Why Getting Started Is Good Advice

In a guest post on I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Cal Newport argues that the conventional wisdom about big accomplishment, which says getting started is the key to success, might be dead wrong.

I disagree.

Cal’s idea goes back to March of 2008, when he first posted that Action is Overrated. Some months later, this general idea was directed more specifically towards the “Dangerous Art of the Start”, when he posted: Getting Started is Overrated. His last post on the subject is titled: “Why the common advice of “You just need to get started” is bad advice“.

The first disagreement I have with this reasoning, is that there’s a contradiction to be found. Here’s three quotes from Cal’s guest post:

a huge effort is invested in identifying the best possible projects before getting started

runs the idea through a wringer before deciding to invest the years required

I started investigating the topic of college admissions in April of 2007 and didn’t complete and sell my final book proposal until October of 2008

For not even getting started, all of this sounds like an awful lot of work. Clearly, the initial effort of identifying projects and assessing their feasibility are important tasks. And in order to complete these tasks, you need to start doing them. So calling it not starting, is a bit deceptive.

Now, if my disagreement was merely about semantics, pointing this out wouldn’t merit a blog post. But there’s more. By calling this initial work “not starting”, you are not acknowledging it as an indispensable part of your project’s lifecycle. And if you don’t acknowledge it, you cannot manage it. You cannot give it the attention it deserves. You cannot justify the resources you are – or should be – allocating to it.

To avoid making a straw man out of Cal Newport; of course he means that you have to avoid jumping into the implementation phase of a project without first thinking it through. And I fully agree with him on that. But what his argumentation lacks, is a working model for the earlier stages of a project life, that precede the implementation phase. He merely calls it “not starting”.

In project management, this problem is overcome by dividing a project’s life into different phases. The number and name of these phases vary across organizations, but it’s usually something like:

Phase 1 – Definition
Phase 2 – Feasibility study
Phase 3 – Design / engineering
Phase 4 – Implementation
Phase 5 – Start-up

This multi-phase approach to project management is in essence a risk management strategy. Because every penny and every hour can only be spent once, you want to make sure that you spend it on the right project.

The decision to proceed has to be made every at every transition from one phase to the next. These are called phase gates and they should be handled very seriously. In every phase of the project, you calculate how much of your organisation’s resources will be required to complete the next phase of the project, and to complete all phases of the project.

The approval to advance to the next phase is given at a level in the organization that corresponds to amount of resources required. For a €10.000 project, a low-level manager may have sufficient authority to authorize implementation by himself, but for a €10.000.000 project, the approval procedure might go all the way up to the CEO.

By using the phase approach you are very conscious about distributing your limited resources among the possible opportunities. Very good projects might not make the selection, because even better ones are claiming priority.

As you can see, this approach unifies both sides of the argument: it is important to get started and to define as many different opportunities as possible. But it is equally important to be very selective about which projects make it through the phasegates and which ones are eventually implemented. It is absolutely critical to respect this approach, to not skip any phases, and to resist jumping into implementation.

So is getting started good advice? Yes. But you have to start at the beginning.

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