Five step formula to ship projects on time

I often feel that I am good at starting things. And not so good at finishing them. It tuns out to be a bad habit because when you don’t finish things your mind hangs in there. You never get an over with the stuff. And the project you started with great zeal and zest soon becomes a source of procrastination for all other good things that you can do.

I first realized this while reading Linchpin from Seth Godin. After doing some research I found out that I am not alone. Almost everyone is suffering from this. I thought it would make a great post about how to approach a project that matters. How to make sure that your deliver your best work. Work that matters and don’t fall a prey to leaving things in halfway.

The concepts here are from Linchpin. I have mixed things a bit to make the post a list of steps that you can use as a guideline.

Set the due date

The first thing you need to do is to set a deadline for your project. This is not easy as it seems. Two mistakes we often make while setting timelines are 1) unrealistic timelines and 2) extending them.

Discuss project details with your team members first and then set a realistic timeline. Once done, make sure you deliver on the set date. The later one gets tough especially when scope of the project is big. The fear of shipping imperfect work gets in as soon as deadline approaches. This is a form of procrastination.

Perfection causes procrastination. Think in terms of what you have done and not what’s left. Was it your best work till the deadline? If the answer is yes than ship it.

Make post-it notes of everything

Write down every single notion, idea, plan, sketch, contact etc. Don’t assume that you have this in mind. You have it now but there is no guarantee that it will stay in your mind ten days from now. You don’t have to be formal at this stage. Just note down everything.

Discuss all these notes with your team members who will be part of the project. Take suggestions from them and ask for help. This is important. It will either refine an idea or put it in trash. And that’s important in the early stages of a project.

To get maximum out of this activity you need to bring your team at same mental level as yours. Make them feel something about the project you are about to start. You can only get useful ideas if your team is motivated for the work they are about to do. Read the post it cards loud in front of your team to make them feel that you are passionate about it. Doing so will also force your mind to remember things for much longer.

The end result of this activity should be lots of post it cards filled with ideas, notions, sketches and everything else that you and your team have agreed upon.

Build a Blueprint

This is a formal documentation of your post it cards. Make a database of all the ideas, actions that you decided above. One record can either be an idea, an action, a helping image or contact. Rearrange them in order of their execution and build a sketch or blueprint of your overall project.

Feel free to add new things and rearrange existing. Let yourself and your team play around with them to get the best arrangement.

There are some great project management tools available which you can use. If you don’t know any of them or you don’t want to learn a new right now, no problem. Use Excel or even a simple pad to write everything down. At the end of the day you should have a blueprint e.g. ten page outline of a book, menu list for dinner, travel/hotel arrangement details of your next family vacation etc.

Take a Sign Off

Once you have your blueprint ready, show it to concerned people. Not to everyone, only those who matter. Who have the power, money to make this happen e.g. your boss. Take a yes. Don’t start if the answer is “may be” or something even more ambiguous. Only start when you know that your project will get out the door.

If you are part of a startup, this process may be more easier compared a larger organization or a place where investors have a bigger role to play. Just because you and your team think that the work you are about to do is good for the company does not mean it is. And even if it is, without proper approval it won’t become a reality.

Thrash Early

Steve McConnell has written books on how to run software projects. His project management concepts are applicable to other fields of work as well. He has literally redefined the term thrashing in his books. According to him thrashing is the work that we ship. But we only thrash at the near end of our deadline. The result is poorly finished products that customers don’t want to buy or use.

The alternate approach that McConnell emphasis a lot in his book is to start thrashing early in project life cycle. Once you have the project approval start thrashing right away.

Thrashing early is hard because generally we are more concerned about the urgent and not important. It’s easy to think about what you need to deliver tomorrow rather than what you will ship in next six months. Not only you have to talk yourself out of this but your team members as well.