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Project Management: How to Clarify Project Goals

3 of 5 in Series: The Essentials of Defining Your Project

As a project manager, nail down goals before you start planning project-execution details. In your quest to find out what your project is supposed to accomplish and how it fits into your organization’s overall plans, you have to seek information that’s sensitive, sometimes contradictory, and often unwritten. Getting this information isn’t always easy, but following these tips can help make your search more productive:

  • Try to find several sources for the same piece of information. The greater the number of independent sources that contain the same information, the more likely the information is correct.

  • Whenever possible, get information from primary sources. A primary source contains the original information. A secondary source is someone else’s report of the information from the primary source.

    Suppose you need information from a recently completed study. You can get the information from the primary source (which is the actual report of the study written by the scientists who performed it), or you can get it from secondary sources (such as articles in magazines or scientific journals by authors who paraphrased and summarized the original report).

    The farther your source is from the primary source, the more likely the secondary information differs from the real information.

  • Look for written sources because they’re the best. Check relevant minutes from meetings, correspondence, e-mail, reports from other projects, long-range plans, budgets, capital improvement plans, market requirement documents, and benefit-cost analyses.

  • Speak with two or more people from the same area to confirm information. Different people have different styles of communication as well as different perceptions of the same situation. Speak with more than one person, and compare their messages to determine any contradictions.

    If you get different stories, speak with the people again to verify their initial information. Determine whether the people you consulted are primary or secondary sources (primary sources tend to be more accurate than secondary ones). Ask the people you consulted to explain or reconcile any remaining differences.

  • When speaking with people about important information, arrange to have at least one other person present. Doing so allows two different people to interpret what they hear from the same individual.

  • Write down all information you obtain from personal meetings. Share your written notes and summaries with other people who were present at the meeting to ensure that your interpretation is correct and to serve as a reminder of agreements made during the meeting.

  • Plan to meet at least two times with your project’s key audiences. Your first meeting starts them thinking about issues. Allow some time for them to think over your initial discussions and to think of new ideas related to those issues. A second meeting gives you a chance to clarify any ambiguities or inconsistencies from the first session.

  • Practice active listening skills in all your meetings and conversations. Active listening is a skill all managers need to develop.

  • Wherever possible, confirm what you heard in personal meetings with written sources. When you talk with people, they share their perceptions and opinions. Compare those perceptions and opinions with written, factual data (from primary sources, if possible). Discuss any discrepancies with those same people.

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