We’ve all been there: you walk into a meeting with your manager and discover that you’ve been assigned a brand new project. You might be super excited and eager to jump in, or if it’s your first big assignment, hesitant and unsure of where to start.
Either way, don’t dive in just yet! Here are the five things you’ll be glad you asked before running off to start a project.
1. The Goals.
Why is this project on the table? What do you, your manager, and your team hope to accomplish? How will this tie into the larger work of your organization? Goals offer context that help you to understand why you’re working on something, and whether you’ve succeeded at it once it’s done.
Another big reason to clarify goals: they make it easier to tackle any roadblocks along the way. For example, there may come a point where you need to decide if you’ll adjust a deadline, pivot on a strategy, or incorporate a new element into your project. If you have a firm understanding of your goals, then the correct course of action will feel much clearer.
2. Your Role.
What are your manager’s expectations of you? Will you coordinate with the larger team to make sure everyone has what they need? Or are you the chief architect, with sole responsibility for what gets produced? No matter if you’re a team of one or twenty, you’ll want to make sure that you’re on the same page as your manager about what you’re going to do, how much time you’ll spend, and when to do it all.
*Tip: Sometimes, projects can feel completely out of left field for your role. Whenever that happens, I like to ask subtle questions to get a sense of why I was chosen to be part of the team. This usually adds to my understanding of what people expect of me!
This is super important! Don’t forget to establish the date when your manager expects to have a finished piece in their hands. Depending on the project, keep in mind that you may have work due at multiple stages prior to the completion date. Be sure to discuss those mini-deadlines with your manager as well.
*Tip: Set a personal deadline in addition to your official project deadline. If your manager needs a project by the end of the month, aim to get it done a week in advance. Better to have extra time and not need it, than to get blindsided by something unexpected!
What resources will be available for you to get this project done? For some projects, this can be as simple as a budget. For others, it might mean time, expertise or physical work from other staff members. Whatever it may be, determine which resources will be at your disposal and try to anticipate if there’s anything else you might need before you begin.
*Tip: As you get in the weeds with your project, make it a habit to regularly check in with yourself (and your manager) to ensure that you still have what you need. It’s easier to ask for something the sooner you realize you need it.
If goals dictate what a project should accomplish, then metrics tell the story of how to get there. You’ll want to determine the milestones and touch-points that will help you gauge the effectiveness of your project. In some cases, this will be pretty straightforward. If your project is to coordinate an event, then metrics could include RSVP numbers, or the total amount of event-day donations. If you’ve been tasked with a research presentation, then you’ll want to ensure that you answer all of the major questions behind the topic.
While metrics are great for completed projects, they are just as helpful for staying on track during a project. Try to set regular check-ins with your manager and/or team members, so that you always know the status of your project. You could also set weekly milestones for tasks that you know need to get done in order to stay on track. This is where project planning comes in (more on that later), and it’s a great way to hold yourself and others accountable.
*Tip: If this piece seems daunting, go ahead and ask your manager which metrics he/she thinks would be most helpful to focus on. There’s a chance that someone else has done a similar project in the past, in which case it’s good to know how they tracked their progress.
Regardless of the scope of a project or your comfort level with it, defining these pieces in advance will help set you (and your project) up for a smooth start.