Project Return

Before You Start a Project

August 16th , 2016

There are several things to consider before you start a project, especially if you're relatively new to the company. It's important to put project management in its proper context because without a frame of reference to start with, you can easily get lost.

You'd be really surprised, and we're all guilty of this, at how many people don't even know what their company does. Most people just do their jobs, in their own departments, and that's all they're concerned about. They know what they do really well, but that's it. It doesn't matter what function your department performs; you need to know how your entire company operates. Not just the Finance department, but everything from Finance to Marketing to Manufacturing to Human Resources to Information Systems, etc. They are all integrated in some way, and all of them affect your role somehow. Those things were supposed to have been told to you when you first started your job, but that likely never happened. If you weren't (and you wouldn't be alone), it's not too late. It's really very simple, but absolutely necessary before you begin an assignment. You needn't know all the details of who does what, but a general understanding will go a long way in helping you with your project in ways you won't realize until later.

How many times have you heard co-workers talk about cute little acronyms you may have never heard of before, like NOC, or talk about places like RTP? You see, those people have been doing their jobs for so long, that they fall for the #1 trap that people do to confuse people: assume everyone knows what they're talking about. Well, they don't. And it's unfair to assume otherwise. I once had a boss who did that to me. I felt stupid when I didn't know that NOC stood for Network Operations Centre. Not only do people use company lingo around new people and not realize it, but they use it around outside clients, too. We'd have consultants come in, and some very senior program managers (and they should know better) would throw around terms like RTP. I saw the confused look on the consultant's face and had to quietly cover management's oversight and tell him, "That stands for Research Triangle Park; it's our office in Another Branch." How was he supposed to know that? It's never a good idea to make your customers feel stupid. It makes them not want to do business with you.

 Look, it would be nice if Human Resources printed up a nice little dictionary and glossary of commonly used terms for you. But if companies were that on top of things, then you wouldn't have to wait two weeks to get your computer, email ID, phone, badge, and voicemail set up. The reality is HR doesn't spend much time on those matters that really affect you. While you're waiting for your computer to arrive and for your phone to work, use your down time to walk around and find out what people actually do. There are a few ways to go about finding out this information. This works best if you're new to the company. If you're not new and are embarrassed to ask people elementary questions, then come up with a phony reason why you need to know these things.

One good way is to bring a new employee with you. That way, the person thinks he's telling the new hire about what his department does when actually you're listening for yourself. How many times has someone introduced a new employee to you and said, "Jennifer, please meet our new employee, Ralphus? Ralphus will be our new accountant. Jennifer is our… um, Jennifer, what exactly do you do?" See what I mean? Organization Charts ("Org Charts") Luckily, most departments keep org charts. You'll undoubtedly hear people talk about so-and-so, and you'll secretly wonder to yourself who so-and-so is and what so-and-so does. Get all the org charts and find all the so-and-so's and know what they do. Where do you find these charts? First, ask around your office to see if any exist. Odds are good your manager or co-worker will have an org chart for your department. That's a good start. Oh, and make sure it's current. People move around often, and an out-of-date org chart will leave you more confused than had you never looked at an org chart at all.

There's little in life more embarrassing than asking your Chief Information Officer for details on the company security policy when you didn't see the memo that he was demoted to the mailroom. Now do this for all the other departments in the company. HR is perfect for this because they need to have all this information for themselves. If you can't get org charts for every single department, don't worry. You only need that level of detail for those groups you work with. But you absolutely still need to know what the other departments do and how they all relate to each other. Employee Directory Really good companies keep very completely, up-to-date directories. Done correctly, directories should show whom the employees report to, and who reports to them (if anyone). There is still some good information available to you in the directory. If you can sort by department, do so.

