I recently joined a consulting company as an entry-level analyst. Being new to all this, I am curious to know what I need to do when starting a new project and how I can succeed in project-based environments.
The MBA Responds…
Congratulations on starting your career, Michael! Thanks for the great question!
When starting a new project at work, people, at all levels and rank, react very differently – typical emotions include nervousness, excitement, and fear (of the unknown). To those who can relate to these emotions, I encourage you to accept these emotions and use them as fuel to your ambition. Use the following as a checklist of things you should always do to structure that ambition and help you succeed on that new project.
1. Learn about the project.
On Day 1 of the project, you should take the time to understand the history, the business objective/case, and the intent of the project. Seems trivial, but you’ll be surprised how many times this step is missed. Why is this so important? At a high-level, without knowing what business objective you are trying to achieve, it’s really hard to make the “right” decisions or choose the “right” approach that aligns with that problem. But looking beyond the high-level reason, knowing this information enables you to understand the people, it’s importance to the organization, the politics, and the primary drivers of the project. Here are some further questions you should consider:
- Who is the client? the Project Sponsor?
- What is the business objective or business case?
- Can I get a copy of the business case or proposal?
- How does this project align to the organization’s strategy?
- For consultants/contractors – Why was our consultancy selected to do this work?
- Is there a project repository or central location for project documents?
- Can I get a copy of the Project Charter? the Project Schedule?
- Can I get a copy of the organization chart?
2. Understand the expectations.
Somewhat related to Mantra #1 (see here), people have expectations and those expectations can drive whether you succeed or not. Everybody has a boss (even a CEO reports to the Board and the Shareholders), so you need to understand what your boss expects from you. Furthermore, you should also understand what your colleagues and other project team members expect from you. Shifting the focus from you to the client (internal/external), you also need to understand what this project means for the Project Sponsor and the organization as a whole. Here are some further questions you should consider:
- Do you have specific expectations of me? Formal/Informal?
- What are the specific project tools or skills I am expected to know?
- What can I do to make you (the boss) successful? What does your boss (boss’ boss) expect of you? What does the Project Sponsor expect of us?
- What is my role and responsibilities? What responsibilities do I share with others? What do others expect of me?
- Does the project have a list of Things to Do and Things Not to Do? Formal (scope, working hours, etc.) but Informal (dress code, lunch appointments, etc.)?
- For traveling consultants/contractors – Can I get a copy of the project’s travel policy? If one does not exist, what is the project’s travel policy (traveling days, hotel options, per diem, etc.)?
3. Do your research.
Now that you are armed with a little more information, take the time to do your research. Offline research has the power to prepare you for a less stressful project experience and to make you stand out from the crowd. Projects are challenging, fast-paced, and stressful – the more your prepare yourself early on the better off you’ll be. So, motivate yourself to start the research early and develop a plan to educate yourself throughout the project experience. Here are some further questions you should consider while doing your research:
- Do I know the organization’s leadership?
- Who is the the client? What industries do they serve? What services/products do they deliver? Who are the client’s biggest competitors?
- Where can I get free/paid training to help me succeed on the project?
- Are there other projects similar to this one? If so, can I get documents/artifacts from that project?
- Is there a knowledge management system? Knowledge exchange?
- Who are the “experts” I can talk to and get questions answered?
4. Scope out the formal and informal networks.
Again related to Mantra #1, people drive everything. Since people play such an important role on this planet, you have to understand how their interactions work and the social systems work. Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s not what you know, but who you know”? This phrase applies to the project environment as well. Arm yourself with information about not only the formal networks (generally illustrated using an organization chart) but also the informal networks (workplace friends, close colleagues, mentors, etc.). You can get to meet some pretty cool people and get a lot of things done if you understand both of these networks and know when to engage them. Here are some further questions you should consider while doing your research:
- Who, on the project, has worked with this client before?
- Are there any alums that I can connect with in the organization?
- Do people interact outside of work frequently?
- How “social” is the project environment?
- Who are the administrative assistants? Who are the “gatekeepers” to getting appointments or getting things done?
5. Never eat lunch alone.
Finally, now that you have a better understanding of the project environment, it’s time for you to start building your own network. What better way to do that then by scheduling lunches with colleagues and client personnel. Food, in this situation, not only serves as a social bond but also serves as a channel to establish your identity on the project. Furthermore, it provides a way for you to learn about your colleagues and client personnel outside of the stressful project environment.
Make these 5 simple things part of your personal project on boarding routine and you’ll be off to a good start, Michael! Hope this helps!