How to Complete Your Big Projects when you are unclear?

How to get Big Projects completed?

Do you have Dream Projects in mind?  Those Projects you are deeply passionate about. The ones for which you wish you had the time, energy and money; potential game changers, that can transform your life in a major way.

It may be that you want to pursue a long-term course, that may land you a better job. Or a project that may produce a steady passive income stream for you, or a Small Business that you want to launch on the side, or a house that you want to build, a Blog you want to Create, or a Book that you want to Publish.

You may be inspired to plunge in and execute your project without planning and due-diligence. Your burning passion may give a false sense of security and potential success.

Your friend or neighbor may have pulled off such Projects. Note that we have plenty of biases spinning in our head. Hence it is easy to overlook the planning and preparation that went behind such success.

You vacillate between your desire to complete and your anxiety that you may fail. How do you decide?

Planning is Critical

Make no mistakes. You can’t swash buckle these projects based on fleeting sensations. These Projects take Time, Energy, Resources, and Money to execute. If you fail to plan for these projects, it is the same as planning to fail.

I am assuming that you have done your research. You have already identified projects, prioritized them (based on various factors like Return on Investment, or Payback period or other benefits that may or not be in money terms) and then selected the project. You are only confused about how to go forward.

Let us look at an approach to get your Projects Completed. It’s useful to divide your Projects into 4 phases – (1)Initiation, (2) Definition & Planning, (3) Execution & Control, (4)Closure.

What I have outlined below is the Project life cycle phases, and checklists at a high level (by no means it is exhaustive). Depending on your project, you may have to expand on these checklists to drill deeper for your specific field of interest.

Project Phases
Project Life Cycle Phases

Initiation Phase

In this phase, all you do is to define in plain English your project at a broad level.  When you write things down, it clears up your mind and lets you focus. If you have some abstract notions, you have to net it to a level that an 8th grader can understand.

If you imagine yourself to be a business person, this is the Business case for your project. Why is this Project needed in the first place?

To do this, you may have to do a feasibility study whether it is even Possible or meaningful to do this project.

Factors to consider

To make an informed and objective decision before initiating Project, consider the following,

  • Research: Have you done enough research on this project? What are your sources of research and information? Are they credible? Is it something others have done and succeeded and realized the benefits that you are dreaming about? What % of people have been successful? Have you interviewed them? Or is it a First of a Kind Project? (that no one has done), in which case your risks may be higher than normal.
  • Brainstorm: You sit with friends or family or your significant other, or whoever is relevant to the project you are trying to accomplish. Consider differing points of view, reconcile opposing views, do your research, and confirm if it still makes sense.
  • Alternate Options: Consider alternate options that may be less daunting, expensive and challenge yourself on why you can’t pursue them to get the similar benefits.
  • Opportunity Costs: Even if the Return on Investment (ROI) is decent, what are the opportunity costs that you are likely to incur?

For example, if you invest a certain amount of money in your Dream Project, it may stop you from investing it elsewhere. Have you factored the differential?

At a family level, what it does it mean to your close relationships? If you want to take up some weekend classes that would take away your family time completely, are you willing to do that?

  • Barriers to Entry: If the Project you are thinking about is about starting a Business, you should additionally factor Competitive Landscape, Barriers to entry and the Market Potential for your product or service. You can use resources like US Small Business Administration.
  • Passion or Higher calling: Sometimes, you may pursue a project because it is your Higher calling. Or a Passion. A friend of mine, started an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization – Not for Profits) to plant trees all over the city. The financial benefits were low, but he feels great about this project. However, if you don’t have the wherewithal to sustain, you are bound to fail.
  • Solo or Team:  On some projects, you can go solo. But it helps to have a team for all the support a team may provide. The team can be your friends, family or partners, but you need to select the right team.

Evaluate your willingness

       Since this is a personal project that you want to pursue, you should be totally driven by this project. It shouldn’t just be the initial gusto, or a fleeting sensation.

You should visualize and think if you have the burning passion to do this project every waking minute, regardless of the day to day sacrifice it may take to get through.

Evaluate your ability

Even if the Project is feasible and realistic, evaluate your own ability objectively.

