Where to Begin?

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60 I recently began managing a project for an Atlanta-based charity, 21st Century Leaders. Actually, the team is made up of very smart, very talented volunteers, so “coordinating” would be more accurate than “managing” in this case.

Most of us have experienced that moment when a group of people looks to the project manager and asks where to begin. There is no one correct place to begin, so picking one can be challenging.

For almost any project that I manage (waterfall or Agile), I will start by working with the customer on a Statement of Need. You won’t find mention of this in the PMBOK Guide or any of the Agile texts (yet), but I maintain that it should be one of the inputs to the Create Project Charter process, and I believe it should be posted on the wall of the war room. A needs statement documents the underlying reason that a project is being undertaken.

Each time I write a needs statement, I make sure it includes a brief problem statement that addresses what the result or outcome should be, what obstacles are preventing this from happening, and how the desired outcome(s) will be measured. Having a statement that sums this up can be invaluable.

In our case, it took a good bit of time and several tries to get the needs statement written, but that was indicative of the fact that the team didn’t really understand what was driving this project. It took a lot of discussion, sticky notes, chart paper, and work to get to consensus, but the beauty is that now we are very clear about what problem we are trying to solve, and that brings focus and even some structure to the rest of the project.

This is important because if you do not discover and understand the underlying need for your project, you will not address it, except by blind luck.

One time I was teaching a Scope and Requirements seminar in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (nice work if you can get it), and someone pushed back that it was not his job as project manager to document the need. His point was that this should have been done prior to the project being initiated, and he was right, but there is another important point here. If you are managing a project, you are ultimately responsible, and if this step was skipped, you need to see that it gets performed. Regardless of whose responsibility it was, once you are the PM it falls on your shoulders.

The clearer this project is, the easier this task should be. Many times, it only takes asking the customer and a small amount of wordsmithing to get it captured. For me it is the single best place to begin on any project.

Where do you find it best to begin?