The first conversation

Demian Entrekin · March 10, 2010 · Short URL:

Hint: it's not about the budget

 There is one conversation I would like to change permanently. It's the first conversation.

All too often the first conversation about a project revolves around the schedule or the budget or the resources. When do we need to finish this project? Who is available? How much money do we have to spend?

If I had a magic wand, I would change the first conversation to revolve around a totally different set of questions. Where did this project come from? What is the reason for this project? What are the business outcomes that this project will accomplish? Where does this project fit into our overall game plan? What do the customers want and how do we know? How does it help us with the Big Goals?

But here is the place I would most like to start: I would kick off every project meeting with the discussion around "if this project is successful, it will accomplish the following outcomes."

And for the record, "on time, on budget" are not business outcomes. Those are project givens. Let me say this again. On Time and On Budget are givens. There's no point in belaboring these criteria. If we have to delineate these as business outcomes, then we have a lot of work to do.

But it's not just the first conversation. It's the nature of the entire conversation, and it merely starts with the first conversation.

And when I talk about project outcomes, I'm talking about the things that will change in the world as a result of completing the project. And in a portfolio context, it adds up to the combined impact of the whole matrix of projects.

This conversation too often just gets bypassed. I'm just as guilty of this sin as others, and I supposedly know better. I'm not entirely sure why, but we tend to skip this step. Perhaps it's because a discussion of the overall goals seems indulgent. Or maybe it's because the project team does not feel like they are allowed to talk about those things. Or maybe it's how we have been trained.

Understanding project success in terms of outcomes takes time and effort. It takes engaging the imagination. It takes thinking clearly and asking tough questions. It takes a willingness to look foolish. It takes asking things like "Is that really the desired outcome?" and "Will those outcomes really take us where we want to go?"

Unfortunately for me, my magic wand is in the shop and the mechanics aren't returning my calls.

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