Project manage your career
Career development can at times feel haphazard and a game of chance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The techniques and approaches used within companies to systematically manage projects and develop products are just as relevant when managing yourself and developing your career. By sharing some parallels from my experience in these sectors, I hope to provide some new ways for you to think about your career.
What’s the big idea?
Businesses start with a vision of where they want to be based on the appraisal of three key areas: market trends (what people want), market gaps (what is missing), and business strengths (what they do well). There’s no reason why you can’t take the same approach with your career.
You may have a very clear idea already, a vague one, many ideas, or almost none. The same is true in big business - it’s normal! You can start with a blank sheet of paper and, with the right support and processes, develop ideas and build a plan.
I’d encourage you to start by asking yourself these three questions;
1. What are my strengths, interests, and passions?
2. What trends am I intrigued by and drawn to?
3. Where could I add value?
The intersection of these answers will provide the focus for your career direction.
What’s the problem?
The next step is to look at where you are now against your vision and determine what’s missing (if anything) to help you focus where to put your efforts. A good question to ask is 'what is the problem I’m trying to solve?'. For a new product to succeed, a few boxes need to be ticked in the target consumer’s mind, and it’s no different with your own career goal.
1. There must be frustration with the current situation
2. There must be a significant motivation to change
3. There must be belief in the benefits of change
4. The benefits must be worth the investment
If all four boxes aren’t ticked, a consumer won’t invest in a product and, no matter how much you like your ideas, you won’t invest in you. This may sound negative but it’s human nature - we invest effort where we predict significant reward. If everything is 'good enough' with your present situation, why would you change it? So, take the time to clarify the problem you’re trying to solve and check that investment in your big idea will address your needs.
The goal is…?
A great idea isn’t enough, nor is determination to get away from an existing frustration. There must be a specific 'go-to' goal that you fully believe will bring about the benefits you seek and end the existing frustration you wish to remove. Setting a SMART goal analogous to a business objective can help you appraise what you are 'signing up to'; also ask yourself honestly 'what do I gain?' and 'is it worth it?'.
Writing your goal down in terms of 'what', 'when' and 'why' will also naturally force you to start thinking about the 'how', i.e. the plan. You won’t know all the answers, but a clearly written goal will give you the platform to progress to the next stage.
Make a plan
One of the faux paus in project management is, once the goal is determined, to run off and start working towards it, only to realise much later that a lot of time, effort, and money could have been saved with some upfront planning. Don’t make this mistake with your career! A plan doesn’t need to be big, but it will help you structure your approach and build a path towards your goal, avoiding the dramatic dilemma of 'jumping off a cliff' or feeling 'stuck at the top'. Some useful questions to ask yourself are;
- what are my options in how I reach my goal?
- what are the big risks/ how can I reduce them?
- what are all the things I need to do?
- what needs to be done first, later, never?
- what help do I need?
- what don’t I know and need to find out?
A 'feasibility' phase is built into projects to sense check ideas, fill knowledge gaps, and refine the planned approach before any significant investment is made. By allowing yourself a test period, you can challenge your idea and your initial plan, and look objectively at the findings to assess whether it remains the right plan or even the right goal. In our cliff analogy, it’s a way of exploring the paths down, finding the best path, and deciding if you still want to take it to the bottom!
Build-in sanity checks
Setting milestones will not only give you targets to aim for, but will provide reminders to check your progress and critically assess whether you’re still on the right path. It’s also a reminder to look at the goal when life has moved on, and ask yourself 'is this still what I want or has a better/easier/more rewarding goal emerged?'.
There’s no point ploughing on to achieve the original goal if redirection of energy along the way could enable you to reach a far more rewarding goal that, with head-down determination to reach the end, you’d otherwise have missed!
Do it and review it
With the right steps in place, it’s time to activate your plan, work towards your goal, and take your career to the next stage. Remember to keep a watchful eye on your progress so you don’t 'veer off the path', or stick so vehemently to it that you miss a better one! Also make sure you build-in time to celebrate success, not only at the end when you reach your goal, but along the way as you overcome barriers and reach key milestones. Looking back at what you’ve achieved, reminding yourself where you started, and rewarding yourself for the effort you’ve invested will help reinforce a positive feeling, not just about this goal but the ones to come.
Keep it in perspective
Remember, just like running a business, all projects are there to serve a higher purpose. Projects come and go. Some succeed and others are rightly canned. Don’t allow the project to manage you, become a slave to it, or over-invest in it. If it no longer serves you, kill the project! But if it’s an investment worth making, then I hope some of these points help you achieve what you desire. Good luck!