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Misunderstandings happen. But in the project management world a misunderstanding can be devastating. I work with technology folks, nonprofits, contractors, and business people – all of whom are not immune to project misunderstandings. I recently pulled my hair out over a nonprofit project when I learned after several weeks of work (fortunately, not that many hours) that my contact at the nonprofit had a very different vision for the program. In the tech world, it’s common for me to uncover misunderstandings with clients despite the fact that I repeatedly push developers to fully document the scope of a feature request or a bug fix.

Misunderstandings can cost time, money, project failures, and even jobs. Here are seven suggestions to reduce misunderstandings in your organization.

7 Tips for Better Understanding Project Activities

Understanding Project Activities: Break the project down into the right project activities.

Experts call this decomposing your project. Imagine an organization chart with each activity in a box. The project name is in a box at the very top, and there can be any number of boxes in the row underneath the name of the project. From there, you work downward. The secret here is knowing how far down to break the project; that is, being able to identify the right activities.

Get this right and your project will unfold with much more success. Get it wrong, and your project is doomed. There is no magic formula, but there are ways you can think about your project breakdown that will help.

One suggestion is to think about the top row (not the name of the project) as primary activities. I recommend that organizations think about the activities on which they would like a financial accounting and group those accordingly. Some people prefer to group the activities in phases. Once you have defined your primary activities in a top row, start identifying the activities in each column.

Each organization is different, and each project is different. Some projects need to be broken down into more detail than others. I recommend thinking about your project cadence. You want to continue to show progress. If you don’t break the project down far enough, you will rarely be able to declare an activity as done. And setting up your project for those small victories helps you develop momentum.

Distinguish between activities and tasks. Focus on activities.

Activities are the essential packages of work that need to be done in order to complete the scope. Each activity can have a number of little tasks – phone calls, document reviews, research questions, and meetings. I don’t recommend trying to identify every task at this point. Too much is likely to change. It is far more useful if you direct your efforts towards really understanding the activities.

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Define the scope of each activity in writing and share it with all involved.

It is essential that the team have clarity on the scope of each activity. Sometimes this means getting the team together to document the scope of each activity. Other times, it means tasking someone on the team to write out the scope. It doesn’t have to be long but it needs to be clear. It doesn’t need to be a narrative of how you plan to do the scope, but what you plan to do, and why. These scope statements should be shared with everyone on the team, along with key stakeholders.

Understanding Project Activities: Identify the critical stakeholders for each activity.

As you talk through the what and why on each activity, identify who is particularly interested in the activity. For example, I was talking with the father of a young woman who got married recently. As the father of the bride, I was expecting him to care about where the wedding was, how much it was going to cost, when it was, who was invited, or a host of other details.

When I asked him what he remembered being really interested in, it was the liquor brands – and in particular, the bourbon brand. And the mother of the bride’s hot button was the church bulletin. The only way to know what people are really interested in is to ask them. Knowing that a key stakeholder is particularly interested in something specific will help you ensure that there are no upsets.

At some point, if you are planning to estimate the cost of the project, one of the most critical stakeholders will be the one who is doing the work on each activity.

Pinpoint the critical deadlines.

As I have said many times, not all deadlines are equal. Rather than getting bogged down tracking every deadline, determine which deadlines are time-sensitive or critical and find a way to track those effectively so they are not missed. Meet the critical deadlines and spend your time on something else.

Define the quality needed for each activity.

Let’s go back to the wedding example. If the brand of liquor, the quality of the paper for the church bulletin, or the accuracy of proofing is important, note that. Time and money are finite resources. Don’t spend your time and money on details that don’t matter.

Analyze any risks or issues associated with each activity.

Some activities come with more risks than others. An outdoor wedding has weather risks, so you are going to need a plan B. Waiting until the last minute to do any activity which is highly dependent on technology can increase your risk. Organizational change projects often have risks associated with getting buy-in from certain people. Construction projects can hinge on the effectiveness of subs – and their ability to meet timelines. Technology projects sometimes carry a risk that a new technology or a retired technology will alter how you want to accomplish something.

As you can tell, there are some significant questions that project managers ask when they are planning a project. And the good ones know how to ferret out the truth. Keep in mind that when you start planning a project, people don’t always know what they want. Sometimes you have to keep asking the same questions because, as understanding project activities grows, perspectives change.

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