On May 25, 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon within the decade. How the hell were we going to do that? Neither Kennedy nor anyone else could really answer that question.
For Kennedy, the how-to was not as important as the why. The Soviet Union was showing us up in the space race – and therefore in the struggle for military supremacy. We all saw it as an issue of national survival, beyond the obvious matter of national pride.
This unprecedented monster of a project was driven by that very pressing need. We would find a way. Actually, we would find countless new ways to accomplish things never before attempted, or even seriously considered.
Eight years and 56 days later – on July 20, 1969 – Neil Armstrong stepped from the lunar module onto that dusty lunar surface. Between the two events, there was an immense expenditure of funds and effort, fueled by relentless inventions to do what had never been done before.
The commitment never wavered, although Kennedy himself was assassinated two years after his announcement.
No – you state and describe an outcome that clearly will get you the results you want. If you can pull it off.
Then the how-to is worked out with an uncluttered focus on the outcome. If your project is a big-time advance, it’s going to include risk. An honest, thorough project plan will include – prominently – what you’re going to do about the parts you don’t know how to do. That’s risk management.
Too often, this vital function is blurred by doubt. It may not be timidity, exactly, but it softens the edges and damages everything.
So the project planners must prevent any drift, resolutely maintaining an exact focus on just what it is they set out to do. That starts with how they establish the goal. Slippage is inevitable if the goal-setting process is too hurried and/or superficial.
When the planning team members fail to undergo a real goal-setting process, just agreeing on a goal statement, they’ve settled for a fond hope. It's not a project goal. In order to hold, the goal must be solidly rooted in basic understandings and agreements.
If you’re too busy to make the necessary time investment, the project will be riddled with shortfalls and accumulating small failures. It will bleed from a thousand cuts.
Effective goal setting is more about the people than it is about the words. The decision-makers raise, debate and settle a series of blunt questions. When they work through to consensus they have, not only a worthy goal, but also a durable shared confidence they can do what it will take to get there.
The agenda for such a process doesn’t start with who is to do what, or even what is to be done. It starts with a big “why” and a bunch of basic “whats.”
Why are we considering this? What value do we seek? What is the real problem we’re seeking to solve, and/or the big opportunity we can cash in?
Do we have all the right people in on this conversation? Are all of them really opening up, speaking their minds, actively listening, negotiating differences, demonstrating commitment to constructive collaboration?
The process often needs skilled facilitation, and when it does it’s a fatal mistake to skip that and just settle for what people will grudgingly go along with. In such a case, it’s better to scotch the whole project rather than proceed with the poorly supported shell of a project plan.
Once the first, most basic, agreements are in place, explicit consensus must be reached on the goal statement itself, then the major objectives, the areas of risk, the expected return on investment and similar matters.
Getting all this out in the open, and insisting on full agreement as to the meaning of each part, pays off in three essential ways:
First, it prevents risk avoidance, a standard flaw when projects fail or fall short.
Second, it provides a solid base for action planning as the project is subdivided among the various individuals and teams. It makes communication and collaboration possible.
Third, it acquaints the decision-makers with each other, facilitating trust and the coordinated pursuit of the common goal.
Back to the moon – actually, to the consideration of demanding goals.
The greatest challenge in project management is when there is substantial risk. And risk is the defining characteristic of projects, in my opinion.
When you already know how to do whatever it is, there is only modest risk at most. You can handle it easily if you pay attention. That’s process management. You do what you know how to do, and you get just what you expected to get.
Project management is what you do when you don’t know what to do. Projects are complex efforts to do something you haven’t done before. They often include known processes intermingled with demands that require invention, and one serious risk is to treat both the same way.
Sometimes the price of failure would be high, and it doesn’t help that time and resources are tight and you’re dependent upon people you don’t know very well.
So you need the skills of project management to avoid failure and invent your way to maximum value. If you let yourself get all tangled up in the unknowns of the how-tos, you'll never make it. So take a tip from President Kennedy: Start with the "why?"
You're not running a race into space, but doing your project with a moonshot attitude is a good way to ensure you will reach the highest possible outcome.
QUESTION: What’s your experience with risk? How do you deal with it?
See also: Love that Failure