Whether you’re a manager, entrepreneur, or professional (particularly a professional thinking of a career change), projects are a powerful tool. When, as with all tools, used correctly. 

Particularly when starting a new initiative, or adding a function to your team, defining work as a discrete, time-limited project forces clarity around what you want done. It’s too easy to hire a ‘Sales Manager,’ or ‘Growth Analyst,’ or ’Social Enterprise Associate,’ without REALLY defining what that person will be working on. Which sets everyone involved up for frustration and failure. 

On the other hand, imagine starting with a specific project, for example a 4-week assignment to map your target market and identify and rank 500 sales prospects. Or an 8-week window to do a feasibility study and financial models for a new business line. 

WHY is the project-based approach better? 

1) Try-before-you-buy

These specific, bite-sized mandates help align expectations, and provide an opportunity for both the project-doer and the organization to get to know each others’ working styles and needs. Assuming the organization has other projects that require similar skillsets, or the current project has grown into a full-time role, the decision to work more together is a lot less risky than making a hire after the famously flawed interview process.

2) Accountability

The process of scoping a project forces clarity about what the deliverables and timeline are. With this clarity, there’s no room for misunderstanding about whether the project-doer has fulfilled his or her obligation to the organization or not. Particularly in the case of a new role to the organization, job descriptions can be vague, with myriad variations in responsibilities and critical success factors. The specificity that comes with a project scope protects both the organization and the project-doer from wasting resources or compromising their reputation, respectively. 

3) Momentum

Setting specific goals to reach within a specific time frame creates a sense of progress and momentum, again particularly for a new initiative. The wrap-up of every well-executed project includes suggestions and discussion of next steps, which may likely include another project to advance the work being done. Rather than making a one-time decision to hire someone to begin work on an initiative or functional area in your organization, working on a series of projects ensures the progress checks and planning necessary to build and sustain momentum.

HOW to ensure a successful project? 

The guidelines for a successful project are actually quite similar on both sides. 

Before

The scoping process is critical to the success of any project. It’s important to spend the time to clarify the desired outcome and deliverables, and the steps that will likely lead to those results. Project-doers hold the responsibility for getting all the information and guidance they need before diving in - it’s easy for organizations to take things for granted about their business, organization, or culture. 

The organization has the primary responsibility to ensure that the project is well-publicized internally so that all related individuals and departments know what’s happening and can support the project-doer. The project-doer can also help make sure this happens by asking to meet all relevant stakeholders before kicking off. 

During

It’s critical to schedule and uphold regular check-ins. Communicate early and and often about successes, challenges, surprises, and changes to the project. The project-doer holds ultimate responsibility for scheduling and having these check-ins, but certainly requires (and deserves!) the full participation of the organization. 

Look for ways to integrate the project-doer into the larger organization. Even over four weeks, find opportunities for that person to get acquainted with the staff and business of the organization, whether by attending meetings or office social events, informal lunches or happy hours with the team (beyond their direct counterparts for the project), or participating in the organization’s core business on the front lines. We all work better when we’re working with and for people whom we know, respect, and enjoy. It’s easy for project-doers to remain isolated, which compromises the value of their work product to the organization.

After 

A deliverable for every project should be recommended next steps. And the wrap-up meeting should include thorough discussion of those recommendations in terms of who should lead the next steps, what likely obstacles may be, and other tips based on the project-doers experience with the organization. An internal contact, whether the main point of contact or not, should be charged with the follow-up on the project to ensure that it doesn’t become a report on the shelf as so many. 

Finally, both sides should request thorough written feedback. It will serve the organization in getting smarter about engaging project-based talent, and serve as a reference for the project-doer in getting future gigs. 

If your organization - or your career - is changing or growing at all these days, get good at  managing - or doing - project-based work. It’s the most effective and affordable path to sustainable progress!