Just as a business is emergent, so are projects. After all, what is a business but a series of successfully completed projects? So it follows that, as with your business, the future course of a project is uncertain.

Even if you create a very clear outcome for a project, you can’t know for sure that you’ll achieve the particular outcome until the project is complete.

Don’t give up or throw up your hands in despair at the uncertainty. It’s the reason that many people don’t attempt to do big things. They’re too afraid to take on something big when they can’t determine an exact outcome. It’s a classic catch-22.

Often the very people who are perfectionists, control freaks we might also call them, and who therefore think that the projects they complete will be perfect can’t actually complete projects, much less get started, in many cases.

However, you can create circumstances that will help you navigate a project to its intended result. You might not end up exactly where you intended, but if you follow a few simple rules then you may end up with a far better result than you originally envisioned.

I know this is a long post. Important lessons don’t always lend themselves to sound bites. If you are working with others or have colleagues that are struggling to finish their projects, please share it with them and then talk about how you can implement these rules.

Note: these rules are expanded upon in Beyond Booked Solid, my follow up to Book Yourself Solid. I learned them from Hal Macomber to whom I owe a debt of gratitude.


Work with others. At the earliest possible moment, bring people into a project, even as it is just developing. If you work with others, you should accomplish greater things than you could alone. If this is a tough rule to follow or if you are hesitant to involve other people, ask yourself whether you are committed to having something truly great or just to getting it done your way—it’s not the same thing.

Coordinate meticulously.

A project is an ever-evolving network of commitments. Keep that network activated by tending to the critical conversations. Be sure to integrate events. See that people make clear requests, undertake commitments that have completion dates, and share opinions that advance the purpose of the project. Without attention to those critical conversations, the project will drift. When you’re doing a project with one person, maybe you can coordinate effectively via e-mail—but I doubt it. Trying to manage a project via e-mail results in hours of time and energy wasted. You need a better way to coordinate and manage all of the project’s activities.

Adopt practices for exploring a variety of perspectives.

We think we see what’s there, but we don’t. We see what we expect to see. We see what we already think or believe exists. Instead, make it your habit to inquire as to what others see, how other people view a situation. Your single perspective is not the ultimate or only truth. It’s your job (if you want to produce something great) to see from others’ perspectives.

Listen generously.

It’s not often that people feel like they’re able to say what they want in the moment, either because they don’t feel like they’re invited to speak or because, even if they may speak, sometimes it’s hard to articulate, in the moment, just what they think or want. For the most part, people are well-intended. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Take the time to listen. Ask questions. Seek others’ opinions. And while you’re at it, don’t be so harsh on yourself.

Build relationships intentionally.

Often project teams come together as relative strangers or at least strangers to working closely together. Some might even say that projects work better this way because there is more opportunity to learn from one another. However, to do great work—innovating, learning, collaborating—it takes a group of people who like and care for each other. Don’t leave that to chance. Start your projects by building relationships among team members. A shared understanding is key.

Have clear project intentions.

As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” The same thing applies to doing projects. In order to have clear outcomes, you need to have clear intentions about what you want to accomplish. Your intention is made up of your passions, your talents, your contributions, the commitments you undertake, and the promises you fulfill. Define your project in as much detail as possible. But, as with all creative pursuits, flexibility is essential. Leave room for change, expansion, and possibly a new direction. This will create the most collaborative and exciting environment within which you can create.

Develop habits of commitment making and fulfilling.

This is my favorite rule and I implore you . . . plead with you . . . beg you to take it to heart. Progress depends on the successful fulfillment of promises. Create a routine that is appropriate for the project, which requires the team to come together and to undertake promises to one another. The work that I promise to complete today allows you to start your task tomorrow. The downfall of not fulfilling my obligation is one breakdown after another. In fact, our reputations are built on our ability, or lack thereof, to make commitments and fulfill them, as is the future success of our businesses.

There are people who are great at making commitments but not great at fulfilling them. When that happens, not much gets done, and they don’t get picked to participate on a project team again. Others don’t make commitments. Yet, without commitments in the first place, not much gets done, and they don’t get asked to participate again either.

The good news is that projects are a perfect venue to develop and improve habits of commitment making and fulfilling. I should note that commitments can, and sometimes should, be re-negotiated. That’s perfectly natural. Things change. But if renegotiating promises becomes the norm, then not much gets done, at least not in a timely fashion. And, you guessed it, you don’t get asked to participate again.

Tightly couple learning with action.

One of the things that keep people from getting on with their projects is that they think they need to know everything before they start, instead of learning in action. As Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher, says, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” The future belongs to the learner, not the learned. Projects are wonderful opportunities to learn.

Call on your talents.

Working on a project of any sort is the perfect venue for showcasing your talents. Talents are those gifts that are innate to the person you are, whereas skills are things that are learned. When you use your talent, you do better work. Avoid taking on responsibilities and tasks that fall outside the scope of your natural talents. And don’t let your project team do it either. As the project manager, it’s your responsibility to make sure that no one on the project takes on responsibilities in areas outside their talents. It’s okay to learn a new skill while working on a project—in fact, it’s how you learn new skills—but you’ll learn much faster if you are hardwired with the talent to excel at that skill.

Bring your passion to the project.

Passion is a requisite for producing remarkable projects. You are not likely to do a project that others are going to remark on if you don’t engage your passion. As with anything, when we’re creating something new, we’re faced with problems, seemingly insurmountable barriers, and circumstances that are out of our control. During these times, it is our passion and personal investment in the project that carries us through to completion.

Embrace uncertainty.

Expect the unexpected. There is far more that we don’t know and can’t know than what we can anticipate. Be resilient to what your project throws at you. Anticipate that your team will learn something along the way that can and should change what you have promised and how you can deliver on your promises. And when you face a setback—we all do sometime or another—review the other rules for how you can work your way out of it.

Have a compelling story for your project.

Since projects never go the way you expect them to go keeping your passion and your focus depends on telling and retelling the story of your project. Your story is about why this project matters to you and why it is important for others. On a grander scale, it is your vision and purpose rolled into one. It will become increasingly important as you face problems, setbacks, or any type of project breakdown. You can always go back to your story—the underlying reason why you undertook the project in the first place. Storytelling is a tool of leadership and the way you engage others in your project. It’s the way you maintain your mood when things go wrong. Being able to articulate and re-articulate the story of the project is essential.

Try it for yourself.

List three projects you are working on right now. Why are you doing them? Why does each project matter to you? Why should it matter to others working with you or in your life? Who else cares about the outcome of the project, etc?