Preparing for a Fast-Growth Project

Three early planning phases and their unique challenges

December 15, 2019 | Helen S. Cooke

fast-growth projectAny project manager knows that projects vary significantly: some last for years, with multiple phases, while others are sporadic, with periodic breaks that free staff and management to work on other initiatives. Some are important. Others are urgent. Some are predictable, others volatile. It is the role of the project manager to accurately identify the type of project they’re working on and determine the strategy, priorities, and overall approach to work so that the risks are minimized and the opportunities for success are leveraged.

My own experience with fast-growth projects has included launching a new software development tool – moving from zero to 300 clients and twenty-two staff in five years – and PMI’s global expansion, which moved from 10,000 to 100,000 members within six years. While working on these and other projects, I learned that fast-growth projects present unique challenges. You might need to make important decisions quickly and often. You will have less time to consider alternatives and their effect on your project’s outcome. Stakeholder interests may conflict, and you may need to negotiate under pressure.

The best way to prepare yourself is to do your homework up front. If you’re lucky, you will be able to identify a fast-growth project from the beginning and get it off to a bright start. Early signals of a fast-growth project include a strong market pull, a ready customer demand, top management priorities, or private equity investment. They need it done. You deliver. But managing a fast-growth project will tap all of your project management skills.

The conceptual planning for a fast-growth project can be broken down into three phases: high-level planning, general planning, and detailed planning. It’s important to consider these phases before your first meeting with top management. This will allow you to define your needs right from the beginning. These early, conceptual planning phases will help you identify basic parameters, like whether you’ll need a dedicated team rather than contractors. The early stage of planning will also help you understand your own role. Which parts of the job do you plan to do yourself in the beginning, but then hand off to a second-in-command later on? Are you reporting to the correct level of management to authorize you to make important or controversial decisions? What are your options for correcting or negotiating early problems with resources or timelines?

The following outline describes each of the three early planning phases and its unique challenges:

1)  High-Level Initial Planning Phase

The first planning phase includes an overview of the management environment, the overall goals, the market, the competition, and the trends.

Overview of the Management Environment: As the point person for this project, you will most likely be working alone until you have a formal sponsor or key team members to work with you. Try tapping experts to move your thinking into priority work that needs to get done up front. Stay close to management so you know management’s views of the business model, successes and challenges, and hot buttons. You need to clearly understand what management envisions, the critical success factors for you and for your project team, and the strengths you bring to the table and wish to use.

Overall Goals: “Move fast and break things” is Zuckerberg’s motto for Facebook, but not for you. You are not in charge of the whole effort; you have clients to please. What are your immediate bosses’ goals? What would be the goals of any organization tapping a moving market as it shapes itself over time? What you do will have tangible outcomes, many of which will be impossible or difficult to change once your effort is under way. Your project might include new challenges, opportunities, and risks. It will have different critical success factors.

Use thought leaders to help shape your playing field, your game plan, and your rules. The astronauts practiced moving in weightlessness by scuba diving under water: likewise, you may have to feel the currents and make tiny adjustments to your movements to stay with the flow and not jerk around. A fast-moving market is like a fast-moving current: tap the flow, use it, don’t get behind the curve. Be clear in your mind where you are headed so you can make quick, accurate decisions at critical junctures.

The Market: Stay on top of the news. Markets grow quickly during the boom years of the economy, and resources shrink during contractions. Government regulations and legal decisions can change the playing field while your project is underway. Stay flexible. If your sponsoring organization’s facilities are not user-friendly, and their staff are not empowered to resolve problems, you may have to create your own customer-friendly work unit. Define the rules you will operate by, and plan to train your team so they behave well under pressure. You may need to create video examples of potential problem scenarios, and allow your team to role play. You may even need backup teams to step in when problems emerge. As things change, of course, you should plan to stay available. A manager’s primary job is to make decisions, especially decisions that could affect the whole trajectory of the project.

The Competition: There may be bit players or big companies trying to step into the same market. Are any of them broadening their vision of their typical client to include areas you will be working in? Just like IBM targeted the deep end of the swimming pool to take their profits, and Apple targeted the higher volume of shallow end users, clarify how your project’s business model could be adapted either to leverage the existing market or tap other markets. Other countries are playing in what used to be the United States’ proprietary marketplace. Some of them may not be visible in the news. Seek out the potential threats and risks to your project’s success and to your project’s critical success factors.

Use analytical models you have used elsewhere to examine a playing field that suits your project but does not force you to compete in areas over your head. Define your project’s competitive strengths. Find the ripe fruit, confirm your direction with management and your team, and then pick it. Step away from directions that might tap your strength.

Trends: Look at demographic trends. Look at the 77 million baby boomers and 78 million millennials. What do they have in common? Limited resources and big numbers! There are many entrepreneurs who run their own businesses and are hungry for a lucrative part of the growing parts of the economy. There are ten thousand new retirees every day. For almost all of these groups, image and reputation are really important. What is your target market? How do you reach them? What advertising channels form the opinions of your primary customer? Does your sponsoring organization have your project’s outcomes built into their model?  If so, what is at stake if the project does not deliver as expected? Are the project’s budget, resources and allocations appropriate for the importance of its intended outcome?

