NTEN Change - Issue 11: October 2013

Determining the “Right” Project

Laura Dallas Burford, MA, PMP 2013-10-14 17:03:13

This short story highlights the need for determining and evaluating which projects should be undertaken and prioritizing each project because over commitment of staff and time can result in staff becoming burnt out or work not being completed when anticipated. Well-meaning board members and volunteers as well as employees with ideas aimed at assisting a nonprofit can also add challenges to ensuring the right projects are occurring at the right time. Based on attendee feedback, the Board of Directors believed the annual golf outing was a huge success. However, before starting to plan next year’s golf outing the board realized they needed to know more about the project—the golf outing—and asked the team to provide a recap that highlight what worked well and what needed to be improved upon. Tom, the Executive Director, met with two key employees, Sarah and Rachel, and a few key volunteers. They agreed that the right number of volunteers worked the day of the golf outing and the buffet lunch worked better than the sit-down lunch they had had the prior year. They even discussed how the use of a Responsibility Assignment Matrix (RAM), a first for the team, assisted with ensuring the volunteers were clear as to who was responsible for what tasks and eliminated much of the last minute “fire-drills” they had encountered in the past. “The conversation continued until Sarah stated, “Next year could we please not have any other major projects during the same month as the golf outing? I’m exhausted. I realize a new marketing brochure is a good idea and the money was donated, but it was not in our yearly plan. Working on the brochure and the planning the golf outing at the same time has resulted in me falling behind with my day-to-day work. Rachel piped up with, “I agree. I’ve been working with the consultant on the new website. I need to review the test website he created for us. I was supposed to complete that last week, but I’ve not even started. Why didn’t we work on the new website last quarter when there were no other projects?” Deciding if an initiative—a project—should be undertaken means determining and evaluating the reason(s), justification, and objectives of the project. During the yearly planning process, a number of potential projects are discussed but not all are approved. Additionally, unexpected things happen and new initiatives—a project—may occur to solve a problem or exploit an opportunity. Prioritizing each project means ranking the projects based on strategy while taking into account and avoiding the over commitment of staff, money, and time. “A good approach for evaluating and justifying a project is to create a standardized list of questions. Some questions to consider include: Business Reason: • Will this project result in a solution to a market demand, an organizational need, a customer or client request, or a technical advancement? • How well will the project meet our priorities? • Can the project be started and completed in time to meet the business need? • Are the expectations realistic based on our organization’s culture? • Are stakeholders willing to make a commitment to the project’s success? Cost and Time: • Is it possible to estimate the cost or the time needed to complete this project? • How realistic are the estimated cost and time? • Would it be better to postpone the project to a later date? • Are funds available so that the whole project can be delivered? • If needed, can funding be obtained from third-party sources? • Can the project be achieved with the current staff and other resources? Do we need volunteers to be successful? Risk: • What can go wrong with the project? • What are the consequences if the project fails? • Will working on this project impact the daily operations? • What is the risk of doing nothing about the problem or opportunity? Alternatives: • Have other options (and solutions) been explored? • What have other organizations done to solve a similar problem?” Prioritization occurs after all of the potential projects for the year are identified. “This [Prioritizing] can be as simple as assigning projects a high, medium, or low rating or prioritizing them based on strategic criteria, such as “enhances customer service” or “an operational necessity.” Then rank the projects based on the importance of each strategic criteria. Strategic criteria are identified by management during the strategic planning process. Based on the priorities and factors, such as each project’s scope, the estimated costs versus funding available, and project timing requirements, management can make project-related decisions and identify which project can occur immediately, in two months, or next quarter. Prioritizing is an iterative process and there will be tradeoffs. For example, it is possible that a medium-priority project is placed on hold while two low-priority projects are authorized and completed. The reason can be as simple as funding was not available for the medium-priority project or a staffing conflict with another project made the higher-priority project unworkable.” Now, getting back to the story. So what should you do when a board member donates money for an unplanned initiative or an employee has an idea? Evaluate it and determine its priority. “Employees, clients, board members, advisors, volunteers, or anyone else affiliated with the organization could have a great idea for a project, but the idea has not been vetted. So, instead of ignoring it or commenting, “Right now is not the time. We have too many things going on,” ask for help in evaluating and justifying the idea. The easiest way is to ask the person submitting the idea to answer questions such as: • What market demand or an organizational need will this project solve? • How much time do you think the project will take? • What are our competitors (other nonprofits) doing? If the idea results in a project, the person will feel good about contributing to the organization. If, however, the idea does not tie to the organization’s strategy and goals, the timing is not right, or funds are not available, the person suggesting the idea will at least have been part of the evaluation process, will understand why the suggestion was not adopted, and hopefully, will not be afraid to provide suggestions in the future.” How do you decide on the questions that the employees, clients, board members, advisors, volunteers, or anyone else should answer to help with the vetting process? Use a subset of the standardized list to assist with vetting the ideas. How do you determine its priority? Compare it to the other projects that have been authorized and determine how it fits within the schedule. [The above sections are selected excerpts from “Chapter 4: Authorize the Project” found in Project Management for Flat Organizations: Cost Effective Steps to Achieving Successful Results [Plantation, FL: J. Ross Publishing, 2012], 46-49)] Laura Burford has domestic and international project management experience, working with organizations of various sizes, industries, and organizational structures. This includes experience with big four consulting organizations; as a managing director at a start-up international technology consulting organization; and currently as the owner of LAD Enterprizes, a management and information technology company. Laura has presented business, technical, and project management seminars, written articles for trade magazines, and worked with Millersville University’s Nonprofit Resources Network (NRN), and the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF) to create project management programs. She is the author of Project Management for Flat Organizations (2012, J. Ross Publishing, Inc.), a Winner of the 2013 Small Business Book Awards. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Facebook.

Published by NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network. View All Articles.

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