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How To Deal With Vaguely Defined Projects

Vague projects a plague on the modern workplace. Maybe you wound up with one because your manager is lazy. Maybe it’s because the project was hastily conceived. Or maybe it’s just because no one else wants to do it, and the hot potato landed on your desk.

We’ve all had that feeling. After a big meeting, you walk back to your desk and look over your notes.

You’ve just been given a big project to manage on your own.

There’s only one problem—you have no idea where to start.

Vague projects a plague on the modern workplace. Maybe you wound up with one because your manager is lazy. Maybe it’s because the project was hastily conceived. Or maybe it’s just because no one else wants to do it, and the hot potato landed on your desk.

Whatever the reason, you don’t have to feel overwhelmed. Here are five tips to help you whip that vague project into shape!

  1. Do a Little Detective Work

It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s ever had a job that unnecessary projects happen all the time. Business moves fast, and a vague idea can quickly become an urgent project with little or no research into whether it really needs to be done, or is even feasible.

Before you jump in, take some time to do a little detective work.

Find out if other people worked on this project (or similar projects) before you, and try and talk to them. What roadblocks did they encounter? Was it abandoned for good reason?

Another problem with vague projects is that there may be very specific technical or financial reasons why they can’t be done. Hunt down the experts and pick their brains—you may find they make a compelling argument for why the project is not needed, or have ideas for an alternative that might better suit the organization’s goals.

  1. Decide What You Need to Achieve

What makes your project vague? Most likely it’s the fact that no one gave you a specific goal.

For example, imagine you’ve been charged with “improving the design” of your company’s website. Fine, maybe the site does look a little old and clunky–but what’s real the goal here?

Changing the visual design of the site to improve visitor’s perception of your brand is very different to completely overhauling the site to increase online sales. Once you set a concrete goal, then the path to success will suddenly become clearer.

  1. Don’t Commit Blindly—But Commit to Creating a Plan

Nothing will make your superiors happier than committing to a firm completion date. But if you don’t know what you’re trying to achieve, how can you know when you’ll have it done?

Making a blind commitment when you’re unclear about how much work is involved is a recipe for disaster.

Instead of agreeing to a completion date for the whole project, commit to creating a project plan. This gives you some breathing room, and lets you come up with a way to tackle the task on your own terms, making it much more likely to succeed.

It also gives you time to research and become an expert in the topic. When you come back on your chosen date, make sure you formulate some concrete recommendations about the scope and goals of the project.

  1. If Your Boss is Too Vague, Consult with Someone Else

Sometimes we find ourselves working with bad communicators. Whether it’s incomprehensible corporate jargon, or simply a lack of awareness in how they come across, bad communicators just make our jobs harder.

If the problem poor communication, come up with a list of specific questions, and request a short, private meeting with the person who gave you the project where you can grill them on the details.

If you work in a larger organization and your boss still isn’t giving you the answers you need, then consult with others. If the project is important, there will be someone else who understands why it needs to be done, and the challenges that it might present. However, if you do decide to go over your boss’s head, remember to be sensitive to the politics of your office.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Delegate

Delegation is a dirty word, and honestly, it sucks to be on the receiving end of someone else’s hand-off. But if you’ve been handed something ill-defined that no-one else wants, well there’s no reason why you should be left holding the bag. This is especially true if you’ve done your research, and ascertained that it’s of low-importance, or out of your realm of expertise.

If you’re a manager, then it might be easier to hand off the project to one of your subordinates. If you’re not, then you might have to try and sell the project as something exciting to one of your co-workers. Whichever way you go, make sure you give that person some clearly defined goals to ensure that the project gets done.

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