Columns by Eric J. Adams
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It's a classic love/hate relationship. I love big projects because they bring in lots of money -- there's nothing better than holding a paycheck fat enough to buy something substantial. But I hate big projects because they bombard me with so many possibilities, challenges, thoughts, and fears that after a while I feel shell-shocked. The beginning of a big project can be overwhelming and confusing. It can lead you to ask yourself questions like, Should I call my client to ask for instructions? Should I work intuitively until the right approach "evolves"? Should I give up being an IP and enlist in the Coast Guard?
Inevitably, I stop asking questions and start worrying about wasted time, wasted opportunities, endless diversions, hours spent on chores that should take minutes, and minutes spent on chores that deserve hours. It's no way to run a business.
That's why whenever a large project lands on my desk, I remind myself to break it down into its essential elements. Once I've broken it down, my shoulders straighten, my heels dig in, and I feel inspired, clear, and effective (well, for a while anyway).
It's one thing to tell yourself to break down a project; it's quite another to do so in an effective manner. Each project will dictate the best method, but chances are good it will be in one of the following ways.
1. Chronologically. It sounds like a no-brainer, but if you take the time to break down a project chronologically, you may find some surprises. What steps must be completed before others can be started? How long it will take to finish each portion of the project? And what's the best estimate of the number of hours really needed to complete the job? Using your calendar, you can determine conflicts, holidays, and other hindrances to project completion. Best of all, you can track progress daily and actually feel like you're getting work done.
2. Structurally. Any good-sized gig has structural elements that give the project shape. For me, as a writer, an article usually involves four stages: research, interviews, rough draft, and final draft. A graphic artist may have more elements: research, client input, rough layout, design, illustration, prepress, production. A smart IP will break a big project down into its structural elements before he begins.
(Remember that these elements may not be dealt with in a strict chronological order. For example, there can be a lot of back-and-forth; sometimes I need to slam on the brakes, turn around, and do more research mid-way through a project. The point is that setting up a general structure will give you the confidence to get started, and to see the project through.)
You may be so familiar with your work that the structural elements blend together. That's great -- until a big project comes along, at which time it's helpful to regain structural clarity in order to set and meet major milestones. Now you can celebrate the major milestones of the project's life and return to work with fresh eyes.
3. By degree of difficulty. Movies are shot scene by scene, and it's rare that the opening minute of a film is the first to see the lens. In many cases the director will choose an easy scene to ease the actors and crew into the shoot.
You can tiptoe into the water by selecting easy elements to tackle first, or if you like to get the tough stuff out of the way, tackle the most difficult components first. By breaking down a project's tasks by difficulty, you'll get to know exactly when you'll be entering deep waters.
4. By partner. If your job entails managing the work of others or subcontracting, breaking down a project by team members will help you get a handle on the time and effort you'll have to invest in order to get things ready for your partners.
Is Partner A always busy? Can you get a better deal by giving Partner B a long lead time? Is Partner C an unknown entity? Any of these factors may prompt you to address those sections of the project that must be handed off first, even if they don't come first chronologically or structurally.
5. By client priority. Don't forget to take your clients into consideration when you break down your projects. Remember, the client is king, and if he needs Part C three weeks before Part A -- you have to deliver it. And deliver it on time. Find out what his priorities are and structure your work plan accordingly. Give him a cost estimate and get busy.
Even if your project is defined largely by your client's schedule or priorities, you can still break down the project in the other ways listed here.
Indeed, the more ways you attack the project, the better your chances of completing it on time and under budget. It may seem like a time-consuming exercise at first, but believe me, as an IP who has suffered needlessly, it's better to break down a large project than have a large project break down you.
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