Kendra Chappell
Three Simple Steps to Plan for Project Success
Kendra ChappellDecember 3, 2015

Working on a project without clear goals is like sailing without knowing where you are going. Photo by Robert Nyman.

Working on a project without clear goals is like sailing without knowing where you are going. Photo by Robert Nyman.

It may sound strange, but as an amateur sailor, I often think about how being at sea is similar to project management. If you have ever sailed, you understand how important it is to know your final destination. The wind or the current will affect your trip—it won’t be a straight line from departure to destination. Experienced sailors know to identify landmarks before launching their vessel so they can confirm where they are during a trip and adjust their course.

These same principles apply to project management. Without a measurable end goal and clear milestones, it’s hard to know how to achieve success during a project and to recognize if you are veering off course. Below are some simple steps that will help you and your project team reach your destination.

  1. Envision success

By looking beyond a project’s completion, you can better define your project’s value and the problem it is trying to solve. This will help you picture what success means for your project.

For instance, are you sailing to meet friends for dinner?  Or, are you training to win a series of races? A course with frequent turns might work well for training, but a trip like that could make you late for dinner. Similarly, thinking about the longer-term impact of your project can help you identify what you’re trying to accomplish.

To help envision your project’s success, ask yourself:

  • Why is this project making a difference? What problem is it solving or what gap will it fill?
  • Who will be using/benefiting from the project?
  • How can you plan for continuity once your team is no longer involved?
  1. Create a precise, shared goal

Next, it is important to develop a specific goal. This will allow your team to clearly know when your project has reached success.

When you’re trying to anchor a boat, being precise about how deep your anchor reaches decides whether your boat will stay put. In the case of a project, “a two-page report, on a specific topic, posted to the company website by January 12, 2016” is a much clearer goal than “a report on a specific topic completed in January.”

In addition, if you’re training for a series of races, do all your crew know the purpose of your journey?  If they believe a leisurely sail is in order, you may both be disappointed with the outcome. If you and your team, whether project team or sailing crew, are all working toward a clearly stated and specific goal, you’re more likely to achieve it and do so efficiently.

While planning your project, think about:

  • What concrete deliverable(s) will your project produce?
  • Does everyone on your team accurately understand the goal?
  • By what date will your project have to be complete?
  1. Set clear milestones

As you’re planning the project, it’s helpful to identify milestones that indicate whether you’re on track. This allows you to make any necessary changes during the course of the project and to demonstrate progress.

A sailor may plan to look for a lighthouse when she is halfway into a journey. Similarly, a project team may use a first draft of a report or a mid-point presentation to check the progress and direction of the project.

As you plan your project, ask yourself:

  • What deliverables will serve as clear indicators that your project is on track?
  • When do you expect to have these deliverables complete?

By taking these steps, you can form a strong project goal, identify clear markers of progress, and establish key components for success. A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, but answering these questions before a project begins will help you stay the course through its completion.