Not too long ago I had to withdraw from a project, which is something I don’t like to do. It has nothing to do with commitment, because I think it’s rather silly to stick with something just to see it through. There must be compelling reasons to stick with something.

The concept behind the project was cool, and seemed like a good idea at the time. But I know from experience that “seemed like a good idea at the time” is almost always the shoulder-shrug answer to the post mortem question: “Why’d you get involved in the first place?”

I had picked poorly. Initial excitement over a cool idea had blinded me to how I normally pick projects. My bet is that this has happened to you.

So how do I normally pick projects? I hold five simple criteria in mind:

  1. Passion. Personal passion for your project is a good indicator of just how engaged in the project you’ll be. Does it call on your key talents and strengths? Does it require you to stretch them, so that you’ll learn and grow? If it’s a team project, are the talents and values of your project team aligned to the project? Does your project team believe in the purpose of the work?
  2. Impact. The last thing you want any project to be, results-wise, is a shoulder shrug, for you or for others. You want impact. By impact I mean positive change, and you can choose whatever measures are appropriate. Will this project have great impact on your intended audience? Your audience can include all those on the receiving end of whatever it is you’re going to deliver, and who have an interest in the outcome of your project.
  3. Rave. Will your project create raving fans? Raving fans are those whose expectations, needs, or requirements you have exceeded. In other words, you’ve “wowed” them. Your project, in effect, creates followers and zealots. Those zealots will tell others. Those others will tell others. And so on. In today’s social media world, it’s much, much easier for a raving fan to broadcast your project’s virtues, so “rave” is an important consideration.
  4. Breakthrough. Does your project represent a breakthrough or revolutionary improvement or innovation? Does it require your best creative thinking and problem-solving ability? This entails delivering something distinctly better. Let me say that again: better. Better as in greater value. Too often we think about “new” or “different.” New and different isn’t always better, but I think better is almost always new and different.
  5. Visibility. High profile, high stakes projects attract resources (people and money). If your project never sees the light of day, or if you or your project team can’t propel it into the limelight at least a little bit, your project may never get the recognition and resources needed to have great impact. If the first four criteria have been met, the chances are pretty good that any project pitch will garner the visibility and resources it needs.

As you look at the list, you may want to add another dimension or two, or decide that one or more isn’t applicable to you, your project, or your team, your organization. And certainly the weighting of each will vary from person to person and project to project.

I’m not suggesting that these five criteria will guarantee anything more than a set of guideposts for taking that first critical “pick” step. But I’m curious, though: as you scan your project portfolio, give each each project a star rating by assigning one star for each the five criteria above.

What percentage of 5-star projects do you have in your portfolio? If it’s the vast majority, congratulations! If it’s the vast minority, it may be time to do what I did, and withdraw.