A fundamental component of successful engineering project management is the clear understanding of what it is you’re tasked with accomplishing—and then making it the central thing that guides all your decisions. Whenever you’re faced with a hard choice or fork in the management decision road, you should pause and ask yourself, “What Am I Trying To Accomplish?”
I call this taking a “WAITTA1-minute” moment, and it’s a fundamental secret to project management success.
“No word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” —Mark Twain
This notion of going back to first principles and focusing on the project goals is so basic that it’s often overlooked by new engineering managers. They jump ahead and get caught up quickly in solutions and options—and in doing so, they often choose the wrong ones. And they do this because they forget what the project is ultimately about. Let me explain…
What Am I Trying To Accomplish?
At the highest level, the answer to this question is essentially the same for all engineering projects: as PM, your fundamental job is to deliver the entire defined product scope to the customer—on time, within budget, and within quality specifications. Period.
Everything else is secondary to this notion: Deliver the Deliverable. In other words, all the decisions you make must ultimately be in the most efficient and effective support of this delivery goal:
- Do you need to choose between two vendors for a critical component of your project? One may offer a significantly lower price, but has a poor track record of producing on schedule. Will price or schedule have the biggest impact on your ability to deliver the deliverable? Which of these is more important in terms of your overall project’s WAITTA-underpinning?
- Do you have a highly-skilled—but troublemaking—engineer on staff? Is the expertise and abilities this engineer brings to your project worth more or less than the disruption he or she causes within the team? Can this person be replaced quickly enough that firing them won’t materially affect delivering the deliverable? Pausing and asking the WAITTA-question will guide you to the right answer.
- You’re thinking of implementing a weekly status meeting with your team leads. Is this a good idea or not? Will the information you garner at this meeting be more or less useful than the disruption it will cause to your engineering staff? Just WAITTA minute before answering. If the goal of the meeting is simply for you to gather status input, a simple, bulleted list of key accomplishments emailed from each lead may be less disruptive than calling and conducting a regular formal meeting. In other words, will this proposed meeting help or hurt the process of delivering the deliverable?
- Your engineering team has developed two equally viable design solutions for a fundamental part of the overall system. One is more technically challenging to implement but offers potentially far superior performance. The other is a more traditional design that is straightforward to produce but will barely meet the quality requirements. Which should you choose? WAITTA minute before deciding. If the latter design will meet your quality requirements at lower risk, then it is, by definition, a “good enough” design and is likely the right option. If it won’t meet your performance requirements with an adequate margin, then the former design option might be the correct choice. Remember: the goal is to deliver the deliverable. Which offers the best chance of achieving this ultimate goal?
Progress by Pausing
The key point here is you can’t get where you need to go unless and until you fully understand where it is you want to go. You have to define success—and then make decisions that support that definition.
As an engineering project manager, your number one goal is to deliver the deliverable. It’s to design, analyze, procure, fabricate, assemble, test, verify, and handover whatever widget or test or outcome you signed up to produce—and do so within a prescribed budget and schedule. This is the answer to your WAITTA question, and keeping this at the forefront of your mind can and will lead you to the right decisions almost every single time.
Pausing to reflect on WAITTA is what you must consider whenever faced with any decisions—easy or hard—within the project. You have to be systematic, logical, and, frankly, emotionless, when answering this question. If you can consistently do this, you’re far ahead of many other PMs who lose sight of the fundamental goal of their project: delivering the deliverable
The Bottom Line: Before deciding on any course of action, pause and take a WAITTA-minute moment. The answer to this basic question will almost always guide you in the right direction.
- W.A.I.T.T.A. = What Am I Trying To Accomplish? ↩
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