TECHKNOW: Ask Bill Gates

TECHKNOW: Ask Bill Gates - Q. How do I know if a project is good and, if so, how do I then keep it on track?

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q. How do I know if a project is good and, if so, how do I then keep it on track?

A. There are no magic formulas, but I do have a few tips for choosing and managing projects.

1. Choose carefully and only work on something large enough to be worthwhile and for which your basic skills qualify you to succeed. Establish a realistic timeline, but not too long as, after a couple of years, it's pretty tough to maintain a project's freshness and responsiveness.

2. Keep the customer scenario in mind always. How will the customer use your work? Why will it be better than what they had before? Will it work better than before?

3. Let employees know its importance. This builds enthusiasm, a sense of teamwork and it helps people draw on the best of what they have to offer and on the strengths of others.

4. Keep employees informed and involved so they understand its constraints.

How quickly does it need to get done? What are the financial limitations?

It's natural for people to have different primary concerns as everyone brings individual expertise to a project. But there should be a common sense of progress being made and where the difficult areas are.

5. Meet across boundaries. In well-managed projects, meetings should involve people from different disciplines and organisations within a company.

But they needn't all be in person - e-mail makes it easy for managers to keep everybody involved and to provide status reports. Really good managers pick a metric, such as a specific comparison to a competitive product, and go overboard updating their people on how the project is measuring up.

6. Keep in touch with the progress and morale of the crew. Do they think they have common goals? What's their outlook on the project? You can also get an insight into how a team feels by the rate at which people transfer out of it to other parts of the company.

7. Share bad news and information when things aren't going well. Encountering problems is almost inevitable; failing to recognise and deal with them is not.

8. Make trade-off decisions crisply and minimise big changes, but don't be overly rigid as it's vital to be able to adjust to developments in the marketplace or to new goals suggested by customers. When the need for trade-offs is acknowledged upfront, decision-makers are free to search for the cleverest combination of met and unmet goals.

9. Know when to give up. Companies that appear to be doing well all the time owe their success, in part, to a willingness to listen and change focus as the market shifts or as they recognise where they can make a better contribution. When contemplating a risky project, hire people who will be useful elsewhere so they can be moved if the original project doesn't succeed.

10. Breed healthy competitiveness. Don't go overboard, but the prospect of success rises when those involved are consciously trying to do better than competitors or past practices.

Ask Bill Gates questions: askbill@microsoft.com.

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