Start with the end in mind – whether it’s a wine cellar or a strategy for Syria

28 Nov 2015

By: David Hart

E AND H / Project Management

Two very different things this week have reminded me about how important it is to have a clear view of the ultimate objective of any project or initiative and to understand how, whatever it is we are establishing, will be used.

The first was reading an article in a wine magazine about establishing your own wine cellar.  Putting aside the basic assumption that anyone establishing wine storage at home would consume an average of 300 bottles a year (certainly wishful thinking as far as I’m concerned) the principle that you need to determine how much, how often and what you are going to want to drink over the life of the cellar is fundamental to a successful outcome.  There will be wine for special occasions in 20-30 years’ time that will certainly be much more affordable if purchased now and laid down.  Then there will be those mature clarets that you want for dinner parties that again are far more affordable 10 years before they are really ready to drink.  Then there’s wine for more frequent and everyday drinking.  How much of each will you want to drink and when?  Thinking this all through carefully results in the optimum plan for your cellar which, if you get it right, will mean you always have the right bottle to hand, or at least minimise the need to go out and buy expensive wine, and you will always have space for some of those bargain offers that appear from time to time.

The second was reading the debates around whether or not to bomb Syria and the Prime Minister’s aim to achieve a House of Commons consensus for a mandate to extend the action.   Many people are saying what seems to me to be the right thing, and asking the right questions – what are we ultimately trying to achieve, what is our strategy to deliver it and how does bombing fit into that?  Unless we are simply aiming to be seen to be doing something in response to the appalling events in Paris, then surely to be ultimately successful the international community needs to have a clear and realistic vision of what a successful outcome might be, and some sort of plan for getting there?

Our experience of delivering successful projects and change in a range of organisations over the years has made me realise that starting out with a clear view of the end point is a fundamental component of success:

  • Are we all agreed about what we are trying to achieve and what success will look like?
  • Do we understand what we are going to do with what we produce and how it will work?
  • Are our plans for delivering it comprehensive, realistic and achievable?

If we can’t answer yes to all these questions then the likelihood of failure will usually be high.

Does this mean that we should never start a project if these things aren’t clear? Not necessarily – there are sometimes circumstances where we need to feel our way at the beginning.  Eddie Obeng, the project management writer and guru, calls these ‘foggy’ projects1.  These ‘foggy’ projects have specific characteristics and need a different management approach – of which more in a future blog.

1 ‘All Change! The Project Leader’s Secret Handbook’, Eddie Obeng, Pub: Pearson 1994.