Projects at small companies and startups will often take unexpected turns. You don’t have much control over this.
What you do have control over are the expectations that you bring with you into each project.
Experienced project managers know that the best way to organize and communicate your expectations is to create a project plan, and to do so as early as possible. Project plans help you visualize what success looks like, let you distinguish between distractions and priorities, and help you be more flexible when something inevitably goes wrong.
The importance of setting expectations early
Diving into a project full-bore and simply getting things done can be tempting, especially in a startup environment where time is of the essence, team members are hungry for early success, and your company has told itself that it wants to do things ‘differently.’ We always know the least about projects at the very beginning, so why not simply get started now and see where things go?
Most startups quickly discover that diving into projects blind often leads to disaster.
Team members’ roles become mixed up and start to conflict. Employees start to feel like their managers don’t respect their time. Managers have no way of tracking team progress. Work at the company starts to feel like barely-controlled chaos. Companies find themselves being pushed around by their projects, rather than the other way around.
Team project work is simply impossible without some basic set of shared expectations.
This is usually the point where startups will begin experimenting with various rudimentary project planning methods: Gantt charts, Kanban boards, etc.
The ideal planning solution for your team will depend on the nature of the project, the size of the team, and the goals of your organization.
What won’t change is the fact that your project plan should accomplish three things: a) ensure that you’re solving the right problem b) describe success and c) do all of this while remaining flexible and amenable.
Solving the right problem
If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.
Smart, ambitious people are hard-coded to solve every problem that comes their way. Many people think that this is what makes for a high-performing, successful team—an ability to simply force your way through every obstacle and win at any cost.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it often leads to hours of wheel-spinning and meaningless work that doesn’t actually result in any tangible success.
Far from brute-forcing their way through projects, teams that are successful in the long run often develop a keen ability to precisely define problems before any work is done.
One can do 100 tasks “right” but if you miss the one that is most essential to those longer term success factors, a project can and will often fail to meet stakeholder expectations.
Forcing yourself to define a problem correctly is the primary purpose of a good project plan.
In the beginning, it gives you an opportunity to look out over the expanse of the project and identify exactly what it is your team wants to accomplish.
As you work through a project, a project plan can also be a constant reminder to make sure you’re solving the right problems.
As unexpected tasks and distractions creep up, your plan will help you understand whether they’re worth solving. Saying “no” becomes a lot easier with a project plan. If you’re a project planner, a project plan will become the primary tool in your project management toolbox for keeping your team on track.
Visualizing a finished project
A project plan is more than just a constantly evolving summary of all your problems, however. It’s also the most reliable way of visualizing and understanding what exactly success will look like once you’re finished a project.
In some cases, a project plan can literally be a visual representation of what a finished project will look like, in the form of a chart or list of outcomes.
What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? What specific pieces have to fall in place for us to be satisfied with a project? What will it look and feel like once we’re done?
There is no way to predict what exactly success can look like before you’ve started work on a project, but your plan should at least attempt to answer some of these questions.
Having an image of what success looks like that everyone can point to will help you further distinguish tasking, timeline and methodology from actual progress.
Create a plan and a path to get the project done, but stay open and flexible to alternative options.
Maybe the most counter-intuitive thing about creating a project plan is the effect that it has on the flexibility of teams.
One of the main reasons why small teams put off the chore of planning and task management is the idea that plans are unnecessarily constricting.
Won’t a plan lock us into one specific way of doing things? Won’t it prevent us from seeing unexpected benefits down the road? Also, how could someone possibly plan for every detail at the outset of a project?
Locking yourself into a way of working too early can indeed be harmful. But entering a project with a plan can often help teams be more flexible, rather than less.
A project plan that is widely-shared, up to date, and does an effective job of communicating the state of a project to team members can cut down dramatically on the need for meetings whenever unexpected problems crop up or a project takes a turn.
Indeed, working on a project without a plan can sometimes become a recipe for inflexibility. Without a widely agreed-upon set of expectations, teams begin to operate on instincts and individual beliefs, which are much harder to amend than an item on a to-do list.
And for experienced project managers that understand that plans are always amenable, provisional documents, they can become a constant reminder to be flexible—to revise and check over milestones and make adjustments as needed.