The Scrappy Project Management Checklist
Kimberly Wiefling, Author of Scrappy Project Management
Copyright Kimberly Wiefling 2007 – 2011. Use with attribution permitted.
Scrappy Project Managers don’t settle for hysterics and management by crisis, and they certainly don’t let something as mundane as so-called reality limit them. They either find a way to seize success from the snapping jaws of defeat, or they invent one. This checklist will help you get results when the odds are against you, when precedence says it can’t be done, and when the majority of humans believe your project is impossible.
I know a pilot who has flown 7000 hours. The other day I asked him, “Chuck, the next time you fly are you going to use your pre-flight checklist?” “You bet!”, he replied. Now why would a jet pilot with that much experience use a checklist? . . . because that’s what professionals do. Professionals know that in the heat of battle much of our blood rushes to our arms and legs, where it is useful for hitting, kicking and running, leaving little to nourish the one major advantage that we have over monkeys—our frontal lobes. That’s why these common-sense principles are those that are most frequently overlooked or short-changed on projects, even by those who should know better.
A checklist, or a set of operating guidelines, is one way to instill this kind of discipline. It’s a rock in a sea of flotsam and jetsam. It’s the next best thing to being lucky. Keep it with you at all times. Make a copy to nail up to the wall of your office. Tape another copy to the dashboard of your car, and put yet another on the lower surface of your favorite toilet seat so you’ll be sure to see it at least a couple of times a day.
Knowing “how,” all by itself, has never been enough to change anything. Smarter and more experienced people than us have tumbled down the stairs of failure due to overlooking exactly these basics. I’ve been using this list of operating principles for years to guide me through treacherous waters. It has helped me remember what’s important when I’m not thinking straight. I don’t follow it precisely, of course, but at least when I depart from it I do so thoughtfully, not by accidentally forgetting some important part of the project management process. Don’t use mine, for Pete’s sake! Make one that’s your very own that suits you.
The converse of the dirty dozen are 12 common sense practices for project management that have been proven to enable leaders to steer their teams clear of avoidable disaster and as much as double their chances of project success.
The role of project leader is not for the faint of heart. As in many worthy causes, tact and diplomacy can only get you so far, so be sure to have some spunk and attitude on hand when you run out of road with the gentler approach. Sometimes an outrageous act of bravado and nerves of steel will serve you far better than any fancy-schmancy Microsoft® Project Gantt chart. It is during these defining moments that you’ll come to appreciate and benefit from the scrappy approach to leading a project, and this handy dandy checklist. Don’t leave home without it!
The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces. If you’re genetically gifted with the ability to get results that other people claim are highly unlikely or darn near impossible, you don’t need this checklist. But if you are faced with an insurmountable “To Do” list, here are 12 predictable — and avoidable — pitfalls that stand between most people and the goals they hope to achieve for success:
- Forget about the customer. Henry Ford said that the company doesn’t pay employees a salary, the customer does. The employer is just the middleman. But many businesses operate as though the customer is an afterthought. One trip to a retail service establishment is all it takes to confirm this. If you want to be successful, be completely and unrepentantly obsessed with the customer, whoever that is, whether internal or external.
- Fail to set clear goals. According to a blizzard of studies, and my own observations of businesses over the past 20 years, the number 1 reason people don’t achieve their goals is that they don’t have goals. Fear of failure helps people avoid clear goal-setting, or makes them settle for fuzzy, ambiguous goals. Double your chances of success just by making sure that you and your co-workers have shared, measurable, challenging and achievable goals, as clear as sunlight.
- Communicate poorly. Even with clear and compelling goals, inadequate communication undermines your chances of achieving those goals. Poor communication is the number 2 cause of failure, and it’s no wonder. Most people don’t realize that communication involves both talking and listening. Many conversations are like two TVs facing one another. Highly successful people avoid this all too common pitfall by engaging in effective, vociferous and unrelenting communication with all stakeholders.
- Keep roles and responsibilities fuzzy. Fumbled handoffs and the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing are common causes of setbacks along the road to success. One of the biggest causes of conflicts in teams is lack of role clarity. Assure that roles ad responsibilities are clearly understood and agreed to by all to avoid this unnecessary pit stop on your journey.
- Plan inadequately and create fictitious schedules. Every hour of planning saves about a day of wasted effort and rework. And yet, given a choice most people will either under-plan or fail to plan at all. Even when you create detailed schedules, they often do little more than document the demise of the people carrying out the plan. Overlooking critical handoffs and interdependencies can add days, weeks or months to the completion date of a mission-critical goal, and what’s worse, everyone seems to know from the start the dates will never be met. Savvy professionals create viable plans and schedules that enjoy the team’s hearty commitment.
- Imagine no disaster and see no upside. Many people are so busy just working on the tasks at hand that they fail to look around the next bend for possible potholes that could have a major impact on their results. Even when risks are identified, the most common mistake is to do nothing to avoid them. And when you’re up to your butt in alligators, the last thing you want to do is stop to consider how to make the outcome better! Those in the know mitigate big, hairy, abominable risks before they occur, and keep a keen lookout for upside that can accelerate and amplify their success.
- Behave as if everything is the top priority. If everything is number 1, nothing is! Of course, we’d love to have it all, avoiding tough tradeoffs between things we hold dear. But choices must inevitably be made. Sometimes costs need to increase in order to obtain a satisfactory level of quality. Sometimes features must be sacrificed in the name of reliability, or to hit a hard deadline in a launch window. No one wants to lose one of their vital organs, but the reality is that sometimes you must prioritize ruthlessly, choosing between heart, lungs and kidneys if necessary. For those who struggle with this aspect of project management, choosing to prioritize tasks with Kanban may be of significant value. The Kanban method will enable you to arrange tasks based on what’s most important and will give you guidance on how to do so.
- Be surprised when change occurs. There isn’t a project on earth that has been accomplished without some kind of change that impacted the projects. And yet people continue to let change throw them off balance. Change is inevitable, except from vending machines. Only amnesiacs should be surprised by it. The world is changing rapidly, and your projects are too, so anticipate and accommodate necessary and inevitable change.
- Fall victim to self-limiting assumptions. Of all the obstacles we face in life, none are bigger than those of our own making. We fail to consider possibilities outside of our experience, or possibilities that, in the past, have been off limits to us for some reason, like because we have self-limiting beliefs about what is possible. And, like fish blind to water, we miss opportunities right in front of our nose because of the filters of our experience. There are plenty of examples where people saying something was impossible were shoved aside by those doing it. Avoid this trap by routinely challenging assumptions and beliefs, especially insidious self-imposed limitations.
- Fail to manage stakeholder expectations. What is a stakeholder? Anyone who cares about what you’re doing, and anyone who can either help you or hurt you in your quest to achieve your goals. Most people fail to identify key stakeholders who could dramatically accelerate or undermine their success. A powerful stakeholder analysis tool that clarifies goals is a stakeholder map. After visualizing all stakeholders and their interrelationships, ask, “What will this stakeholder be saying when this project is wildly successful?” Frequently expectations will conflict, forcing to the surface the tough decisions and tradeoffs between things that initially seemed equally important. Managing the expectations of all stakeholders up front increases the likelihood that your delight in accomplishing your goals will be shared by others who are critical to your process.
- Repeat the mistakes of the past. A common practice among professionals is to do what’s called a “retrospective,” where things that went well, and those that went sideways, are reviewed with the intention of avoiding similar problems in the future. However, like a B-grade horror flick, the mistakes look pretty much the same each time through. That’s why I call these reviews “Lessons not learned.” There’s a difference between 10 years of experience and one year of experience 10 times. Learn from experience. Make new and more exciting mistakes each time!
- Skip being grateful for what’s going right. We seem to be conditioned from an early age to notice what’s not working and focus on criticism instead of appreciation for what’s right with the world and other people. And that bias toward critique is reinforced by a society where negative people appear smarter. Recognizing what’s working well is equally important. Appreciating our contributions and those of others provides much needed motivation to continue onward. Even mistakes can open a doorway to new possibilities, especially in the world of creativity and innovation. Post-It Notes were an accident – a failure of stickiness. Practice an attitude of gratitude. If you want to truly achieve your greatest potential, celebrate successes along the way — and some failures, too!
Feeling lucky? Play the lottery. But if you want to generate positive results predictably and reliably, follow these practical and sensible guidelines for getting things done. Heeding these land mines on the path to success doesn’t guarantee success, but at least you’ll fail for new, surprising and more exciting reasons. Cling to the Scrappy Project Management Checklist as if your success depends on it . . . because indeed it does!
Scrappy Project Management Checklist
- Be completely & unrepentantly obsessed with the “Customer”.
- Prioritize ruthlessly, choosing between heart, lungs & kidneys if necessary.
- Provide shared, measurable, challenging, & achievable Goals as clear as sunlight.
- Create viable Plans & Schedules that enjoy the team’s hearty commitment.
- Explicitly identify and plan to mitigate detestable Risks & delectable Accelerators.
- Assure that Roles & Responsibilities are unmistakably understood and agreed by all.
- Challenge Assumptions & Beliefs, especially insidious self-imposed limitations.
- Manage the Expectations of all stakeholders: under-promise & over-deliver.
- Anticipate and accommodate necessary and inevitable Change.
- Engage in effective, vociferous & unrelenting Communication with all stakeholders.
- Practice an “Attitude of Gratitude.” Celebrate success, and some failures, too.
- Learn from experience. Make new and more exciting mistakes next time!
The next time you’re looking down the barrel of another killer project, pause and reflect before diving into the fray. In the middle of the madness, surface for a look around before diving into the pile of work that awaits you. And cling to what you know works. A set of operating principles like those above can be a useful reminder of key areas that are important to the success of the mammals on your team. Follow the principles or depart from them thoughtfully, no matter how you feel at the moment. Professional project leaders do what needs to be done whether or not they feel like it. Not everyone will like this kind of disciplined approach.
Kimberly Wiefling is a force of nature, and a globally recognized author and business leadership consultant who specializes in helping people achieve what seems impossible, but is merely difficult. Her most popular book, “Scrappy Project Management – The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces”, is also available in Japanese.
Copyright Kimberly Wiefling 2007 – 2011. Use with attribution permitted.by