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Guest Post: 5 Questions to Ask Before Taking On a Project

by Brad Egeland

Editor's Note: We're re-publishing this popular post in which IT/project management consultant and author, Brad Egeland shares the five questions you should answer before managing any project.

A project, any project, when new, is full of life and hope. Starting a project from the beginning - as opposed to getting one handed to you to take over, which happens far too often – is much more interesting and challenging…in my opinion.  As a developer, I hated taking over or revising someone else’s code. And as a project manager, I’d much prefer to start from the beginning than midstream.  My project…I own it from beginning to end.

That said, jumping into a new project head-first without a few questions answered can be a little frustrating. For me, I have list of five (and a few more, but we’ll focus on these five for now) questions that I like to get answered upfront before we start. It helps me know what I’m getting into and – as a consultant – whether I should even take on the project depending on the answers to some or all of these. Let’s consider…

1.  Do You Have a Budget in Place? 

This is always a great question to ask before getting started.  If your project customer is an external entity to the company, you probably don’t need to ask them – although you can discuss budget with them and make sure the project has full funding.  Just be careful and polite in how you ask this.  If your customer is an internal business unit to your organization, then it is certainly an important question to ask, because sometimes these internal business units are trying to start projects prematurely – before they actually have funding to undergo the project.

2.  Do You Have a Specific Technology Solution in Mind? 

For IT projects, it’s always good to know if your customer has a certain technology solution in mind.  You might be able to weed out those project sponsors who are just looking for the latest, greatest technology they’ve heard about, even though it isn’t really applicable to their business need or issue.  The beginning of the project is when you need to make sure customer expectations are reasonable and in line with the goals of the project – and this is one of those areas that affects that.

3.  Do You Have the Right Software? 

Every project requires a designated software tool in which to manage the project.

Some organizations may have a proprietary software solution that you will be configuring and implementing to manage the project. If this is the case, then it is always good to make sure everyone on the project understands the software. And sometimes training everyone on that software can be a real challenge. If you, as the project manager, have the opportunity to choose the software, then make sure you pick something that everyone is either familiar with, or can learn quickly.  Trust me, the worst thing you can do is to have every team member using different applications for all of their tasks and tracking. You end up chasing files and emails and never get everyone on the same page. The best solution is a project management tool that lives in the cloud, so everyone can access, is easy to learn, has collaboration and comment features, and auto alerts for individual tasks. This makes the process go smoothly right from the get-go, and offers a one-stop platform where everyone can update their own tasks and get the most current status at any time.

4.  What Is Your Projected Availability During the Project? 

Some project sponsors and team members who are very busy on other tasks unrelated to the project tend to disappear for long periods of time. This makes it difficult to communicate with them and get decisions made when they must be made, thus delaying portions of the project or forcing you to make decisions for them. Referring back to having the software, if you’re using a tool that gives you the ability to track resources and/or have individuals input their availability and status, then you’re much better prepared to manage wandering resources. If not, then be sure to ask about their overall availability and establish with them the understanding of the importance of their engagement on the project.

5.  Do You Have Any Specific Performance Needs or Goals for the Solution? 

This one is good to know up front.  I took over a project where this was not made clear up front and we ran into performance expectation issues at go-live time.  It took 2-3 weeks of onsite work with the customer – costly onsite work – in a war room going through lots of tweaking and testing to get software performance within an acceptable range for the customer’s processing needs.  If we had known some of these concerns or requirements during the planning phase (and if we had asked the right questions), then we may have designed the solution differently the first time through rather than breaking the budget near the end of the project to make the customer happy.

Be Mindful of the Risks

It isn’t always obvious early on that you’re leaving something out.  But being mindful to some of the risks you might hit later on – budget, funding, performance, customer availability, etc. – that are important and asking about them up front may help you go down the right path the first time. Trust me, it’s far less expensive to ask the right questions and do it right the first time than it is to fix it all later on.

How about you?  What has experience taught you to now ask at the front of project engagements?  Please share your experiences.