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Episode 425: Maximize Your Project's First 21 Days (Free)

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Sara Gallagher Cornelius Fichtner
Sara Gallagher and Cornelius Fichtner

The ink isn't even dry on your charter, but what if the seeds of project destruction have already been sown? The odds are not in our favor.

The Project Management Institute (PMI)® reports that nearly 15% of projects are deemed failures. After years of helping companies "unstick" troubled projects, our guest knows that the first 21 days are critical to success. Learn how you can leverage them to beat the odds!

This interview with Sara Gallagher (LinkedIn Profile) was recorded at the connecting Project Management Institute (PMI)® Global Conference 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

We look at the most common mistakes that project managers make in the first 21 days, how to correct them, and learn about critical but often overlooked objectives that must be achieved early related to project framing and team infrastructure.

Project Management Professional (PMP)® Exam: PMP certification training:
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Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: In this episode of The Project Management Podcast™, you’ll learn how to maximize your project’s first 21 days and avoid some of the common startup mistakes.

Hello and welcome to The Project Management Podcast™ at I’m Cornelius Fichtner.

Podcast Interview

Cornelius Fichtner: We are coming to you live from the connecting 2018 PMI Global Conference in Los Angeles, California. And with me right now is Sara Gallagher.

Sara Gallagher: Hello!

Cornelius Fichtner: Good afternoon and welcome back!

Sara Gallagher: Thank you so much!

Cornelius Fichtner: This is our second conference interview.

Sara Gallagher: It is, yes!

Cornelius Fichtner: Will you be presenting next year?

Sara Gallagher: I hope so.

Cornelius Fichtner: Oh good!

Sara Gallagher: I hope to present every year because it is such a fun experience to come back year after year and see some of the same people over and over again.

Cornelius Fichtner: What do you get out of it?

Sara Gallagher: I get a lot. Number one, I obviously get the PDUs that everybody else gets, right? But more importantly, I always leave everyday of the conference with at least a couple of a-ha moments, something that just makes me think about my own project management practice in a new way. And I always leave with new friends.

Cornelius Fichtner: The adjective that I used were coming to you live from the connecting 2018 Global Conference, that adjective is from you. Tell me why do you choose “connective”?

Sara Gallagher: When I come to the PMI conference, I always feel that I make really meaningful professional relationships but also friends, you know. People from allover the world. I meet people from different industries. I meet fellow consultants who it’s always so fun to chat with about how they approach their work, how you help people solve their project problems. I just love it!

Cornelius Fichtner: And to everybody out there who is not here, that’s what you are missing. Your presentation is called “Win the battle before it begins. How to maximize the first 21 days.” Why 21 days and is it business days or are we actually talking three weeks, calendar weeks?

Sara Gallagher: So the number 21 has a special significance to me. It’s the story that I open a presentation with. It is an arbitrary number. What I’m really talking about is the first, let’s say, 10% of whatever your project link is, which is when you are building trust with the team, when you are scoping out your project, you are framing it up. You are making sure everyone understands the “why” of the project that you are doing.

So for long projects, that might be more like 45 days. For short projects, I used a length of let’s say about a year. So 21 days is kind of how I arrived at that number. But for me the story comes from the very first project that I ever managed.

Cornelius Fichtner: Oh okay! You mentioned it. We have to follow up on it.

Sara Gallagher: Okay, okay.

Cornelius Fichtner: Please tell us more about that.

Sara Gallagher: So I worked for a really wonderful educational institution that was responsible for training and retraining adults in Oklahoma, the state where I’m from. So people would come to us to learn how to be a welder or cosmetologist or a medical assistant, right? And I went to work for them in 2008. So if you’ll remember that is the year of one of the greatest recessions to hit in a long time. And what do people do whenever there is a recession? They go back to school. They retrain or they train themselves in a field that’s in demand or try to sit out the market for a year or two until the opportunities open up.

So our institution had always enjoyed really great student retention and job placement rates. When that recession hit and we got hit with an influx of students, it became really difficult to manage that new student volume. So the CEO comes to me and she says: “Sara, here’s your project. I need you, you got 18 months, I need you to get our student retention percentage up to pre-2008 levels and should do it in 18 months and I need you to figure out how to do it. You tell me what the scope of the project is going to be.” So when you say a project is a service, product or result, this was a clear result-oriented project and I was scared to death. I mean this was a project I really had no business managing probably with my current level of experience.

Cornelius Fichtner: Most first projects, we have no business managing, yeah.

Sara Gallagher: Exactly! So then she added something. She said: “Sara, I already taken the liberty of meeting with the department heads and the executives. And we all agree that we are really seeing problem is that students are actually getting all the way to about week 30 of a 33-week program and that’s when they are quitting.” They are quitting 3 weeks before graduation which is insane, right?

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah!

Sara Gallagher: And so she said: “I want whatever you do to focus on the last three to four weeks of a student’s program.” So I said: “Great! I’m on it boss.” Right? So we go in. We invest in stuff. We invest in new processes. We upgrade our software. We figure out what we’ve got to do to hit those students in the last three to four weeks. Okay, six months goes by. Director of Accreditation happens to be a friend of mine. She comes to me and she posts the latest retention numbers. Not only have they not improved, they’ve gotten worse.

Cornelius Fichtner: I think I can see where this is going in particular with the title of the presentation here.

Sara Gallagher: Yes, yes. And so what my friend came to me with was some data that suggested we had been completely wrong about students graduating at the end of their program. In fact, nearly 40% of all drops were recurring in the first 21 days of a student’s program. And 75% of our drops were recurring in the first half of a student’s program. And again an average program is about 35 weeks.

Cornelius Fichtner: So you had to focus not on the end. You had to focus on the beginning.

Sara Gallagher: Focus on the beginning, exactly. And so this presentation was really born out of my most painful moments as a PM starting with that very first mistake, right, of not doing my own assumptions, validation in the beginning. But I started to wonder, is there something to this 21-day thing that doesn’t just apply to students but applies to anything we do --- project, a goal that we are trying to do for the first time --- that those first few weeks are disproportionately more important than the rest. And as it turns out as I started to practice project management for many years after that and do research, I started to see there is actually a lot of support for the fact that those first 21 days really matter.

Cornelius Fichtner: One of your slides in the presentation talks about where do failures occur? What areas do failures occur? I know you are presenting this only tomorrow. But what do you expect the answer is going to be? What is your current data show you where do failures occur?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

PDUs: Ways of Working, PMI Global Conference, PMI Global Conference/PMI Global Conference 2018

  • Last updated on .
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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