When Kennedy said “By the end of this decade, we will land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth,” he should be: Concrete.
He could have said “We should aim to dominate the space race.” But what would that mean? Sending a monkey to space? A human being? An ant colony? For how long? And how far up exactly?
So, which of the two statements remind you more of your project charters? Chances are the latter. People have a tendency to avoid details whenever possible, because it means they just committed to something: “Better keep it light.”
But by “keeping it light” and avoiding details (“I can always fill them in later”) you introduce room for ambiguity. You may know (or think you know) what “space race” (or the equivalent) means. But so will everybody else on your team, and what you will really end up with is 24 different definitions of “space race”.
Kennedy gave a clear definition of WHAT needs to be done (putting a man on the moon and bringing him back – I’m sure the crew of Apollo 11 was especially glad about the second part of the phrase), using unambiguous language: There’s no ambiguity about what “man” or “moon” means.
Imagine one of your employees at a BBQ at a friend’s place (Really. Do it.). When a friend walks up to him and asks, “So, Mario, what are you working on?” What will your employee answer? Does he have an answer? And when Mario answers, will his friend understand what on earth he is talking about? If not, you sucked at giving a concrete project goal. “I am working on the space shuttle toilet that will bring a man safely to the moon and back by the end of this decade” – that’s what your employee should be able to say.
JFK also gave a clear WHEN: “By the end of the decade.” Not much time to build a space program, but at least the engineers had a clear goal in mind. Giving your team a very specific, detailed goal is a huge motivator. “Winning the space race” might sound like an Olympic discipline, but you will find plenty of things to distract you from making the 2012 Olympics if you think that being ready for 2016 will do fine.
After the WHAT and WHEN, the last thing to drill down to is the HOW. JFK didn’t say anything about that, so here’s your chance to out-do JFK (and how many chances to be better than Kennedy do you have? Exactly.)
Now we’re getting into project plan territory: translating those terrifyingly concrete objectives into an actionable and achievable plan. Yes a good project plan should specify how many people you need to work on this project, but also if they are senior or junior employees (This will make a lot of difference for what your execution expectations can be). Also, does it provide clear measures of success? What color must your product be? What size? What weight? Add as much details as you can. You can ask early, and come to an agreement on your project’s criteria for success, or you can find out later when you haven’t met people’s expectations. Discussions are not bad. They are a sign that everybody is paying attention.
Beware of project plans that are accepted by everybody without a question. In fact, beware of project plans that were written without asking a million and one questions. If that groundwork dialogue has not happened, chances are that the people involved have, or will, “customize” the specs to what they THINK, which is, I can guarantee, NOT what was originally in mind.
- If you describe the WHAT, you give your team members a goal and open a source of motivation.
- If you tell them WHEN, they know what is expected of them.
- And by clarifying the HOW, you give yourself some peace of mind, and everyone involved actionable guidance.
- And always, always, be as concrete and detailed as possible.