  • Finances:  Budgets – What is your estimated Budget for this Project? Are you able to fund fully on your own, or is financing involved?  Think like an investor, and calculate the Return on Investment (ROI). See if the challenges are worth the ROI you are getting. In certain others, do you have the money required to support yourself during the period you may not get revenue (income) during the Project? You should pay very close attention to this aspect and bullet-proof your plan. If Finances aren’t your sweet spot, you might want to engage a Financial Analyst or Accountant.
  • Health: Are you healthy enough to take on this project now? Are there any health issues that may prevent you from spending the time or energy required for this project?
  • Skills: Do you have the appropriate level of skills that are required to undertake this project? (if it is a Solo Project), or do you have the right people with the skills and commitment required to execute this project (if others are involved)? What is your plan to get yourself skilled?
  • Experience: Many people question this element, but experience in the field of the Project that you are pursuing is a critical success factor. If you have partners, that is a whole another complication, but if they bring in the experience that you don’t, then it is a plus.
  • Time: Can you carve out the time that it takes to dedicate to this project? Are you going through major life changes that can derail your plans to take on this project? We all have 24 hours in a day. If you plan to spend even 2 hours in a day, what are you going to trade off? Sleep? Family time? Fun time? Social time? Think carefully about this. You shouldn’t end up burning yourself out in the process of taking on your Big Project.
  • Energy: Your project may call for more energy, than even your money. Are you passionate or driven to spend that kind of energy?
  • Uniqueness: If the Project is about a business, you should also consider how you are different from your competition. Why should people buy from you? If the project is something else, you should still bring in something unique. If the project is about a business, you need to also think about the competition.  How are you different from them?
  • Project Management Skills: It will be useful for you to adopt some Project Management System to get your projects done. You might also want to develop some basic skills in tools like MS-Project, or Trello boards, or ASANA so that you can be smart about sharing your tasks as well as updates to your team members. Adding tasks, Assigning tasks to yourself, team, planned dates for completion, updating actual dates etc,

Evaluate your Support Systems

  • Networks: Do you have mentors, advisers who can help you along the way, as you execute this project? Do you have a formal or informal network of friends, who have experience in the Project you are intending to? Can you expect help from them that you may need?
  • Family Support: Do your key family members support your decision? (Not everyone may see eye to eye with you, but you need spousal and key members’ support is crucial)
  • Financial Support systems: Do you have the support of Angel Investors, people who can sign collateral, Banks willing to lend you money?
  • Tools and resources: Do you have the right tools to execute this project? These may be study aids, or applications or a strong supply chain

Go or No Go

You may not check out 100% on everything, but the number of ticks in the boxes and a qualitative assessment will give you a good comfort feel for whether you are all set.

Some of the factors may stand overwhelming in favor of offsetting some of your short-comings.

If most of the items check out in your favor it is a “Go”.

If the data points away from your passion, you should abandon or defer this project. It is a “No go”.

If you realize too late in the game, that you don’t have the heart or mind to take up the Big Project, you are setting yourself up for trouble. It might cost you much more energy and money to back out later.

However, if you shoot down every project that comes into your passion RADAR, then you are setting yourself up for mediocrity. So, draw a fine line.

Personal Experience:

There have been times when I felt strongly about starting a restaurant because they always seem to attract crowds and generate revenue. A friend of mine had great success in running one. Food is in perennial demand. Why not?

As I conceptualized this, I concluded against starting this Project. I checked out poorly on most of the above checklist items.  No passion or the skill or patience to cook or hire cooks and retain them, leave alone the long hours it takes to really keep it running. I don’t have the experience in this business.

Moreover, I can’t stand the drudgery associated with routine work. Doesn’t suit my creative temperament. Also, I may not take home the money that I get through my current Projects (Opportunity cost).  I mean well for the restaurant business itself, but it is not something that I enjoy, and I am particularly positioned for success. It was a  No go. For you, it may be different.

Definition and Planning Phase

Having concluded that your idea is indeed worth the pursuit you should come up with a Plan, that you may owe yourself and your team. The more specific your plan, the better your odds of achieving it.

Your Project should have goals that you should write down in this phase. Two of the more popular methods for setting goals are S.M.A.R.T. and CLEAR.

SMART -> The goals have to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely

CLEAR -> A newer method for setting goals.

Collaborative – The goal should encourage you and your team to work together.
Limited – They should be limited in scope and time to keep it manageable.
Emotional – Goals should create an emotional connect with you and your team.

Appreciable – Break larger goals into smaller tasks that can be quickly achieved.
Refinable – As new situations arise, be flexible and refine goals as needed.

Here are the elements of the plan:

Definition

In plain English define the goal of your Project.  What is the scope of your project? What are you including in your project and what are you not?

i.e. To achieve the goals, what is it that you are going to do as part of your project? Write it down. Be Clear and Concise. What benefits will it bring to you or your family or human-kind?  How you plan to achieve it?

Narrate in terms of financial benefits, and/or any other benefits such as a better job that you love, more money, more benefits to the society or better quality of life. The more specific you are, about your goals and the benefits of this project, the greater your odds of success.

For example “I have a plot of land, which is not fetching any revenue right now. I plan to construct a building by spending $$$ so that I can get a rent of $$ per month. That translates to a return on investment of say 6%, after deducting the bank interest on the loan. I can also offset my income tax against the interest paid on the loan. This is way more than what I get from a Bank deposit”

Or “I plan to spend 100,000 on a course in Data Science, which can position me to a great job that can double my pay. I will get my ROI in 6 months. I will also have the option to do something great”

Your Financial Plan for this Project

How do you plan to raise money for this project? If it is from external sources, how do you intend to handle the payback? What if you don’t get money from the sources you intend? What is your back up plan?  Do you have other income sources or family support? State all of this in plain English and Math.

