“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” –Lewis Carroll
Imagining the impossible is a useful practice when dreaming and innovating new ways for your business to service clients. But once you’re into an actual project, you must keep expectations realistic.
The art of project management is a delicate one. Project managers must set goals that balance the needs of the client with those of the business. Setting unrealistic expectations can be detrimental not only to a project, but to the whole company. So how do you know if your goals are actually impossible? Here are seven questions to ask yourself:
1. How well do you know the requirements of a project?
Customers don’t always know what they want because they aren’t as well versed in your product as you are. While they might want to jump right into production, it’s your job to make sure you define exactly what their requirements are. This will discourage scope creep and help you map out a more precise timeline and budget.
A note here: Sure, you are the expert on your product, but many businesses make the mistake of assuming that they know what the users want or need, without gathering input. This can be devastating to your business, as it diminishes customer service. In the end, you are pleasing the customer, not your own penchants. Be sure to listen carefully.
2. How difficult was it for your customer to define their requirements?
As noted above, some customers would rather go into a project with the “I’ll know it when I see it” mentality. With certain clients, it might take extreme guidance to finally get them to commit to a set of project requirements. If your client was ambiguous or whimsical in the planning phase, you can bet this will continue into the production stage of a project, and you will want to set your goals with that in mind.
3. Have you managed a similar project before?
There are always variables, but when you’ve done a specific type of project many times, you know how complex it is. On the other hand, if you are dealing with a new kind of project or industry, you don’t know what to expect, and it would be beneficial to allow some room in your budget and timeline for the unforeseen.
4. Do you have a method for controlling scope creep?
Yes, scope creep. The very term is one of those nightmarish, tabooed topics that sends many project managers running for the hills, but it doesn’t have to be. As a rule, you should count on some degree of scope creep in most projects. The solution? Design and implement a process to handle these changes. A simple outline, deliberate, approve, and supply progression can work wonders for you here. Be sure to educate your customers upfront about this process. It lets them know that you’re proactive, and while you want to clearly define their requirements before starting, you value their satisfaction enough to prepare for changes.
5. Have you communicated expectations to others involved?
This might seem like common sense, but simply communicating early with the people (usually your people) who will be working on the project will let you know whether your goals are realistic or not. Those involved in the production phase often have insight when it comes to the small details that differ from project to project. At minimum, this communication and acceptance of expectations will give everyone a shared sense of accountability.
6. What have you considered when plotting a timeline?
Which came first, the timeline or the budget? The answer: the timeline. While the timeline and budget are both key elements in setting project management goals, budgets are directly dependent on how long it takes to complete the project. Being able to estimate this is a crucial skill in project management. Instead of looking at a project in its entirety, break it down into major and minor milestones, then estimate the time involved to complete each segment. A Gantt Chart is a useful tool that will allow you to visualize the whole project this way—when you change the time it takes to complete one task or milestone, the rest of the schedule adapts accordingly. This will also help you more accurately determine a budget.
Like in the Gantt Chart, your project milestones should have a flexible schedule. You must consider the likelihood of other high priority work turning up while you are working on this project, or unexpected events. Once you know how long the project will take after breaking it down into steps, add a cushion of extra time before setting the deadline for deliverables.
7. Do you know the difference between goals and deadlines?
Goals should be challenging. A goal that is too easy does not motivate. This is a business; you want to keep it moving forward, striving to get better. Leaving too much extra space in a timeline can hurt performance level. But if the goals you set are challenging, you have to consider the possibility that they may not be completed. That’s why you should set internal goals and external deadlines. Internal goals should be ambitious, but not unattainable. This should be your timeline without the extra space you need to give yourself when dealing with the client. The internal goals should be clearly communicated to your team only. The external deadline is what you promise your client. If you remember the difference between these, you’ll be able to keep your team and your client happy, both of which are vital to a successful business.