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"Key" Issues To Project Scope

Keys(Originally Published On Iowabiz.com In May, 2007)

I have a box of keys at home.  Big keys.  Small keys.  House keys.  Office keys.  Cabinet keys.  Padlock keys.  Keys.  Keys.  Keys!!!!

The only problem is that I have no clue what any of these keys actually unlocks.  Maybe an educated guess at best.  The problem is that I'm unwilling to unload any of these keys because one never knows when a new lock may just appear out of nowhere and need a key.  And - EUREKA - I'm prepared.  Meanwhile, the "key box" takes up real estate in a drawer in our house, and I generally run into it when I'm looking for something else.

Are these keys like some of the projects in your organization?  Are they simply solutions waiting for a problem?  In companies of all sizes, it can become very easy to be enamored by the latest hot software solution du jour.  Some people fall under the spell of evil consultants who make lofty promises.  Worse yet, sometimes we let executives go to the restroom with trade magazines.  They go in seeking a nature call and come out with the latest ad-induced idea, shouting, "Hallelujah!  I gotta get me some of that!"  It doesn't matter what "that" is; they've found a solution and it becomes your issue to retrofit it to a problem.

Think about the projects that your organization is currently tackling.  Can you really name the problem or opportunity that each is intended to solve?  John Dewey once stated that "a problem well defined is a problem half solved."  Yet how many of your projects are simply keys without locks?  Here is a quick and easy test:  How many of your so-called problem statements start with the words "we need" or "we have a lack of"?  If so, you've probably defined a solution rather than a problem.  Case in point, if your problem statement is "We need a new computer system," what is the solution?  (No peeking.)  Yup, you guessed it.  I have a two-year-old here at home who is excellent with asking "why" questions.  I'm thinking of asking her to subcontract to me, so I can assign her to the clients who cannot define a good problem statement.  If you ask "why" enough times, you'll get to the root cause of the issue.

Why should you as a small business owner or employee care about this?  Good question.  As somebody who probably has limited resources, you don't have the time or money for people to be running down rabbit holes after half-baked ideas.  (If you do have people with ample time on their hands, send them over to my house and I'll let them find the locks to all my extra keys.)  The trick to avoiding the key-without-a-lock project is to write a brief yet solid business case before approving the idea to become a project.

This is more than just an academic exercise.  In my book, Race Through The Forest - A Project Management Fable (Tiberius, 2006), I recommend a simple approach to documenting a business case.  Because the business case is the "senior artery" that carries information and decision-making ability to the entire project life cycle, it's also a great way to remember the content of your business case:

  • Stakeholders - list those people who might or should care about this project
  • Rationale - document a compelling reason (problem or opportunity) for undertaking this project
  • Alternatives - list feasible options for addressing the problem or opportunity
  • Recommendation - choose which of the alternatives is the best solution
  • Timeline - lay out the high level milestones for completing this project (with specific dates)
  • Estimates - set expectations about the amount of effort it will take to complete the project
  • Risks - consider the main things that could go wrong (either by undertaking the project or staying with the status quo)
  • Yes/No Decision - even if it's just a contract with yourself, document the approval to proceed.

Don't trick yourself into thinking you have to write a 150-page dissertation for your business case.  After all, you are a small business owner who is strapped for time.  You'll know when you have enough documented to justify it in your own mind.  Some of the best business cases I've seen were under five pages.  Taking this simple step should help you get rid of those keys without locks, and help ensure that you are spending your time and resources on the truly critical problems or opportunities within your organization.

Carpe Factum!!!

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