Life in the Projects | npENGAGE

Life in the Projects

By on Sep 10, 2008


A few years back, I was invited to teach a course at Indiana University on project management. The students were aspiring and talented new media designers that knew a lot about their craft, but very little about delivering their ideas. I called the class "Life in the Projects" and the focus was on preparing students for the alien world outside the classroom.

I introduced the foreign concept of a "process" to delivering projects, had them deal with realistic scenarios, and the course material was 10% theory and 90% reality from many years of my own adventures in the projects. From the start of the class, I reminded them that life is just a series of projects. Once you understand how to navigate them, then you can get back to inspiration and innovation.

Sydney Opera HouseDuring my recent trip to Australia, I learned about the history of the the Sydney Opera House. It turns out this architectural marvel was also a complete project nightmare. Construction started in 1958, but the project wasn't completed until 1973. That was 10 years past the original deadline set by the government. The total cost of the project was just over $102 million, but the original estimate was only $7 million. There were construction issues, problems with contractors, and to top things off the original designer, Jørn Utzon, resigned from the project before its completion.

Today, the Sydney Opera House is an iconic landmark familiar to people around the world. It was even a finalist to be one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Nobody talks about the missed deadlines, the cost overruns, and the other problems that happened during the project. The project champions made sure that the original vision wasn't overshadowed by the challenges along the way.

What's the connection to your own projects? Every project will have its ups and downs. Don't allow them to throw you off course or detract from the benefits brought by the end results. Here are some simple project rules to live by:

Get Thee A Strategy
You may not need a 240 page document that defines and explains your strategic rationale for the project. But you still need to have a strategy defined. Starting a project without a strategy is like going grocery shopping without a list. You end up buying more than you really need and almost always forget something important.

Get Thee Some Reality
Naive project managers believe they can control "if" challenges will arise. Successful project managers accept that it's a "when" and know that "how" they handle issues makes all the difference. Starting a project without room for error is like doing a crossword puzzle with a pen. You end up creating more of a mess the longer you refuse to change your ways.

Get Thee Proper Expectations
Project management purists often refer to the Triple Constraints: Time, Cost, and Resources. (I personally prefer the more pragmatic Project Triangle: Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick Two.) These competing constraints force the project team to compromise and adjust expectations. Starting a project without setting proper expectations is like giving teenagers a credit card with no spending limit. You end up with abnormal behaviors that are aren't easily undone and become very costly to repair.

Get Thee A Champion
Successful projects are led from the top of the organization, not the bottom. If senior leadership can't be bothered to take an active role, then don't bother doing the project. Starting a project without a leader as its champion is like playing hockey without a referee. You end up with more fighting than scoring when the teams begin knocking into each other.

Or Get Thee A Scapegoat
If you choose not to follow any of these rules, then I suggest finding someone to blame. (Quickly) Maybe a junior staff person, perhaps the sales person, or maybe even your vendor's project manager. That way you have an object of distraction that keeps others from questioning what really went wrong. It might also buy you enough time to get your act together and get back on track with the simple rules above.

Blackbaud does several hundred projects every single year. After a while you develop an appreciation for what separates succesful projects from challenged projects. The simple rules that I noted above are a good starting point for anyone beginning a new project. The project you save may be your own.


Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits.

MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in many mainstream publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloomberg, and has appeared on NPR.

He is a frequent speaker at events including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), American Marketing Association (AMA), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), Giving Institute Summer Symposium, National Association of Independent School (NAIS), Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), Institute of Fundraising National Convention (United Kingdom), Civil Society Conference (Netherlands), International Fundraising Congress (Netherlands), Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School (Ireland), and a keynote speaker at several conferences across the social good sector.

Steve previously served on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets. His latest book, Data Driven Nonprofits, became a bestseller in 2016.

Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

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