Lauren Martin knows how to pick projects. The 13-year veteran of Hewlett-Packard estimates that she's been on more than 25 project teams in the last 10 years. Today, as manager of HP's corporate-level career self-reliance program, she advises other HPers on what it takes to succeed in business — such as a knack for identifying projects with a good chance of success.
Martin has created a checklist of questions to ask yourself before choosing a project. Her questions reflect years of enrollment in the school of hard knocks, as well as advice from colleagues and mentors — especially Joe Fusco, a project-management specialist whom Martin calls "my biggest mentor." Here are five of the most important questions on her list:
Do you know what 'done' means?
Projects need clear goals that get written down in advance. "It's important to agree beforehand on what it means to be done," Martin says. "If you don't measure 'doneness,' people tend to ask for 'just a little more,' and it's hard to say no. More important, part of doing a good job is delivering what you promised. If your objectives aren't clear, people can take really good work and sully it."
Do the heavy hitters care?
Every project wants top-management support. Few get it. Martin's advice: work only on those that do. "Top managers will build interest in and commitment to your work," she says. "And although they might lack access to detail, they have breadth of view — they see problems you don't. Finally, making a mistake when you don't have backing leaves you in a lonely spot."
Do the bean counters care?
Sure, everyone in business has to do more with less. But that doesn't mean you can deliver great projects on the cheap. "In some companies," Martin says, "people pass you in the hall and ask you to work on a project. Then you discover that they don't have a budget for it. Ask yourself: If the project doesn't have sufficient resources, what business value does it really deliver? If it isn't important enough to fund, do you really want to spend your time on it?"
Can you make fast decisions?
"Schedules almost always drive projects," Martin says. "If you don't have fast decision-making cycles, you're probably not going to meet your objectives. It's going to be an ongoing initiative — a hobby — rather than a project." What factors enable fast-cycle decisions? "The number of people involved in making decisions and the degree of clarity about who the decisionmakers are," she says. Fewer people, greater clarity — that's the formula for success.
Can your team members make (full) time?
Not every project needs lots of full-time team members. But many projects fail, Martin warns, because the team includes too many part-timers: "In my experience, a person can contribute to no more than three projects at the same time. If a person has more than three, it takes so much energy to shift from one project to the next that the contribution to each becomes negligible."
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.