The project lifecycle is one of those concepts that people love to create terrible illustrations for us to use in presentations and reports, much like ‘synergy’ pics of swirling widgets and ‘collaboration’ represented by several darkly suited individuals staring intently at a spreadsheet on a laptop. There are usually arrows and circles involved, and in the end it all ends up looking vaguely like a recycling logo. Not to worry, I’m not going to use an illustration here, I’m just going to list the following:
All The Steps
Cringe-worthy illustrations aside, you really do need all these steps if you are going to be as successful as possible with your projects. If you are missing one of these, things break. Let’s take a closer look at each step.
You need a strategy. As my colleague Susan Evans so excellently points out in her recent post, “Strategy is often the phase most likely to be skipped. Of course we know what our message is. Of course we all agree about what we’re trying to accomplish. We know who we are, let’s get going.”
Strategy is so easy to skip because “oh my gosh can’t we just get this project done already?!” Strategy gets skipped when you don’t take the time to identify why you are doing something. Answering why involves taking time to look at the institutional, divisional, and departmental goals that have been previously identified.
If your project’s reason for existing doesn’t meet a need that fits with the goals of your institution, then you shouldn’t be doing it. Just because a project can be done doesn’t mean it should be done, and the strategy phase is the most critical moment of the project precisely because it is your best chance to end the wrong project before it even starts.
Once you’re farther down the road it gets increasingly difficult to pull the plug because those sentiments that “well we’re already this far” or “we’ve already spent so much time and money” start becoming stronger and stronger. Which, as an aside, doesn’t mean they are correct thinking – the ability to kill the wrong project when you realize it is the wrong project is important, since everything you’ve done to that point is a sunk cost. You weren’t getting it back anyways, but at least you can start on the right track from here out and not waste any more resources.
So strategy is immensely important in deciding what projects you should and should not be taking on, and if you skip it, you’ve already set yourself up to fail.
Ok, so you’ve identified a project that meets a need that aligns with your institutional goals. Time to plan things out.
Planning correctly also takes time. You need to consider how long things will take, which requires that you know how much work needs to be done, what resources you have to do that work, and when those resources are available. It’s also important to plan so that you can break the project down into achievable chunks. Planning correctly involves identifying milestones and checkpoints where project progress can be quantified and adjustments can be made if things have begun to slip.
Just like strategy, it is very easy to want to fast-track planning so you can just ‘get it done’. The reality is that the more time you take to plan things out (within reason), the more time you’ll save yourself later on by knowing precisely where a project is on its path to completion.
If you skip planning, you’ll never know if things are complete, or if they took too much time or money. You won’t have points in time and due dates to keep you on track, and things will slip farther and farther out.
Another aside – brainstorming up a bunch of ideas is not planning. Planning is thinking those ideas through to their logical end and figuring out what it takes to get there
It is easy to think, with all of the work you need to do, that you are too busy to plan. The reality is, you’re probably a lot busier than you would be if you had planned way back when! You don’t have time to plan because you are too busy scrambling around trying to figure out what should be happening…because you didn’t take time to plan. It’s a vicious cycle, and sometimes you just need to turn off the fire hose of to dos and just take a day, an entire day, and just plan out what you want to do. I know that at least for me, this is a huge anxiety reducer, as I’m always more comfortable when I know where I’m headed.
Production isn’t ever the problem. We love to produce things. It’s our default step. Let’s make all the things!!! Don’t know what to do? Make a newsletter! Unsure how to proceed? Start a Facebook page! See, we are DOING THINGS! THINGS are HAPPENING.
WRONG. It’s easy to feel like progress is being made when things are produced. But if they aren’t the things that should be produced, then who cares?
How many times has someone made a thing, and then that thing sits around collecting dust? How many things are made that never make it anywhere on a website where anyone will ever look at it?
Implementation needs to happen correctly or you have many things without a home. Maybe what you just produced is exactly the thing that is needed; both strategically sound and built according to plan. If nobody knows that it is done or where it lives – if it hasn’t been correctly implemented – none of that will matter.
This is the one that is easiest to ignore completely. We planned this awesome thing, and then we made the thing, and then we launched the thing, and then we had balloons and there was CAKE and we celebrated the thing being done! And then we never thought about the thing ever again. Oops.
Remember back when we were having a really hard time planning our project because we didn’t have a good idea how long things should take, or how much they should cost, or what risks and hurdles we might encounter? Well, if you evaluate the success of your projects correctly, that information can be used to make you feel more confident in things the next time you plan. That’s why this works so well as a cycle. Each past project, successful or not, gives you valuable experience and information that makes each successive project that much easier to succeed with. But you have to take the time to write down what worked, what didn’t, and why. If you skip the evaluation step you’ll be just as unprepared for the next project as you were for the last.
How can we prevent ourselves from missing steps?
It is soooo easy to simply do what you need to do every day. A lot of times the cycle is being reduced down to only two steps – Produce, implement. Produce, implement. Produce, produce, produce! Getting things done = success, right? Not really. Start thinking differently about the work you’re doing – take the first step and start to ask WHY. Why am I doing things this way? Why am I doing these things? Are there things I’m not doing? Could I do these things differently that would allow me time for other things? Can I justify doing these things in the context of our ultimate goals? Am I skipping any steps? Am I taking enough time to focus on the right steps?
Bonus Round: 4 lessons I’ve learned while working on many different projects: