Frame Your Next Project for Success: a 6 Question Cheat Sheet

A former consultant talks about something other than hotel points and frequent flier miles

First published January 2014

Have you ever spent hours/days/weeks on a project and created a phenomenal solution to a problem no one asked you to solve? Of course you have. We all have. After years of delivering strategic projects and one-off requests for managers/clients that were special (in a good way!) and special (in a bad way!), I wanted to share the set of questions I use to get every project headed in the right direction.

The questions below are intended to help you save time, properly set expectations, and increase the likelihood for success. While they are not always iron clad (more details are sometimes needed, the request may change, etc.), I have found that at a minimum asking the right initial questions builds a level of trust with your boss/client that can give you more leeway in the future. On the flip-side, nothing instills more doubt in a client/manager’s mind than whiffing on a first meeting. Unless, of course, you showed up to that meeting with no pants on. But even that at least shows a boldness of character that commands respect.

No Pants > No Clue. Always.

To be clear, these questions are for project managers. Are you a project manager? Yes. We all are in one way or another. If you have ever taken an order or given one, you do project management. And if you’ve never taken or given an order, I urge you to get out more.

When I’m in a safe place and sure that no-one is listening, I use the acronym “ODARPT” to remind myself of the 6 questions in order. You can choose to use the acronym for your own purposes or just use it to make fun of me. Either way you go, here are the 6 questions to frame your project properly:

  1. Objectives: What are the objectives for this project? How would you define success (or how will you define my success/failure)? Why are we doing this and what are we hoping to achieve? Clearly understanding the objectives gives you the most room to be creative in solving the problem. It also ensures that you don’t mistake the deliverable (like a PowerPoint deck) for the desired outcome, which may be something like $100k in new revenue or 2% savings in gross margin.
  2. Deliverable(s): What is the actual deliverable? If you have clarified the objectives well, this should focus on the manner in which you will deliver the objectives. This may include an Excel model or Keynote presentation, a new product feature or piece of code, a speech, etc. This is less relevant if the outcome is something like 2% gross margin improvement, but can vary greatly depending on the next question…
  3. Audience/Stakeholders: Who is my audience and who are the key stakeholders? In my experience, this is the question most often forgotten. However, identifying the audience and stakeholders will have a huge impact on what you deliver and how you deliver it. This is especially true for international audiences as cultural norms and locale-specific expectations play an important role in determining how a message should be delivered. For example, in my work at Samsung I’ve often found that both the format and method for presenting the same recommendations to Korean execs was wildly different compared to present to American execs. The same is often true for the differences between specific industries (tech, finance, design, manufacturing, etc.) for how you formulate your presentation and deliverables. Once you have identified an audience and relative stakeholders, all major decisions should consider the specific nuances and preferences of the audience.
  4. Resources: Since most assignments take longer than 15 minutes, the next question to ask is what resources will you have to help achieve your objectives. This can mean people, tools, budget or any number of resources to get the job done. The sooner you can ask this question, the quicker you can define your plan of attack. Also — asking for resources upfront is often considered thoughtful, while asking for resources later in the project can be perceived as a project in trouble, so figure this out ASAP.
  5. Prior Work: To hijack a hackneyed consulting saying, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” (To learn more consulting/MBA jargon, this article is a nice waste of time) Regardless of how you say it, identifying all previous work attempted on your project will save you a ton of time and better help you clarify expectations. In the event that there were significant prior efforts, I recommend asking the results of that work and whether the new project should simply be additive or take a new approach. Since prior work will often set the bar you’ll be measured against, you’ll want to understand it inside and out.
  6. Timeline: The last question is the simplest — what is the timeline for this request? Once set, timelines are often difficult to change, so it is best to know all aspects of what you’re delivering prior to committing to a date. It is also critical to communicate ASAP when you are unable to deliver on the agreed upon timeline, as surprises are worse the later they are delivered.

I initially used “ODARPT” to successfully execute requests I received, but more recently I have also found them useful as a manager to structure my requests of others. I find that if I can’t answer these questions myself, then the project I’m requesting is probably destined for disappointment.

While my consulting career, along with all my hotel and frequent flier points, has ended, I hope that this cheat sheet can help you set up a framework to avoid some of the pitfalls of project execution and project management.

Gary Coover is a tech and startup business model junkie who honed his snark through years of strategy/BD work, co-founding a startup, and a few years in Korea and the Bay Area working for Samsung. Gary currently runs Global Operations for the Samsung Accelerator, helping architect, launch and scale the Accelerator and its startups in New York, San Francisco and Tel Aviv. His opinions are his own, as are his tweets, which are occasionally above average.

Additional content from this author: