Have you ever had a project sneak up on you?
Sneaky projects start out as short-term requests that feel more like quick to-do’s than a full-fledged project. What initially looks like a simple operational task (resource transfer, budget transfer, etc.) suddenly evolves into a project that needs timelines, range estimates, follow-ups and other team members’ input.
I’ve had a project sneak up on me. With the experience behind me, I now know how I would have handled the situation much differently.
Here are 5 signs that you have a project – and not a to-do – and how to plan for it.
1. Executive management has established an expected goal or outcome.
A few years ago, I received a short term assignment to help transfer funds from one organization to another in an effort to centralize our project funding. The executive team had set the goal and needed people to facilitate the budget transfers. When I first received this assignment, I thought it would be a simple effort to just transfer money from one account number to another. As the effort unfolded, I soon learned there was a lot of complexity in transferring money between organizations. Hence, a project was born.
Lesson: Ask more questions up front to further define the goal and identify the tasks – as well as the people or teams – required to reach the desired outcome.
2. The goal or outcome is needed by a specific date.
Originally, the executive team didn’t communicate an end date for the budget transfers. Team members assumed they could work at their own pace without worrying about a target end date. A few weeks into the effort, target dates were communicated and as the target dates approached, management escalations began and I started receiving unwanted attention. It was a useful reminder that stakeholders always have a date in mind regardless if they communicate it or not.
Lesson: Always, always ask about an expected target date or date range even if one is not directly communicated.
3. Additional people need to complete different tasks to achieve the goal.
I soon realized that this particular money transferal request wasn’t as simple as moving money from my personal savings to my checking account. In corporate finance, there are processes to follow, specific timeframes in which you can make budget changes and then there’s an entire series of approvals required to successfully move money from one account to another. These tasks actually take longer than a singular phone call to complete the process.
The key people required to make the budget transfer also had competing priorities which often meant my requests for meetings, updates and actions were deferred due to more pressing priorities. Different stakeholders also had to talk to other individuals to get their approval before transferring the money. Some people needed additional paperwork to be submitted and there was additional work required from other finance contacts.
The more people that were involved in the effort further reminded me I had a project on my hands and not just a simple operational task.
Lesson: As soon as possible, identify the roles of everyone needed to complete the tasks in order to achieve the desired outcome. Get their commitments and agreement to complete the tasks by the expected deadline.
4. People are requesting clarification and status updates.
As I worked to transfer the funds, different people would ask for clarification about the transfers. They wanted to know exactly why I had to transfer money by a specific date, who authorized the transfer and they wanted more detail on the scope of the request. Executive management also asked for weekly status updates to monitor progress.
Clearly there was a communication need. If I had known all the stakeholders from the beginning, I could have had a great kick-off meeting to get everyone on the same page. I would have prepared a presentation to share with every finance manager who wondered why I was asking for the money – before the project got underway.
Lesson: Have a kick-off meeting and hold regular status meetings with all the stakeholders as soon as you get a sense that this is a project, not a task.
5. Problems occur with no planned resolution.
During my funds-transferal effort, the scope of the project changed which created new issues and some budget transfers simply stopped. In some cases, budget owners wouldn’t release the funds and other finance managers simply got too busy with other assignments to follow up on their action items.
In a project manager’s mindset, these situations are handled with change requests, issue and risk management procedures. If there was better issue tracking and commitment from everyone responsible for the budget transfers, the effort would have gone a lot more smoothly.
Lesson: Track the issues with the assigned tasks and follow up regularly with the people responsible for completing the task.
Hindsight really is 20/20
At the beginning of this sneaky project, I thought these budget transfers would have been completed with a phone call or an email exchange to follow up with the budget owners. End of story. Boy, was I wrong. The complexity in getting buy-in, clarification and agreement to transfer these different budgets across multiple finance managers would have been better managed with a project management mind set.
Can I get a do-over?
If I had a chance to do the project over again, I would have:
1. Analyzed the budget transfer process
2. Identified all the people responsible for key steps in the process
3. Ensured buy-in from all team members to deliver to the goal
4. Created tasks for each person in a collaborative, social project management tool
5. Tracked progress by viewing each team member’s commitments and progress against their assigned tasks
6. Established a weekly status meeting with all the key players to share status, resolve issues and manage risk
By recognizing these 5 characteristics, I hope you can avoid the mistakes I made and adopt a project management mindset to sniff out and manage any future “quick” projects that tries to sneak up on you.
Do you believe in sneaky projects? What do you do about them?