Now you have a list of all the departments in the company. The company's intranet site has a wealth of information. Notice I said INTRAnet, not INTERnet. The internet site is for outside viewers surfing the web. The internal intranet site is for employees only. Here you'll find info about press releases, executive bios, HR, upcoming events, stock prices, policies, news, etc. If you can't find what you need here, then ask HR for what you need. Their job is to help you. Picking People's Brains This is really easy if you're new. Simply go down the org chart and schedule one-on-one meetings with as many senior people as you can. Introduce yourself and say you have questions and that, "People recommended I come to you." Play to their egos. If you're missing any org charts or want to know what other departments do, these people should give you a very good idea. In addition to that, it does a few other things: Tells people who you are. People will recognize you at meetings, and that is good. Shows you're a self-starter. After all, you took the initiative to schedule these meetings yourself. Gives you "face time." Even if you're just in the office with the Marketing manager, people will automatically look at you in a different light if you're already hanging with the movers and shakers.

The idea of picking people's brains rests on one very important principle that I have learned throughout the years: People love to talk about themselves. THAT is your ace in the hole. It is also why you must strategically ask certain questions when you do these one-on-one meetings. For starters, do not go into these meetings blindly and ask loaded questions like, "Tell me about your whole process, from beginning to end." Nothing screams "new guy" more than that. People are busy and don't like repeating themselves over and over again to every new person who comes along. Instead, ask these questions to really get people talking: “What are some things you've done in your career that you're really proud of?" This is based on the principle that people love to brag. It's one thing for people to brag, but if you're ASKING them to? Look out. Sit back and take notes because you're really going to get the inside scoop. “I heard that (insert someone's name) is really (insert a positive or negative quality). Would you agree with that?" This is based on the principle that people are much more forthcoming, vocal, and passionate when they disagree with something. So this question should refer to something you know the person will disagree with and tell you so. "I have a meeting with Purchasing (or any other department) next week. Can you give me a heads up on those folks?"

This is based on the principle that people love to tell secrets. Here, you are asking for hidden knowledge and the person will be flattered you honor his/her opinion. As always, ask important follow-up questions. You don't need to gather all the information from one person. Break up your inquiries into groups, and save one group for each person you interview. If you're naturally shy or uncomfortable talking to strangers in this fashion, then my advice is to find one person, a mentor, who can tell you about everyone and what they do. It's less threatening, but keep in mind that you're just getting one person's viewpoint. Still, it's better than doing nothing at all, which is what most people do.

Flowcharts While not likely to exist, flowcharts will be your best aid in understanding how things work. If you have the time, you might consider drawing your own. In addition to helping you understand things, this gives you an easy excuse to meet with higher-ups. Just by saying, "I have a flowchart of how your process works, can we meet to verify that it's correct?" you are in. If you decide to initiate such a project, then you've got a guaranteed way to meet with each and every department you'd like. "We've been told we need to document all our processes. Can we meet so that I can make sure your process is documented correctly?" Presto, you've got an instant VIP pass into all their offices. Tip for New Employees: A Proven Winning Strategy! dare suggest that you map the process flows for your department and maybe one or two others. That was one of my first projects at my first job. The result? For the company's big implementation of their new electronic export management system, I was chosen as the project lead above other company mainstays.

The reason I was chosen? Since I had mapped the processes, they figured I must know them inside out. A perfect example of how one well-done project can lead to another, bigger one. Cross Functional Recognition A huge bonus to going outside your department is that you'll be seen by whole new crops of people. Try this: At the next company gathering, sit near or next to your boss. How impressive would it look if you had people from Manufacturing waving "Hi" to you, just after people from IT waved to you? Now your boss feels more comfortable with you because you're well known to all other functions of the company. He/she will now feel comfortable placing you anywhere because you're well rounded and well liked. So if a project comes up and requires interfacing with Manufacturing, who is your boss going to choose? You, or the schmuck sitting next to you whom no one else knows about? As you'll read later, you've also just secured yourself additional references.

What a terrific system. By all means, use all the resources that are available to you. Most people are so bombarded with information in the beginning that they forget 80% of it. If you write things down and have an outline, it will help. As you begin to work with the people you are asking about, it will all make more sense. A big reason for people's confusion is that they don't know their surroundings, so they get lost. If you know how each piece fits into the puzzle, things will seem much, much clearer to you. By the time your project comes around, you'll be well equipped to begin. You've already met the main players, you already know what they do, and you already know what affects them. With that initial step out of the way, you have more time to concentrate on the project and are way ahead of the pack.



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