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5 questions to ask before you start a project

Fresh out of college, I started my first role as a project manager on the creative team at a large Christian non-profit. I had studied advertising, so truth be told, I did a lot of learning on the job.

I can recall one instance where someone walked up to my desk, wearing their most convincing smile, with a favor to ask: "Can the creative team design this flyer?"

Eager to people-please and make things happen, I quickly responded with, "Yeah, of course!"

The requestor, somewhat shocked, thanked me and quickly ran off.

As I took the request over to the design team, I was hit with the tsunami of questions I had failed to ask. That was the day I learned the importance of asking the right questions, up front, before agreeing to anything.

I have since created a list of five simple questions to ask at the start of every request or project. These might seem obvious to you, but at the time, they weren't to me!

1. When is it due?

This is always the first question I ask. Why? Because the answer might lead to an immediate "no". End of conversation.

Well, not really, but you get my point.

If the requestor is asking for something by this afternoon and you have a dentist appointment in an hour, that's not going to work. However, it allows for an opportunity to work together to find an alternative that does.

With a due date in mind, you then can get a sense of what is and isn't possible. Draft reviews and approvals are often at the mercy of a due date. If the CEO needs to see something, then your timeline and due date will need to account for that. I have yet to work with a CEO who is sitting around just waiting to review a flyer.

2. Why is this deadline important?

The second question, while closely related to the first, can completely change the conversation. Determining what is driving a timeline can help paint a complete picture of the request. If the due date is tied to an event, there is typically very little wiggle room with a very hard "drop-dead date", or a firm deadline that, if unmet, will result in consequences of some kind.

But if your requestor says they just "picked a date that seemed good", you'll know you have some flexibility and can work with the requestor to identify the appropriate due date based on all the factors involved, which leads us to our next question.

3. What are the goals?

Every project or request has goals (whether those have been identified or not). Knowing what these goals are is important because it allows you to build out tasks and timelines that support them. Going back to our flyer example, if the goal is to promote an upcoming event and encourage registration, you'll want to make sure the flyer includes information such as an overview of what to expect, a date and time, the location, how to register, and where to go to find more information (i.e. a URL or a QR code).

4. Who will be involved?

This question provides an opportunity to determine the stakeholders, or the employees, executives, partners, or donors who have an interest in the project's success.

Each stakeholder will have varying levels of involvement with their own unique interests in mind. By identifying each of them, you'll be able to better determine how to involve each of them and maintain consistent communication with them throughout the project.

5. Who makes the final decision during critical points?

Once the list of stakeholders has been identified, the last step is to identify your key decision maker. Best case scenario, your flyer comes back from a round of review with conflicting edits and you are the one to make the final call, but let's be honest -- that's never how it works. So it's important to know who makes final decisions on a project, not just when it comes to edits; you'll also need to identify who will approve quantities, distribution plans, budget, etc.'

The key with this question is to make sure all stakeholders are aware of who the key decision maker is. We wouldn't want four different people thinking the buck stopped with them!

Next steps

The answers to these questions will continue to impact the course of a project, so it's important to ask them well and insist on complete answers before getting too far down the road. There are, of course, other questions to ask, but they are typically not as "mission critical" as these.

Not sure what to do next?

Monthly group workshops and one-on-one coaching are available, along with Way Forth Collective's comprehensive Project Starter Bundle. The bundle offers a step-by-step guide to start your project well and includes eight user-friendly templates to make it easy for you.

We'd love the opportunity to work with you and help you lead successful projects!

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