A list of risks

Risks that you may encounter, and your plans to work around those risks. Let us say if you want to buy a Commercial property for half-a-million. One of the risks is how you would service the loan payments if you lose your job or primary source of income. Is there a mitigation plan (which is nothing but your Plan B)? It could be an insurance policy that could cost extra, but provide that cover when you are unemployed.

Work Break down Structure

Break down the Project into Tasks you need to execute to a level of detail that is understandable and executable, with timelines.

You don’t have to have all the tasks broken down to the finest level of detail, but at least a high level of all the tasks should be in place.

Arrive at an end date for your project. See which of these activities can be done in parallel.

You need to list your dependencies. For e.g. What tasks depend on what other tasks. You can sequence them accordingly. You can use something as sophisticated as MS-Project, or a simple excel sheet. For e.g. Building a House is a Project, then at a high level you may have the following tasks

  1. Shortlist an Architect
  2. Come up with a Plan for Construction
  3. Obtain Government approvals for the Plan
  4. Work out the Financials and Budget for your house – how much are you willing to spend vs. how much you are borrowing?
  5. Identify contractors for Civil, Plumbing and Electrical work
  6. Finalize the materials to be used within Budgets
  7. Identify the Interior designer

Milestones

Milestones are significant stage or event when you execute your project. Define your milestones. For e.g. if you are building a house, finalizing the blueprint is a milestone, completion of laying the foundation, exterior completion etc. are others.

These milestones help you to visualize your project, motivate yourself to go further, and help you to track the progress, whether you achieved those milestones, in the planned time-frame.

Communication Plan

How do you plan to communicate with your team, and/or your client and/or your various stakeholders? How frequently do you plan to meet? What will you review during those meetings?

Change Management Plan

How will you handle Changes that may happen during the Project? There may be things outside your control, like interest rates, or tax laws, that may impact your project.

You should have an outline of your plan to accommodate these changes. How do you accept or reject changes? What factors would make you accept the change? How will you accommodate the cost of the changes? What if the environment in which you operate changes?  Who will be the people to review, decide and accept or reject the changes, and how frequently? It could be you and your spouse or your partner(s) or your friend(s).

Exit Plan

Let us say your project doesn’t pan out as intended. At what point will you cut your losses and pull the plug on the project? Identify and list of all the triggers, that will cause you to shut down the project.

For e.g. if you don’t make money for 18 months after you start this project, then you may decide it is best to sell this business or shut it down. If your milestones are not being met or delayed, or if it is an excessive cost overrun, you may decide to pull the plug. This may look like a bad omen, but you need to factor this so that you can bail out if it doesn’t take off as intended.

Keep it Simple

Don’t overthink and write volumes of documents. You can keep them all comprehensive in a few documents, and share with your team. They should be simple, clear enough for everyone to understand and logical.

Execution and Control Phase

It is a critical phase where the rubber hits the road. Where you really execute your plan.

In this phase, you spend the money, use the resources, and time to bring your project to reality; execute the tasks based on your plan.

At a personal level, you should develop Good Habits, engage in Deep work, and should stay focused.

You should break down some of the tasks which were at a higher level to more detailed actionable steps, and assign to your team members (owners) with specific dates. The plan must be detailed to a level where a member can clearly understand and execute the tasks.

If you are hit with any of the planned risks or unplanned risks, execute your mitigation plan.

Take help from your support systems as appropriate. Handle changes through your Change Management Plan. Communicate as per your communication plan. Update your status reports, conduct reviews of your progress.

Control

Review your Progress against what you Planned, whether you are meeting your milestones and adjust your Plan accordingly. If for example, your cost escalates on certain things, you may have to trade off on certain other factors to bring it under control.

You should communicate progress to your team through clear reporting if you have a team.

You should have a simple way of measuring your Project Performance (such as Green -> If everything is in control as per plan you are meeting milestones, your project finances are in control and the quality is good, Amber -> If there are some impacts to your project, but you have plans to get them in control and Red -> If your project is in trouble, and may need help, resources to come back to Green)

For example, when I constructed my house,  several cost escalations happened on the materials being used. I would have the options to renegotiate the costs or use a different vendor, or change to a substitute material within my budget.

Closure Phase

Congratulations! You have completed your project, it is time to Pat yourself and your team on the back. Recognize all those team members who helped your project.

Once your project is complete, you should hold a close out meeting. It is a “post-mortem” – to evaluate what went well in a project and identify what failed. Your learning from your failure can be as valuable as your success.

This helps you to understand lessons learned so that you can improve your future projects.

If you have done certain things well (or have best practices), document them, and store them.

Review the budget vs. actual and prepare a final report. Finally, collect all project documents, your bills, invoices, and other important documents, deliverables and store them in a single place.

It will help you go back and review or share your experience with anyone later. If what you do is subject to Government regulation or taxes, this will also be helpful in case of any audits.

You can share the lessons learned from this project. Share your experiences on a Blog, or in forums. Coach people who want to accomplish what you have done already. You may even be able to monetize your experience by writing books and getting an expert status.

I hope this guide helps you to complete your Projects successfully. Please share your experiences on your projects in the comments.

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