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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

4 Questions Smart People Always Ask When They're Put in Charge of a Project

Being in charge of an important project can catapult your career to new heights, open doors for advancement, and put your unique talents and gifts in the spotlight.

But if the project or task doesn’t go well, being in the spotlight isn’t such a good thing. Having ownership can turn from an unparalleled opportunity to a nightmare. Why? Because in their zeal to show that they’re ready for more management responsibility, new project owners sometimes jump into work without clarifying what success looks like to their boss or the key stakeholders. It’s this very “can-do” optimism that prevents them from doing their best.

Before embarking on a new project, smart people ask these questions to make sure they can successfully own it.

1. Is This Project Instead of (or in Addition to) my Regular Tasks?

There’s a big difference. “Instead of” means management wants you to put this project at the top of your priority list. “In addition to” means it’s only as important as everything else you need to complete and you’ll lose points if your boss finds out you’re completely neglecting the rest of your work.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should shy away from working hard to complete a project in addition to your regular responsibilities, but know that these types of assignments often mean a lot of extra work. Make sure you’re up for it and set some realistic limits on how much time you take away from everything else.

2. Am I Running Point on This?

You don’t need to rule the world, but you do need to have confirmation that you’re leading this project, and that you’re empowered to make pertinent, independent decisions to be successful and deliver on time.

There’s an old management truism, “ownership without authority is a fantasy.” You can’t own anything if you have to check with your boss before making every single decision. This extra step makes projects take a lot longer, and can sometimes stall completion entirely.

So, ask your boss to say in so many words that this is, in fact, your project—and that you both have the same understanding of what that means.

3. What Resources Can I Draw From?

To get a better sense just how much freedom—and support—you have, ask about resources. In other words, you’ll need the people, funds, materials, and technology to make it all come together.

So, make a list of what you need to be successful and share it with your boss. Be ready to put your negotiating hat on, because expecting access to every resource at the department’s disposal is unrealistic.

Your supervisor’s job is to see that work is accomplished for as little expense and depletion of resources as possible. Your job is to ask for exactly what you need to succeed.

4. What Is Most Important: Budget, Timing, or Final Product?

We’ve all seen the home renovation shows where it turns out that there’s some major, unforeseen structural issue. Then, the host asks the homeowners if they have an extra $5,000, if they’re willing to do all of the painting themselves, or if they’ll cut the bathroom reno off of the list in order for construction to be completed on time and budget.

A similar thing can happen when you’re leading a project. Once you get going you realize you need more time or more money, and without those things the final product won’t be everything you’d hoped for. Since you’ve already asked what can drop when something’s gotta give, you can make decisions that align with your manager’s (or the organization’s) priorities.

Remember, it’s rare to effectively deliver the max on all three of these things (price, schedule, and quality) at once. Help your boss develop realistic expectations by using the acronym “QQTR.” It stands for quality (how good?); quantity (how much?); time (by when)?; and resources (how much money?).

Your boss might say, “Just make it happen: I don’t care what the budget is.” I strongly suggest you don’t take this to mean, “Spend all you want!” A more accurate assumption would be that your manager cares, but he may not know the answers to your questions.

Finally, smart people remember that ownership is an exercise in leadership. So when the project involves people, they remember to show what a great leader they can be to work with and follow.

Photo of question sign courtesy of Shutterstock.