This article was based on episode 84 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the mini-guide here or the full guide when you become a member at mamieks.com/join. Purchase a single full guide at mamieks.com/store.
How many times have you been part of a project that went off course? Or discovered part-way through that you were missing critical information? Or that you had different assumptions than your colleagues which ended up causing unnecessary stress?
For most teams, project planning starts with a goal and jumps directly to milestones and tasks. Yet this approach skips over the critical step of aligning the team prior to execution. To do this effectively, it’s helpful to use a Project Profile. This tool provides a way to surface the best thinking while simultaneously aligning a team around an initiative.
The Project Profile is more than a template. It’s a process that enables the team to answer a series of questions which generate shared understanding, elicit the best thinking for strong decisions, enhance buy-in, and streamline future implementation. This saves everyone time, energy, and money in the long run.
THE PROJECT PROFILE
I first learned about The Project Profile when working with GOJO, the inventors of PURELLⓇ Hand Sanitizer. Over the years, I’ve refined it to meet my needs. It contains the following sections, each of which provides an opportunity to think deeply about the work to be done. (Get a free template at www.mamieks.com/miniguides)
The first section clarifies who will be involved in what ways. In addition to naming the project, list the project leader, team members, and sponsor or senior leader who is overseeing the project.
While the situation might seem obvious to you, often team members come to a project with varying degrees of knowledge about the current context. This section enables those with greater access to information to level the playing field.
Specifically, the content in this section describes the problem this initiative is addressing, what’s already happened that the team should know about, related historical information, and anything relevant that will give the group a shared understanding of the current reality.
Goal clarity is essential, but it’s not enough. Why we’re doing the work is just as critical as what will be accomplished. The objectives section put the goal into a larger frame, ensuring each team member understands its importance.
The objectives section addresses questions such as, how does this initiative align with the organization’s goals? Why is the organization investing resources in this work? How will this project move the organization forward or make it more effective?
Goals and Milestones
Only now do we get to the project goal which describes what will be accomplished by when. I prefer to make the goal as specific and concise as possible. This reduces ambiguity and misunderstandings. Additional details and measures of success will be included in the next section.
If you already know the critical milestones, include them here as well. These can help the team pace its work appropriately.
Results or Measures of Success
This is the place to list the factors that describe success. It’s helpful to think through different aspects such as quality, impact and finances. Consider both qualitative and quantitative measures as you answer these questions:
How can you define or describe the quality or specifications that need to be met? What is the short or long term impact that this goal is intended to achieve? How much money will be saved or earned by successfully implementing this initiative?
On occasion, teams will end up with a laundry list of measures. If there are more than five, you may want to group them in as ‘must haves’ and ‘nice to have’. The more measures you have, the more likely you’ll need to compromise some of them. As things get complicated during execution, we aren’t always able to deliver on every expectation. You don’t want to lose sight of what’s most important and compromise on the wrong things.
It’s hard to know what you take for granted, but friction often arises because team members make different assumptions. These unspoken beliefs or lack of shared perspective can have serious impact on the project if they’re inaccurate or misaligned. Rather than wait for these moments of conflict to occur naturally, try to raise them before the work begins.
Assumptions cover everything from what the group believes to be true, which therefore guides decisions, to what must be true in order for this project to succeed, to what should first be tested because the results will shape the project’s direction.
Strategic Questions and Approaches.
This section lays out initial thoughts for how the work is going to unfold. It includes high level strategies, general approaches and specific tactics that are notable.
I find that starting with questions opens the group’s thinking. Begin by listing any questions that need to be answered in order to move forward. Once the list of questions is sufficient, the group can offer answers and ideas for each. Ultimately the team must agree on the responses or the approach for answering the question if it can’t yet be decided.
No project should move forward without first reflecting on what might go wrong. This is a chance for everyone to help surface concerns and plan for potential disruptions. Encourage the group to play Devil’s Advocate by asking, What will stop this project in its tracks or render it useless? What should we pay attention to so that we can avoid common mistakes? What are potential unintended consequences?
Avoid listing highly unlikely scenarios as they become clutter on the page. Focus on thinking proactively and strategically in order to avoid wasted efforts.
Clarify what resources are available to the team to support their work. Consider who is available to help from within the organization and outside. What software, equipment or space has been designated for the team to use? What budget is available?
Sometimes you identify resources that are needed but not yet secured. Make note of those if they come up.
Many initiatives impact people beyond the intended audience. Explore who will be impacted and how, what they need, and how the team can engage them. This provides an opportunity to be intentional about impacting and communicating with various stakeholder groups.
How people collaborate will directly impact how smoothly the project flows. This section provides space to align on the team’s expectations for collaboration. It includes how frequently you’ll meet and for what purpose, what communication methods you’ll use, how decisions will be made, and any norms like “we agree to own our mistakes” and “we will be open and honest when we disagree and use conflict constructively.”
These details are often overlooked, especially when a team works together often. Not every project needs the same working agreements, so be specific about what the group thinks will work best for this project.
Exclusions and Related Projects
Lastly, to avoid scope creep or duplicated efforts, identify the boundaries of this project. What is outside the scope of this initiative? Is there a phase 1 and phase 2? What else is going on that is related and how might we stay in communication with those project teams so that we can align our work with these other efforts?
USE THE PROJECT PROFILE WITH YOUR TEAM
The Project Profile is intended to be a dynamic process of engagement. While it may be tempting to complete it yourself and hand it to your team members, please don’t. While that approach may be fast and easy, it negates much of the benefits of this tool. Instead, try one of the following activities.
Option 1: Collaborative Document
Get the ball rolling by designating one person to start filling in the template. It can be you, but it doesn’t need to be. The person who begins the draft should have enough context to provide meaningful answers. Regardless of who it is, be clear with the team that all responses, including these, are only initial thoughts. They are not set in stone and should be enhanced, questioned and even argued with by the group.
Once the initial brain dump is complete, share the Project Profile with your team members and any appropriate senior leaders as a collaborative document. Include a preamble that clearly states the draft nature of the document and the intent of the content to be a staring point. Encourage everyone to add their thoughts, questions, ideas, etc. (I prefer to use track changes or commenting mode in order to facilitate online conversation.)
Once the group has weighed in, gather for a 1.5-2 hour team working session to walk through the document and make decisions. Use the time together to clarify questions, wrestle down differing opinions, and agree to a final draft that everyone can own collectively.
Option 2: Half-day Team Kick Off
Instead of collaborating online, the team can gather for 3-4 hours to co-create the Project Profile in real time. This is a great way to jump start a new project team since it also gives you a chance to build relationships.
As a group, work through each section. Use various approaches such as sticky notes and pair sharing, to encourage engagement and keep the energy up. You’ll likely need to move up and down the document a few times as it’s not a linear process. By the end of the session, the group should agree on a final working draft which can be shared for enhancement with any additional stakeholders who may have valuable input.
INVEST THE TIME UP FRONT
This may seem like a lot of work, and honestly, it can be, but it is completely worthwhile. The frustrations and mis-alignment that plagues teams once they get going, are significantly reduced when the team has done this type of thinking up front.
You can always create a “skinny” version of the Project Profile if the initiative is smaller. Either way, it shouldn’t feel like or be seen as a burden. While it might feel like a big lift for you, you’d be surprised how often the other team members are appreciative of the chance to shape the project from the beginning. It also provides the information they need to do their part of the work effectively.
So before you jump into your next project plan, pause and do a Project Profile first.
Get the free Project Profile template here or the full guide to help you use the Project Profile with your team when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at mamieks.com/join. Or, purchase any individual guide at mamieks.com/store to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.