Your Project’s Elevator Pitch

Vehicle elevators in the Old Elbe Tunnel in Hamburg-Steinwerder, Germany

Can you tell me about your project in one minute or less?

Having a concise description will help you at all stages of the project.

  • It clarifies what the project is about.
  • It is a reference for making sure you do not go off track.
  • You will know how to describe your accomplishment.

The elevator pitch answers four questions:

What is the problem being solved?
How are you solving it?
What does it look like when you are finished?
What is the theme?

Build your summary by answering the questions in reverse order.

What is theme of your project? Automation, improved customer service? A theme is not a thesis. Automation is a theme; Creating an interface with the bank is a solution. Improved customer service instead of creating a shopping cart for the web site. It’s the strategic objective of the project.

Work out what the result will look like, e.g. Bank transactions are imported with a single click. The customer can take a shopping cart to the checkout.

Tell how you are going to get there: Create an interface with the bank. Allow the customer to select multiple items and pay for them at the end.

And describe the problem you are trying to solve, for example: Bank statements need to be entered in by hand. The customer needs to select and pay for each item separately.

As you prepare, check that you are true to your theme.

Now when you put it together, you have a story: A challenge, the journey, the happy ending and a moral. “We are spending a lot of time entering bank statements into our system. We are going to setup an interface with the bank and our users will be able to import the transactions with a single click. This aligns with our strategy to automate our SG&A tasks.


  • Manual entry of bank transactions.
  • Setup interface with bank.
  • Give user one click import.
  • Part of Automation strategy.

You are now ready to pitch, describe and celebrate your project whenever needed.

Back to the Future Risk Analysis

Back to the future risk analysis

Take advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight when it’s most needed — at the start of the project!

The way to get a retrospective view at the beginning of the project is to use Gary Klein‘s risk analysis technique, the project premortem. This is a meeting before project execution starts. The attendees of the meeting are asked to imagine the project has failed and to give the reasons why. In this exercise the participants use the same perspective that is used for events in the past to look at a future event.

The premortem is based on research published in 1989 by Deborah J. Mitchell (The Wharton School), J. Edward Russo (Cornell University), and Nancy Pennington (University of Colorado). The study looked at why moving forward in time changes the explanations given for events.

There was earlier research showing that longer descriptions, with more detail, are given for past events. This was also true when looking at future events as if they were in the past. These studies had used scenarios where a forward (future) view always had uncertain outcomes and the backward view always had sure outcomes.

Other research had shown similar effects when certainty of the outcome was the variable. People act differently when the result is a certain, even if it is unknown. For example, people will bet less on a roll of the dice if they have been thrown and the result hidden. They are more willing to make a bigger bet before they have been thrown.

The researchers wanted to know why they were getting longer and more detailed descriptions because it could help people in making better decisions. This led them to set up two experiments and they were able to show that it is the certainty of the outcome that affects the explanations.

When you are uncertain of the outcome, your mind will try to predict what will happen. When you know what will happen, like when looking at the past, you will look at reasons why things turned out as they did. “Why” explanations have context; the who, what, where and when of the event makes the descriptions longer and more detailed.

In projects we also have to deal with organizational and group dynamics. As Daniel Kahnemann points out in “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, people avoid publicly expressing doubts about a project endorsed by management because their loyalty could be questioned. Using a scenario where the project has already failed takes away the stigma of being doubter and allows more risks to be exposed.

Putting it all together, we now have the protocol to use for the premortem:

  • We change the team’s perspective by making the result certain. We get better explanations because we are not predicting possible outcomes.
  • We assume that things went wrong to find why things could go wrong. Nobody is putting themselves in the position of predicting failure because it is already assumed.
  • We ask why to find the causes of risks to the project. The reasons why things could go wrong are not hidden because no one is trying to shift blame.

One of the keys to a good risk analysis is identifying as many of the project risks as possible. The project premortem makes the team look at why things can go wrong instead of simply looking at what could go wrong. It allows the team to bring up doubts that are sometimes held back. It’s Monday morning quarterbacking on Saturday.

Performing a Project PremortemPerforming a Project Premortem by Gary Klein (
Pre-mortem — Wikipedia article on pre-portem (
Back to the future — Study by Deborah J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo and Nancy Pennington (

A Project Management Trap to Avoid

The Year Without PantsThere are tasks that are critical to the stakeholders and there are the tasks that are critical for the Project Manager:
Projects accumulate a pile of annoying tasks people postpone, but in order to ship the product, that pile must be emptied. Things that are less fun to do are usually harder to do, which means the pile isn’t ordinary work but a pile of unloved, unwanted, complex work… This means that at the end of any project, you’re left with a pile of things no one wants to do and are the hardest to do (or, worse, no one is quite sure how to do them.) It should never be a surprise that progress seems to slow as the finish line approaches.” — Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

The Facts and Only The Facts

Lady Justice in Frankfurt am MainWhen managing project team members, the objective project manager focuses on the behaviours of his team. Attitudes, state of mind, and motives are explanations we give for behaviours and we make many mistakes interpreting people’s actions. Telling someone they are lazy, that they are acting angrily, or, that they are selfish, are interpretations of behaviour. Attributing intent to actions makes the observation subjective, probably inaccurate, and more likely to be disputed.

