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Know the End Before You Start
By Barry Otterholt

Most of us have heard the saying “Keep your eyes on the prize.” That’s sage advice for project managers.

When starting a project we are all anxious to get to work and produce results. However, taking time at the beginning of a project to think about the end will pay dividends over the life of the project.

  • Scope management. Ambiguity about the project outcome leaves a broad range of interpretation about how to get there. This can result in a great deal of unnecessary work.
  • Performance management. As a project manager, you want your team to gel and become synergistic. A clear focus on a common goal brings people together around a higher purpose, and both morale and productivity increase dramatically.

  • Risk management. Anything that could alter the direct path to the finish line is waste, and potentially a risk. With a clear understanding of what the finish line looks like, your project team and other stakeholders are more apt to identify and address waste and risks.

  • Innovation. Good project staff tend to be innovators. They think creatively. A clear sense of the desired outcome can focus their creativity on ways to get the job done faster, easier, cheaper, or with greater assurance of the needed quality. Lacking this focus, their creative thinking can be a liability, requiring you to corral them rather than empower them.

The challenge for most project managers is to understand the desired outcome when the project sponsor doesn’t really even understand it. I remember one situation where a high-powered project sponsor introduced his project manager by saying, “this is the guy that will keep changing his aim as I keep moving the target.” The stakeholders laughed and waited for the punchline that didn’t come. They all sensed that this project was off to a rocky start.

An effective project manager will help the project sponsor refine his or her thinking so the outcome becomes clear. A simple rule-of-thumb is that if you can’t define what “done” means, you have more work to do. Take time to gain this clarity at the start. It will lead to a much healthier project and more enduring relationship with your sponsor.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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