2)  General Planning Phase

This second planning phase includes major initiatives, their interdependencies, timelines, growth patterns, and priorities.

Major Initiatives: What is the goal of your sponsoring organization in backing this project? Is there a “project outcome” identified – branding, marketing, advertising image, or a new partner identification? Is this project breaking into a new market, or taking a much broader group in a new direction? Is there a synergy of two current initiatives that will together build a new competitive position for your sponsors?

Priorities: Have a clear vision of the critical success factors for all major areas of the project; think about finance, profit, meeting realistic growth targets in each area, physical space to operate, access to talent. Develop a teamwork calendar that allows you to learn. Remember to recharge your batteries. Develop relationships with owners, executives, and investors. Consider advertising avenues. Then put them all on a timeline with checkpoints so you can manage your own efforts across several fronts. Plan for your own future success while you plan the success of the project.

Interdependencies: Are there other active projects that will rely on the success of yours? A successful project’s image and market niche will open potential new clients for your sponsoring organization; it might also close doors in other areas. Legal and business model limitations will mark boundaries and shape where you can go. This will also shape the type of people who will want to work for you and your project. They will consider the impact your project’s success or failure might have on their careers in future years. How do these elements affect your plans for risk management as you move forward?

Timelines: Planning needs to be thorough up front, because once things start to move, you will need to swim with the currents. Tap expertise and create ‘think tank’ discussions to flesh out your plan and its timelines. To estimate, use ‘best case’ plus ‘worst case’ plus three times ‘most likely’ divided by five.

Growth Patterns: Build a financial resource model that will accommodate fast growth. A clear vision of the future—mission and goals and image development—will continue to guide your organization long after you have moved on to higher executive roles. Faltering in key areas along the way can stall growth or cause you to lose people, energy, and future opportunities. Plan to grow fast in every area.

3)  Detailed Planning Phase

This final planning phase includes broad work efforts, lower level initiatives, resources, requirements, hard deadlines, and potential risks.

Broad Work Efforts: Sketch out the major work efforts in your work breakdown structure, along with their sequences. Use what you have learned by examining the business environment and the business model. Target the most productive markets, identify client preferences, assess the competition and their relative strengths and weaknesses. Identify critical resources by type for each phase of the project. Reach out to supporters, experts, staff, consultants, and seek comparable models for projects in other organizations.

Lower Level Initiatives: This includes travel, administration, tracking progress, and creating data and metrics that allow you and your bosses to evaluate progress. Locate an office, locate a financial entity or staff specialist to manage your budget resources, and work through any funding issues you may have. Locate a contractor for human resources planning and advertising that provides good contractor value, should you need it. Maybe host a think tank of experts to shape the initial planning stages and tackle special challenges, such as integrating your US model into the global market. Plan your travel calendar, with holidays protected for team morale, and maybe hire an executive assistant to keep things going when you’re in travel status.

Resources: This includes people, space, money, part-time help, expertise, office equipment and resources, storage, and printed materials to shape public understanding of your project outcome. Do you need gifts for overseas trips? Physical materials to leave behind after a meeting? Favorite places to lunch and have informal meetings?

Requirements: What are the absolute necessities your boss and the company want you to do, be, and ensure as you move forward? How do they exhibit themselves, and how will you report on and display these benchmarks to others? What are your own metrics for determining your success? Who will help? How do you plan to develop relationships with the movers and shakers in your own organization, the current staff, client organizations, and investors?

Hard Deadlines: What will mark the start of independent operation and the end of planning? What will be the measurement of progress, and when will assessing progress start? What are the intervals of review and revision? What are the necessary outcomes your clients/partners/collaborators will demand of you, and when do you need them?  Check your understanding before building your skeletal plan.

Potential Risks: The process of identifying risks actually starts at the highest level of planning and extends through every phase of work. Ask your team and supporting units to contribute to your risk list. When those risks do not materialize when expected, they become irrelevant. When they do materialize, you have at least thought them through and can quickly take action. Avoiding the big ones is critical. Assign a team member to be the point person for maintaining and communicating the risks associated with the start of each new phase and eliminating the prior risks that are no longer relevant.

Working through these three planning phases is essential for a fast-growth project because once you begin to implement the project, you will face unexpected challenges that will demand your full attention. Even if the plans documented in these early stages are thrown out and completely replaced as you move forward, the thought process has shaped your key considerations and alerted your team to the potential for change. So, while you can try to be accurate during the planning phases, don’t try to plan everything. Instead, make good-faith estimates. Eliminate the details (your straw man “estimates”) from the plan before distributing it. Ask your team to make their suggestions: after all, they will be doing the work. Their level of expertise will vary, and their estimates will be unique to their experience.

As you work, stay flexible. Pace yourself. Show yourself what you can do when you step up to leading a fast-moving project. Fast growth can occur in any market. Tap into your own experiences for strategies and ideas based on what worked for you in the past. Then charge ahead with confidence.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.