Behaviours are observable. Behaviours are what we say, how we say them, our facial expressions, our body language and the results of our work. Observing that someone was late on three out of four tasks, that they raised their voice when answering a question, or that they asked for help in their task but declined to help another colleague with theirs, are behaviours. Talking about the actions you see or hear makes the observation objective.

Fundamental attribution error — (

Manage the Odds

Peter DruckerThere are two quotes from Peter  Drucker that are well worth remembering when planning.

“The planner must be right in his timing of 10 or 20 separate developments, all of which must arrive at the same point at the same moment lest the whole plan collapse. The planner stakes all on an unbroken series of 20 rolls of seven.” — The New Society

This first quote warns us that each additional date in the schedule exponentially increases the risk of variations in the schedule. This is not a call to reduce the number of deadlines.

“Unless we build expectations into the planning decision in such a way that we can find out early whether they are actually fulfilled or not – including a fair understanding of what are significant deviations both in time and in scale – we cannot plan. We have no feedback, no way of self-control from events back to the planning process.” — Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

Targets are control points. Monitoring and managing deviations to the schedule requires that there enough control points to catch the deviations as they happen. This is one of the objectives of breaking down the deliverables for the WBS.

The Best Plans Are Incomplete Plans

The Bridge Building Plan

According to the PMBOK, the Project Management Plan defines how the project is executed, monitored, and controlled. Steven Sinofsky, the former President of Microsoft’s Windows division, adds that the how and why of the project is an important piece of the plan. The post, “Engineering and social science lead to plans“, is about projects to build technology products. Its lessons are applicable to all types of projects

The Plan as a Bridge

Bridge of Sighs (Cambridge)The team owns the how and the sponsor owns the why. Sharing these through the plan creates a guideline for the project team and the sponsors.

The team makes choices about the means to produce the deliverables. At the same time, the sponsor is making decisions in response to an ever-changing environment. This makes a shared and detailed sense of the overall plan a critical element for success.

The plan acts as a “framework for making decisions.” To make informed decisions, the team needs to understand the context of the project, the sponsor needs to understand how the solution works. “The point of a plan is to build a bridge made up of the how and why.”

About the Plan

Leaderfoot stepping stones tabletThe article also presents many key aspects of a project plan:

  • The most counter-intuitive notion of a plan is that the presence of a plan means you have the tools to change the plan, together as a team.” — Plans are not chiseled into stone and publishing them provides anchor points that avoid chaos, finger-pointing and accountability dodging.
  • The headline of a plan is a solution to a problem — A plan that gives the objective as a top-line business goal forgets the how. Setting the solution as the goal forgets the why. A plan’s headline needs two legs, the how and the why, to stand.
  • The plan is a team effort  — The best plans are the plans that have the best ideas from the most people and more people contributing is more people with a real commitment to the project.
  • Write down the plan – Slides are summary bullet points. The writing process helps you check the plan for completeness and consistency. It is as important as the contents of the plan.

Starting your plan with the how and why gives context for simpler, better decision-making. Including everyone in the preparation gets buy-in and improves the quality of the plan. Together they help create a plan that makes the execution, the monitoring, and the controlling of the project easier.

Resource Your Project With Peter Drucker’s Help

Plan made of good intentions“The best plan is only good intentions unless it leads into work.” — Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices

Commit to the Plan

The first step in getting resources for your project is to get agreement on how to deliver the project. Prepare the approach for delivering your project and call for a meeting with the stated objective of getting agreement on the plan; your unstated objective is getting a commitment for resources.

Prepare the meeting. Make sure you have addressed the concerns of key players. The ask for resources is only done if the team agrees to the plan as a team.

Build a Team Identity

This is also the time to build or reinforce the definition of the group. Identify the meeting and the attendees with a group name, e.g. Project X Sponsors; Project X Steering Committee; Project X Key Stakeholders.

Once you have agreement on the plan, it is time talk about the next actions. Instill a sense of urgency. We have plan, we have agreed it needs to get done; let’s get started on the actions before time is lost.

The Quote

Peter Drucker goes on to explain that the only way a plan will lead into work is through the commitment of key resources to work on specific tasks. The plan is ‘only a plan’ if the project is missing the resources needed to deliver the results.

Set an Example

Start by committing your resources first. If you have an ally, have them commit next. It is important that the team supply their best resources for the job. Anything less and the plan is just good intentions. Anything less is showing a lack of commitment to the freshly agreed plan. The project will struggle to get completed successfully without a show of full commitment.

The Power Behind the Method

This approach leverages, in varying degrees, Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion.

  • Reciprocity – The project manager volunteer’s his best resources first.
  • Commitment and Consistency – We get the team to commit to the plan first.
  • Social Proof – The group commits together to the plan and we ask our ally, a group member, to commit to commit his resources.
  • Authority – Peter Drucker is an authority on management. This will speak louder to the team than project management theory.
  • Liking – We create an atmosphere for mutual liking by identifying the group as a team and approving the plan together.
  • Scarcity – We frame our request in terms of avoiding lost time and taking advantage of an opportunity.

Agree to the plan as a team, ask the team to put their money where their mouths are and you have increased your chances of delivering your project successfully.