Home Articles What startups can teach project managers (Execute or die!)

What startups can teach project managers (Execute or die!)


Unless you’re involved in a startup, it’s unlikely that you work in a highly adaptable organisation where change is normal and built into everything you do.

In fast growth companies, founders, investors and staff plan on change. It is one of their greatest strengths and allows small, disruptive companies to topple larger competitors.

But the sad fact is that, for the majority of us, this is not our reality.

As the shake-out period of the world economy continues, being nimble enough to adjust, adapt and change will go some way to defining success, as organisations and as individual employees. For most of us, these changes will be managed via some form of project, using change management and project management disciplines.

As both an entrepreneur and a practitioner of program and project management, there are some common challenges that I’d like to point out that can sink both projects and businesses.

The first challenge: Define goals

Many projects and businesses fail because of poor planning.

If you’re a startup, the crucial elements of your business plan will define what new value you will bring to the marketplace, who will want that value, why they want it, and how much these people will be willing to pay for it. The only way to prove the plan is when someone commits to buy what you’re selling.

Likewise, too many projects get approved without having an adequate definition of what outcomes they will bring to the organisation, who wants those outcomes (and who doesn’t want them), and why. After this, some “buy-in” from the people who will eventually own those outcomes needs to be obtained.

In some organisations, approval processes are focused on obtaining funding and not much else.

Once the funds have been approved then the Project Manager has to execute based on poor direction on exactly what outcome they are (or aren’t) supposed to achieve. Such projects gets weighed down with a range of expectations on what they are supposed to achieve and, invariably, under-deliver as a result.

Lesson one: No venture capital firm will invest in a start-up without being very clear on the business model being used, the unique value being created, and who is going to want that value. The same applies to a project. If you don’t have clear goals, then get them, or stop.

The second challenge: Involve stakeholders

The second big challenge is one that many business startups suffer from. I call it, the ‘inventor’s syndrome’. This is where the inventor happily spends valuable time and resources coming up with the best solution without talking to anyone, even though it may not be a solution anyone else wants. Imagine all the wasted resources as a result!

The same happens in projects. Projects usually mean business change. Business change, even IT changes, means people change. Many projects fail because they fail to engage with the people that will determine its success: those who will own and use the outcome.

Once running, a business needs to work with its customers to improve, and this is the same with projects. Successful startups don’t suffer from ‘inventor’s syndrome’. They involve their prospective customers in the development process from as early as possible and seek feedback from the get-go.

Lesson two: Involve the people in your business that the project will impact. Involve them in a carefully measured and managed way. Determine who to involve before how to solve. Build this into your plans.

The third challenge: Get diversity

The final challenge is that often there are key blind-spots in the business skills of the project team.

Projects exist to assist sales, finance, IT, procurement, people skills, process skills and, ultimately, create a new future for the business while delivering today. It’s a large range of capabilities. The biggest risk of all is when the team members don’t know what they don’t know, so they don’t know what or who to seek guidance from.

They’re blind to what is required. No single person will have all skills, so who you have on your team will determine your success, and you do not need more versions of yourself. Note that a poorly-skilled project team will suffer from a build up of basic omissions. Failing to manage these correctly will result in under-performance and, ultimately, project failure.

Venture capital firms tackle this problem in the business world by providing experts who will supplement a management team, plus provide board level input. Successful startups invariably assemble an advisory network.

Lesson three: Have a diversity of experts and skill your team. Get independent advice from others who have successfully delivered. Beware of conflicting interests, such as recommendations from product providers that may give advice with vested interests.

Managing a project is in many ways like running a startup company. You need clear goals, involvement from stakeholders and a diverse range of opinions. That way, you can execute perfectly, without executing your career in the process!

Mark Nicholls specialises in personal mentoring, Internet marketing and has a passion for smart business. His company Information Professionals specialises in doing just this – through ensuring that leaders are innovative in the approach they take to their company when moving forward.