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Are You Smarter Than a Third Grader?

Dictionary I have a third grader at home who is constantly curious about the English language.  (Of course, having a dad who's a writer and a mom who's an English teacher may be a contributing factor there.)  Hardly a day goes by when she's not asking about the meaning or origin of a given word.  And I usually send her to the trusty Webster's Dictionary - not because I don't know the word myself, but because I want her to get comfortable with looking up the definition for herself.

As project managers, we're charged with completing tasks according to a schedule and a budget, but do we ever back up a step and ask about the requirements that led to the tasks?  In many environments, there's a hand-off of information between those defining the project and those executing the project.  This is unfortunate as it leads to many breakdowns in communication and in performance.

Systems_model_2 I've spent the past four years researching and studying and applying a lot of systems theory in preparation of writing my next book.  (Actually, the fascination with systems theory goes back about 25 years for me, but the last four have constituted the intense scrutiny.)  As project managers, are we looking at our deliverables (outputs) as the product of the requirements that defined those same tasks (inputs)?  And are we backing up even further and looking at the previous system where the requirements are the outputs and the business problem or opportunity represent the inputs?

If you are in the initiation or planning stage of a project, start asking some hard questions:

  1. Why are we doing this task?  What is it producing?  (HINT:  if all of your tasks start with an action verb, answering this question should not be that hard)
  2. Whom is this task benefiting?  (You have to know the stakeholders who care about the task.)
  3. How will we know this task is complete?  (From an effort and a quality perspective, what does "done" look like?)
  4. What dependencies are related to this task and its outcome?  (What are the inputs you need to produce this task?  What other "things" will be produced because of this task?)

Yes, the other questions about who is working on it, when will it get done, and how much will it cost are important.  But I would contend you are selling your projects short by not going back to the dictionary and digging into the definition of your project.  And doing so might just make you smarter than a third grader.

Carpe Factum!


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