How to hit a moving target in your project?

One of the key issues for all project managers is scope. Scope is the target, the objective that you want to achieve in your project. Creepy or not, scope is a moving target in research and development projects. You can commission a research but you cannot buy the results that you want. Ambiguity about the project outcomes can also be a source of inspiration for the team that is boldly heading towards new frontiers.

As professionals, how do we plan and prepare for hitting the moving target in our projects? In practice you do your homework, plan the task, think hard and try to fix what does not work. The question is how to fix the scope when you do not know what it exactly is you should be aiming at? And being in a hurry, especially when writing bids or funding proposals, does not help at all.

The good thing is that you can’t mess it up if you don’t really tell what you are exactly aiming at. Seriously speaking, there is a way of planning for the unexpected. The flexibility of the project design should allow for iterations and variations in getting to the point and pivoting, changing direction, when necessary. Change management is all about communicating the underlying assumptions and focusing the work based on that. Making changes to the plan should be part of the plan and the underlying assumptions must be managed properly in the board meetings. Assumptions are estimates of what the future is going to be and as it reveals itself, we just have to adjust to reality. No project plan has survived the first day of project execution.

What does this mean in practice? In the beginning the goals can be named X. When working on the problem it might focus to X+1. After finalizing the design we realize that actually we wanted Y. And after the project is close to it’s end, we really know that we should have been doing Z since the beginning. The goal is to go through the alphabets in design to have all possible letters covered in the research and development plan, and end up with sensible words to eventually form a narrative about the project. Every project has a story to tell, unfortunately often only in retrospective. But by managing change you can tell a story in the plan, realize the plan and end up with results that resonate with the learning journey, but also with what was the aim in the first place.

We could also say that if a project plan does not change at all it has been a theoretical desk study with little connection to reality. A project is called a project because it is set up to make change happen. It is a temporary organization for moving from A to B and creating a story while doing so. One cannot easily predict the needed changes in advance, but by starting deliberate actions to see the target moving right from the beginning you will get results. To hit a moving target in projects you must have the right assumptions and readiness to learn when change of direction is needed.