in the idiom “Fast, Cheap, or Good: Pick Two”). There are no hard and fast rules here – you’ll need to balance scope, timeline, and budget simultaneously to ensure your project succeeds. As in the skills & gaps step above, consultation and expectation setting with your team and stakeholders can be helpful here. Focus on the most important aspect – is budget the overriding concern, or is it more important that the work be completed on time?

Scope creep is a constant danger, particularly when you have stakeholders who are unfamiliar with the details of how your project is being implemented. As a project manager, the more you understand the nature of the work your team is doing, the better you’ll be able to communicate the implications of scope change requests. It is (or should be) always acceptable to say, “I’m not sure what’s involved with that change. Let me ask the team and get back to you.”

To borrow a term from the startup world, focus as much as possible on the minimum viable product. Usually there are opportunities to change, iterate, and improve something over time, and users are typically open to this approach as long as their expectations have been appropriately set ahead of time. There’s often a lot of resistance in the government and nonprofit world to release something that’s not “complete”, but the reality is that – particularly with software – it’s extremely difficult to build something perfect without exposing it to actual users first. Don’t be afraid! Your users want you to succeed, and they can help you get there.

Wrapping Up

Every project requires a unique approach. I’ve outlined steps here that I think are helpful in designing any project from a digital strategy campaign to a new education outreach program (which was the example participant project we used in my LCS session). Project management is as much an art as a science. While there are certain key steps, it’s often a matter of identifying which specific area will offer the most challenge, and spending extra time and energy focusing on it. Maybe you have lots of resources available, but your team and stakeholders have diverging ideas about what you’re trying to accomplish. In that case, spending a lot of time on the first two steps would be ideal. In the opposite situation, perhaps you have well-defined goals, but major limitations on budget and resources. In that case, focusing on steps 2 and 4 to would serve you well.

Working as a project manager at Forum One has given me the opportunity to work on a lot of different types of projects, and I’ve learned to use the steps above to provide a good conceptual framework to any project I undertake. If you’re new to project management, and are struggling to wrap your head around it, I hope you’ll find them useful as well.

Are there steps we missed? What kind of challenges are you encountering in your organization?