When your organization is preparing to tackle a new project, there’s a major question you’ll need to answer: What do you need to complete it? In other words, how can you proactively figure out what you’ll need to successfully conquer a project and ensure you have your ducks in a row? You’ll have to conduct a needs assessment.
Unless you’re a fortune teller, those requirements are tough to predict before you start any work. That’s likely why a reported 35% of projects fail due to inaccurate requirements gathering.
What skills does your team need to have? What tools will you need available? And how easy will this process be when you’re working with a remote or dispersed team? In this post, we’ll explain how to conduct a needs assessment when your team is not co-located.
What is a needs assessment?
A needs assessment is a systematic process you’ll use to evaluate the non-negotiable requirements of your project. This could include knowledge, skills, systems, tools, and more.
Typically, a needs assessment is broken down into three main parts or stages:
- Data collection and analysis
- Final production
These stages might sound formal. But, remember that the most basic purpose of the needs assessment is to uncover all of the resources that will be necessary to ensure the project’s successful completion. What will you need at your disposal in order to wrap it up?
Why is a needs assessment important?
When everybody is eager to jump in and make progress on a project, a project management needs assessment might seem like an unnecessary formality. However, taking this step is important for several reasons.
1. You’ll proactively address any gaps
Imagine that you’re already well into a project’s timeline and your team has reached the next task that needs to be completed. It’s at this point you realize something alarming: You don’t have the in-house skills to check off that task.
Now what? Like many organizations, you might have to turn to a contingent workforce to address that knowledge gap. Or, maybe you have to provide training to get a current team member up to speed. The bad news is all of those things take time, and now you’re in a bind to get them addressed.
A needs assessment allows you to spot those gaps proactively so that you can ensure you have everything you need to successfully finish a project — before you even start.
2. You’ll find the best solutions to problems
That last-minute scramble to secure all of your project needs can compromise your decision-making and remote resources. “For too many projects, there comes a time when every action taken, every decision and sacrifice made, is spurred on by pressure to finish,” explains an article for Smashing Magazine.
You end up making lackluster choices, communicating poorly, and settling for “good enough” simply because you're in a time crunch to get things finished. For example, you might opt for a less qualified freelancer to handle that task, simply because they’re readily available. The quality of work suffers, but you figure at least it’ll get done.
In contrast, a needs assessment allows you to take a proactive approach, rather than being reactive. When gaps are identified, you have time to find the best ways to address them, rather than moving forward with a solution simply because it’s quick or convenient.
This is important to remember when coordinating a remote team. Without the help of face-to-face interactions, you must remember to factor in things like reduced availability (due to time zone, illness, or changing personal circumstances). Identifying those potential resource deficits allows you to think proactively and address issues before they become constraints.
3. You’ll keep project timelines on track
Even if you act fast when you realize your organization doesn’t have everything your project needs, you’re still bound to experience some delays.
That last-minute sourcing of requirements involves hours and energy. This may throw your timeline off track—particularly if you were running down to the wire already or communication has been slowed down by distributed teams across time zones.
Conducting a needs assessment ensures that you have everything you need for that project upfront. If you don’t? You can secure those needs before mapping out your project plan and timeline. That means you’ll have a much more realistic schedule in place and avoid that eleventh hour panic.
How to conduct a needs assessment: 4 steps to follow
A needs assessment offers a lot of benefits, but if you’ve never done one before, the process can feel a little intimidating.
In your search for instructions, you’ll likely come across a lot of academic jargon or formal project management methodologies about how to get this done. However, since you’re just getting started, we’re going to keep this as simple as possible. Here are four straightforward steps to conduct a needs assessment.
1. Understand the requirements of your project
Before you can confirm that you’re able to meet the needs of a project, you need a solid grasp of what’s required.
Start by ensuring that you and your team are clear on the overall objective of the project, as that will give you important context. Surprisingly, only 55% of people involved in projects feel that element was clearly explained to them. This overarching goal should be emphasized in your project plan, so it’s always top of mind.
With that broader context in place, it’s time to drill down to even more specifics. Whether this project is being requested by another department or is something that a team came up with on their own, you should think through things like:
- What does success look like with this project?
- What individual milestones or deliverables will be involved?
- What do we think the general project flow will look like — from inception to completion?
- What’s on our wishlist that would make this project run even smoother?
- How can we improve communication so remote teams can stay on target from anywhere?
This will give you a greater understanding of everything that’s involved with that project, so you can better identify the needs associated with it.
2. Get a grasp on what you already have available
Now that you know what’s required for that project, it’s time to turn your attention to your existing resources. What do you already have available that you could use for that project?
Once you’ve brainstormed your list, match up these available resources with your project needs. Maybe that IT team member with the top-notch data skills will be the perfect fit for the analytics piece of the project. Or, perhaps that software you recently invested in can help automate a lot of your project tasks.
Connect those dots wherever you can. That’s the information you’ll need as you move into the next step.
3. Identify any gaps
Did the previous step show you that you already have a lot of project needs addressed? That’s great, but there are bound to be some needs that aren’t currently fulfilled.
This step is all about pinpointing those gaps. Where are you missing what you need?
For example, perhaps you have a lot of helpful expertise on your team, but you realize that nobody has the graphic design skills you’re going to need to pull this project off. Write down that gap so you don’t forget about it.
4. Take action to fill those gaps
A needs assessment is only useful if you do something with the information you find. It doesn’t do you any good to identify gaps if you aren’t going to do anything to address them.
That’s what this final step is about. If you’ve noticed that you’re lacking graphic design know-how for this project, how are you going to fulfill that need? Will you outsource to an agency? Hire a freelancer? Provide additional training and resources to an existing team member?
Find the best solution for bridging that gap, and then take steps to make it happen — before you get too far into the project. Remember, your goal is to start with everything you need in place.
Want a more successful project? Don’t forget to conduct a needs assessment
When your organization is excited about a new project, it’s tempting to jump right in and figure things out as you go. But, failing to figure out what’s actually required to complete that project will only cause stress, hassles, and headaches down the line.
Take the time to conduct a needs assessment so that you can proactively address gaps, find the best solutions to problems, and keep your projects running smoothly. For teams who have gone fully remote, conducting a needs assessment can help you address any resource shortfalls and complications.