The one rule of project design – A.K.A. why college tuition is so expensive
I was once called into an emergency meeting when I worked in college admissions.
The entire admissions staff, including a Vice President, 2 Directors, 2 Associate Directors, 3 Assistant Directors, several admissions counselors, and a couple of clerical staff gathered in a small meeting room.
Only one person in the group, representing over a million dollars in yearly salaries, knew why we were meeting or what type of emergency would justify our workday being suddenly disrupted in the middle of our busiest season.
The meeting started as the Vice President began explaining a crisis that we were all going to be tasked to solve together. It was a project we were to drop everything to complete. After 30 minutes of explanation, the nature of the crisis started to become clear.
The emergency consisted of the following challenge.
- The office of student housing (not our office) needed to email a group of 150 current students living in the dorms.
- Student housing, for reasons never explained, could not figure out how to access a list of student emails from the college’s student database (They had a list of the names of the students in an Excel file but this list contained no emails).
- The Vice President had agreed to solve this problem for student housing by having the admissions staff drop what they were working on and find the relevant student emails and put them on the list.
The Vice President had devised a brilliant plan to accomplish this project which they proceeded to describe in detail over the next hour.
The plan was as follows.
- All attendees of the meeting would each be assigned specific names from the list of 150 students. This equated to around five names per attendee.
- Each administrator would then look up the five students in the student database and type the email of those students into the relevant row of the excel document we were given.
The Vice President then proceeded to spend another confused 20 minutes assigning five names to each administrator.
If you have ever been in a gym class where the teacher tries to create teams by counting off students and the first question out of everybody’s mouth when the teacher is done is, “wait, was I a ‘one’ or a ‘two’?” then you get a sense of the room.
We had to start over two times. In the end, I was assigned student numbers 46-50.
As the hour and a half long meeting drew to a close, the Vice President asked the inevitable “are there any questions?”
Having sat there dumbfounded about what I had just been subjected to, I asked what all of you are probably asking right now.
“Why don’t we just run our own list with names and emails and integrate the two lists?”
There was complete silence for five seconds and then a flurry of defensive reasoning about how,
- that was impossible!
- there was no way to do that!
- just follow the plan which was a perfectly fine plan!
- besides everyone had already been assigned a task.
I knew better than to argue at this point so went along with the plan (sort of). I got back to my office and proceeded to:
- Run a list of students with names and emails from our student database.
- Integrate my new list with the one we were given so that each name from student housing now had a correct email attached to it.
- Emailed the new document to everyone who was at the meeting.
The entire process took seven minutes.
The emergency meeting to design what would end up being a 7-minute task took 90 minutes of over twenty people’s time while disrupting the actual work that needed to be done by those people during our busiest time of the year.
This was an extreme case of a phenomenon common in higher education administration and a perfect example of the one steadfast rule you should follow when designing and implementing your projects.
DO NOT SPEND MORE TIME AND RESOURCES PLANNING YOUR PROJECTS THAN EXECUTING THEM!
If an activity is straightforward, has very few steps, or will take less than twenty-five minutes to complete, it is a task (or action), not a project. There is no need to spend time designing a project to water your plants. Just water them.
In contrast, if you are trying to build a year-round mini greenhouse in your kitchen don’t just start buying plants and ripping out cabinets in the hopes that a working greenhouse will simply emerge.
Taking the time to think about, curate, and organize the why, what, and how of a project through a project design framework will save you time, resources, and stress while also increasing your chances for success.
The following six principles will serve as a strong foundation for you as you start to design projects that will move your creative and professional development forward.
6 Principles of effective project design
1. Always connect your projects to an intention
Intentions are the compasses that keep our actions in alignment with our aspirations. Every project, no matter the scale or timeframe, should be clearly connected to an intention.
2. Projects need objective outcomes (preferably with a deliverable)
Projects, unlike intentions, have a specific finish line or desired outcome. The easier it is to determine a finished state with a yes or no answer the better.
An objective of ” learn how to paint” may seem like a valid project. The problem is you never really stop learning how to paint. “learn to paint” is an intention, not a project.
A project in alignment with the intention of “learn to paint” would look more like “complete an oil painting course”. Did you finish the course? Yes or No? Pretty easy to answer.
Attach a deliverable to projects if possible. You know you have a deliverable if you can answer “how would someone know you completed the project?”
Project = Complete an oil painting course
Objective Outcome = Did you finish the oil painting course?
Answer = Yes!
Deliverable = How would someone know?
Answer = Look at this amazing painting of a sad clown I made!
3. Keep your projects small and flexible
The larger and more complicated a project the more fragile it becomes and the less likely you are to complete it.
The longer the timeframe of a project the more likely unanticipated events will disrupt your efforts and the less likely you are to complete it.
Smaller scales and timeframes combined with consistent review allows for iteration and pivots while also discouraging attachment to activity that is not valuable or worse, counterproductive. We will go over ways to scale down projects in a future article.
4. Prioritize action over planning
Over planning projects doesn’t only happen in higher education administration. It takes all sorts of forms in all sorts of domains and I have been guilty of “plancrastination” way more often than I would like to admit.
Your goal is to leverage project design to find the most valuable, most actionable activity you can perform and then start that activity as quickly and effectively as possible.
Project design is essentially organizing future activity around a hypothesis that actions A, B and C need to be done to get outcome X.
As we complete action A, new information or new circumstances may show that steps B and C are unnecessary or even counter-productive so do not waste time planning every minor element of every action you think might be necessary to get to your objective.
Instead, spend your time taking action on what you think will be the most immediate and most valuable activity.
5. Do not be afraid to change your actions, timeframes, or outcomes
There will be times when your hypothesis about what is valuable action will be wrong. What we think we need to get to an outcome can and will change during the project so avoid becoming attached to rigid ways of achieving an outcome.
Do not be afraid to alter your actions, your timeframe or even your outcome as new information is acquired or as circumstances change. Always be willing to adjust, iterate, and evolve what and how you are doing things.
How do we decide what is working and what is not?
6. Use consistent reflection and review during the project.
Effective project implementation requires honest observations about what is working, what is not, what still needs to be done, and what can be abandoned. The most effective way to evaluate this is through a consistent practice of review.
The review is sometimes referred to as a retrospective or a critique, I prefer the term reflection which encourages a consistent thoughtfulness about the why of your project as well as the what and how.
Reflections are not just performed at the end of a project. They are most powerful when done consistently throughout the project’s life cycle.
We will delve into effective reflection design in a future article but for now let’s start designing a project using some of the principles discussed.
Let’s start designing a project.
Your task is to pick one project you want to work on and answer the following questions related to that project. Use your sketchbook, journal, or favorite notes app to keep a record.
- What intention is your project primarily aligned with? if you have questions about designing relevant and meaningful intentions check out my previous articles on intention design.
- Describe what your objective desired outcome is for the project. If it has a potential deliverable, what is that deliverable?
- Title your project using an action verb and description of your objective. I use a format that looks like ACTION VERB: Objective description.
Example Using This Article as the Project
What intention is the project aligned with? The project is aligned with my intention “Share my knowledge with those who could benefit from it”
Objective/Project Title: “Write: The Article Where I Explain the core principles of effective project design”
Deliverable (How would someone know I finished?): The article published on www.jefftyack.com.
Once you have determined your project title, objective, deliverable and intention celebrate!
You have just started a project design using principles 1 and 2 from above!
In the next article, we will start to dive into implementing principles 3-4 by breaking down a project into small, valuable, actionable parts. This is where project design becomes really powerful and where most creatives get lost.