Perhaps you have a brilliant idea for a startup, but have never started a company before. Or, maybe you have just been assigned to lead a project at work in an area with which you have little experience. How do you even start a project when you don’t know where to start? How do you even go about making a project plan when you have never done this type of project before?

[tweetify]“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.” – Mark Twain [/tweetify]

Before we dig in on how to start projects, it’s helpful to know that there are typically two types of projects:

Formal projects and formative projects

Formal projects are those you have done before, you know how to do, and you know exactly how to plan it and how to get started. Not a problem. A formative project is one where you learn as you go along. For example, startups are formative projects.

If you’re like me, formal projects–or doing what you’ve done before–is about as much fun as doing laundry on a Friday night. Once I know how to do something, it becomes boring. I love learning as I go. If I were to start a restaurant, I would never be a franchisee; where’s the creativity in that?! Implementing a formal project plan created by someone else? Big time snooze!

With a formative project, chances are, even if you’ve done a formative project before, this one is a whole new ball of wax.

Now we are talking! Let’s dig in to the fun stuff–formative projects–a bit more.

Here are some ideas to help you get started with your formative type project:

Google “How to ___(fill in the blank)____”.

Given the breadth of the magical internet world, it is likely that you will find ideas and even sample project plans very quickly for just about anything from planning a garden to selecting a software vendor. I don’t recommend taking someone else’s plan verbatim, though. That is formal, which defeats the purpose, and that is no fun! Also, you don’t yet know if their plan is good or not.

Think about and then clearly articulate what the goal of the project really is.

Often, this will be enough to give you a sense of direction. You’ll start to understand what you know, what you don’t know, and what you need to get where you want to go.

Ask yourself the question: “What does ‘done’ look like?”

Concentrate on the TEAM

Often the most important key to a project’s success is the team. Don’t be so determined to start before you have a foundational team in place.

Collaborating with a solid team from the outset will give you the benefit of their experience on top of your own. Plus, projects are more fun when done with other people, and, as we’ve already established, we want to have fun with this.

Once you have a good team engaged, you’ll be better able to brainstorm approaches to achieving your project goals.

Speaking of fun, have some!

If you are going to do a project on your own and don’t know how to start, host a dinner or cocktail party for a few friends who know more than you do on the area, think differently than you do, or have a different perspective.

Perhaps you have a friend who knows someone that could give you some great ideas on how to get started. Jo, Cardsmith’s lead designer, taught me this trick. She is an excellent cook and is great at bringing people together who can help each other over dinner and wine.

Everyone always has a great time–those that help, and those that receive the help.


There are hundreds of meetup groups related to just about any personal or professional interest. is one great resource for finding groups of people who are already doing what you are looking to do.

Networking is a wonderful way way to get ideas, inspire you, bounce ideas off of those who have some interest in or experience with your project type, find team members, and practice describing your project to new people.


With yourself or with your team if you have one. One of the most powerful tools that I have found is the sticky note brainstorming exercise.

Use actual sticky notes, or a cloud-based tool like Cardsmith, to quickly jot down ideas. Don’t filter yourself at first. Think of this as a brain dump of ideas of what the project is intended to produce, what major steps might be involved, what obstacles you are likely to encounter, what you know, and what questions are top of mind. The key is to just get started.

Once you have the sticky notes down, you will likely see patterns and groupings. Group all of the fears or potential obstacle notes together. Rank them. Which are more likely to occur and which will be more catastrophic if they do happen?

Likewise, what are the desired outcomes you hope to achieve with your project? Group these and then rank them. This will help you later to stay focused on the most important outcomes.

[tweetify]“Getting started is everything.” – [/tweetify]

This all may sound daunting, but trust me, take it one step at a time and it is FAR better than doing laundry on a Friday night. AND you will be amazed at how your project starts to take shape and seem doable.

What about you? How do you start a project when you have never done it before? Please leave a comment below.

Featured image by Frans Van Heerden from Pexels.

This post was updated in March 2020.