How to Define a Project

How to structure a project commitment when the requirements are vague and incomplete.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #65

You’ve satisfied your boss by proposing a real deliverable and a real date. And your deliverable is valuable; project plans are key to getting stuff done. And you’ve protected yourself by not agreeing to a result you can’t possibly achieve.

You can do this at any stage of planning, actually. If you have a really big project, you can set a concrete goal for phase one of creating a plan for phase two. Part of phase two will be defining phase three. And so on.

As we’ve already said, you can’t commit to something you don’t know. So now that you’re convinced you should commit to a project plan, let’s review what a project plan is. I know you know, but just in case…

Project plans give an outline of a project.

A project plan lays out the pieces of a project: deliverables, quality levels, time, and resources.

Deliverables are—you guessed it—what the project will deliver. Make your deliverables concrete. If you’re supposed to recommend colors for a new line of ankle warmers, be specific about what you’re delivering. Is it a report? A presentation? A set of sample leg warmers? Which one you choose will make a big difference. And by the way, ankle warmers went out of style two decades ago, so if you have a spare pair, my ankles do get cold. I’m just sayin’.

You want to specify quality levels because quality matters. I’m delivering a podcast, even as you speak. Do you want studio quality? Hilarious humor? Impeccable grammar, a tight script, and delivery worthy of Laurence Olivier? Well, you’re in luck. Cuz that’s what you’re getting. And it takes a lot longer than if I just grabbed a handheld recorder and babbled incoherently for fifteen minutes. In your project definition, state your desired quality level and your minimum acceptable level. That way, you can shoot for the quality you want, but if time or money gets tight, you have some wiggle room.

Time is a list of your major milestones and deadlines. Milestones should be strictly objective, yes/no events. “Report is done” isn’t a milestone, because “done” is too vague. “Report signed off by president of Vice” is a good, specific milestone. Either it’s signed or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the milestone hasn’t been met.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.