~ By Brad Egeland
Starting a project with a clean slate, for me, is far more desirable than taking over an ongoing project and being forced to take over where another project manager has screwed things up and was removed from. You can save the day, yes, but you may also be walking into an irreversible mess. At the very least, you may be taking over a project schedule that makes no sense to you, or to anyone for that matter. I have been there and usually take the remainder of the schedule and work it out my way.
Now, I'm not saying the alternative, taking the project from the very beginning, is a piece of cake. It isn't, and that is what this article is about: that paralysis one feels when trying to get the schedule in order and everything properly in place to get started. You want it to be right, you don't want to look foolish by leaving something "obvious" out, and you want it to make sense for everyone. It can sort of be like the young married couple waiting until the timing is right to start a family. If you look at it from too many different ways, the timing will never be right, and you'll go through iteration after iteration trying to make it "right," or at least to feel "right." Sometimes, you just have to take the plunge.
There are a few steps I now take to get started, knowing full well that the first project schedule will never be the last and everything will never be just right to get started-it will never be "perfect." However, it will be good enough, and we'll all learn along the way and tweak the schedule and the process (to fit the project and the customer), and somewhere along the way, early on or by halfway through the project, we will be on steady ground.
Here's what I do to get the project off the ground.
Use a project schedule that worked well in the past. I now go back to the same great template that I worked out over time. I use it as a starting point on every project. Every single one. You could call it superstition, but I call it a great template. It works for me anyway. It somehow grew into exactly what I needed: it covers the best practices, as well as most of the common deliverables and milestones I include or need to include on most of my projects. I know it will look good to the customer right away (with customisations for the current project, of course), and I know things aren't likely to fall through the cracks. It isn't perfect, and it will be modified along the way, too, but it's a great starting point. Find one that works for you and use it most or all of the time as a starting point. It will give you immediate confidence from the beginning, and keep you from freezing up and reworking the schedule over and over again and never being able to say, "I'm ready to kickoff now!"
Don't get fancy. Stick to the basics when planning out the project. You and your team are going to learn along the way anyway. You won't know everything about the project from day one, so don't fool yourself into thinking you need to in order to just get started. Know what you can, know the customer as much as you can, kick it off, and get going. Don't start before you're ready…but also, don't make it impossible to ever be ready by trying to make everything perfect before you start. You'll simply never get there.
Finally, let your team help you out. Take that draft schedule to them. Don't be embarrassed to have them find obvious holes. It happens. You're the leader, and they know it. But they also know you're not perfect, and having them help you plan and prepare breeds ownership. We all know that. That's a very good thing, and you don't want to skip team participation in the planning process.
The bottom line is this: we could work and re-work everything over and over again, trying to get plans and documentation and schedules in place to start the project. And sometimes we do need it very right, very formal. Most of the time, we don't. We just need to get started. Do your best to use your skills, experience, team, and available templates to be 80-90% ready to start, and then go. Certainly don't be ill-prepared when you start, just be ready to change things along the way. It's okay to be mostly ready, maybe not even completely ready. You can make it perfect as you learn more about the project and the customer's needs early in the project process.