The Starter Project: Where New Project Professionals Get Their Start

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Getting started as a project manager is challenging. If you don’t have experience, how can you obtain PMP certification let alone a project manager role? And how do you get experience if you cannot land a project management role?

Fortunately, you can solve the experience dilemma. You simply apply the starter project methodology. By starting small, you can demonstrate your project skills to employers and colleagues. In addition, the starter project helps you build relationships with others in your company and the community. By building up project management disciplines with small projects, you will be poised for success on larger projects.

Who is the starter project approach for? In my view, this methodology can be used by three groups of people in different ways.

  1. Students and Recent Graduates. You can use this approach to provide your credibility to deliver work outside of the academic world.
  2. Career Changers. Making the transition into project management is easier with the starter project model – the starter project is an excellent supplement to your PMP studies.
  3. Project Manager Mentors and Supervisors. Project managers can use this article as a training resource to help their newer staff find their feet in the project profession.

The starter project is a flexible methodology that can be used in any of those situations. Whether you are a student or an accomplishment professional, you’re drawn to the project profession. You may be interested in the challenge of delivering a world changing project. You may be interested in rewarding project management salaries offered by the profession. Whatever your motivation, the starter project can help you get closer to your career goals.

My experience with the starter project approach dates back to my student experience. During my university studies, I honed by project management skills by founding an academic journal and serving as an editor on student newspapers. Later on, I led a financial project for one of my alumni associations. The lack of traditional power structures in those projects proved to be excellent training for project management.

The Solo Project

The solo project is the beginning of your project management journey. You may not have a budget or a staff to manage– I certainly didn’t with some of my early projects. Don’t let the lack of resources stop you! In fact, scarcity enables you to think more creatively. I have certainly been told “we don’t have budget for that” several times in my career. Don’t give up! Read on for my key criteria for the solo project success.

  1. Demonstrating your skills in a solo project is easy. Follow these steps to ensure success in your first solo project.
  2. Project Selection. Choose a project that you can achieve with your existing knowledge and skills. For example, this could be automating an archaic, time-consuming process at your office.
  3. Project Proposal. Once you complete the basic research on your project, write a project proposal no longer than a page and present it to your manager (or equivalent). Include your deadlines and the benefits of the project to the organization/
  4. Deliver the project on time. Delivering a project on time is incredibly important – think through the project carefully so that you guarantee on time delivery.
  5. Report on the project. Once you deliver the project, it is time to write a report on the project’s results. This report shows your manager that you can communicate the benefits of your work (and it is also helpful documentation for your résumé).

As you work through the project, maintain a log of your project time. A simple spreadsheet is one of the best ways of tracking this information. By tracking the time you spend on a solo project, you will better understand your productivity. You may also be able to use the starter project toward your application for a PMI credential.

The Non-Profit Project

Did you know that volunteering for non-profit organizations can improve your life? Adults who volunteer one hundred hours a year report increased happiness and longevity. That finding comes from Adam Grant’s book “Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.” Assuming two weeks of vacation per year, putting in one hundred volunteer hours a year takes just two hours of effort per week.

Follow these steps to get started with your first non-profit project. Remember – applying your professional skills to the non-profit world makes the world a better place.

  1. Identify a cause you care about. In my volunteering, I focused on education organizations because I’m excited by the power of learning.
  2. Contact the organization’s leadership. I recommend contacting one of the organization’s leaders to find out about the organization’s needs. If you have a prior relationship with someone at the organization, I recommend starting the conversation with that person.
  3. Project proposal. Based on your understanding of the organization, write a project proposal. You may also have the opportunity to seek input from multiple people and build your stakeholder management skills.
  4. Deliver the project on time. Efficiently delivering your projects is a very important discipline to master. View the non-profit project as another opportunity to demonstrate this capability.
  5. Report on the project. Write up a report on what your project achieved. Did you increase meals served in a hunger charity? Did you increase fundraising results? Quantifying your results can be challenging but I encourage you to do that added analysis.

Learning From The Starter Project

Every project you complete, no matter the size, is an opportunity to reflect. Looking back on my early project experience, I learned several important lessons. Your lessons may be entirely different. The important point is to reflect on your project, what went well and where you can do better. Look for lessons that have enduring value and provide an opportunity for you to improve.

Building and maintaining business relationships was my first and greatest lesson. Your ability to deliver results as a project manager will depend on your relationship management skills. Taking the time to study books like Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Your people skills will continue to be valuable for years into the future, no matter what industry you work in.

Now that you understand what a starter project is all about, now is the time for action. Take these ideas and implement them. Project opportunities are all around you at the office and beyond.

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About Bruce Harpham

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Bruce Harpham is the author of Project Management Hacks, a resource that helps project professionals improve their productivity at the office and beyond. Bruce’s corporate experience includes delivering major cost reduction projects at financial institutions in Canada. Bruce is an Anglophile, world traveler and book enthusiast.