Gero Lomnitz has an oft-copied saying, “show me how your project starts and I can tell you how it will finish”. Usually, the painful projects start out badly and never really recover, despite our best efforts. We seem to be playing catch-up. Here are five things to sort out before you start your next project – just in case Mr Lomnitz comes calling.
1. Determine your room for maneuver
Projects live from momentum. Therefore it is vital to clarify ahead of time what level of decision-making responsibility you have for your project. You can’t go looking for your boss for every small decision along the way. Over time, you’ll get a good feel for how much room for maneuver you have – for how willing your boss is to back your decisions. That’s when a lot of the responsibility you carry is based on mutual trust (your boss trusts you to not do something dumb, and you trust your boss to back you).
2. Clarify when to pull the plug
By definition, research is an uncertain undertaking. Therefore, it is helpful to decide in advance at which point you’re going to give up this endeavour. You’ll find thousands of websites that extol the virtues of Thomas Edison going through 1000 variants before he came up with a working light bulb. That level of tenacity wouldn’t get funded today. That’s why it is helpful to think in advance about when to say, “enough! Time for my next research question!”
To help you recognize this, you need to be clear on your project’s goal. Standard questions that help to identify that include: how long will it take? What does it cost? What is the scope of the project? What does the project not include? How can you recognize that you’ve reached your goal?
In addition, in research we’re faced with the challenge of not always being able to state the goal clearly at the outset. In such cases, a helpful question is: How big are the error bars around your goal? As the project progresses, you can usually decrease those error bars.
It’s also helpful to think about signs that they goal won’t be reached in a reasonable way. This protects you against your own emotional attachment to the project. That way, when you hit on one of these signs during the project, you know it’s time to pull the plug.
3. Agree your resources
Who do you need to help you with the project? What skill sets do they require? What training needs to be arranged? What materials and equipment do you need? What are the delivery times for special materials? Do you need to book time on a beam line or other specialist equipment?
I learned this the hard way: we held our first project team meeting a few weeks into an 18 month compressor design project. Everything was carefully laid out so that we would only have to take the expensive decisions as close to the end as possible. Then the head of design asked us how much of a particular titanium alloy he needed to order for us. It had a delivery time of 17 months, so we had until the end of the week to make our expensive decisions!
4. Evaluate feasibility of your approach
Before launching a large project, it is usually helpful to have a smaller pilot proh´ject so that you can test the basic idea. This helps you to evaluate whether it makes sense to launch into the full project, which could tie up valuable resources for several years.
5. Obtain the access you need to your boss
There comes a moment in most projects when you need some active support from above to make progress. In one project I was managing, a manager who had the people we needed so that we could make progress quickly, didn’t want to release his people or see the project succeed. Leaving the building at about 7pm, I bumped into one of the senior vice-presidents; he asked how the project was running. He took the time for me to explain the situation and then size up how he could help get things back on track. When I came in the next morning, the person who had been blocking me called to set up a meeting. By lunchtime I had the people I needed and we were back on track.
Of course, it’s much better if such access isn’t random, as in my case. So, figure out how important the project is to your boss(es) and ensure regular access to keep them up to date accordingly.
Photo: Hamed Saber