The CIO informs you that you’ve been selected to lead a special project that will impact your IT organization. When the CIO reveals the focus of the special project, you realize that you have no knowledge or experience related to the project. Everyone is watching, and many of your colleagues are not on board with the new direction that your project will take your IT organization. To avoid derailing your career, here are five ways to tackle the project.

1. Make the project a priority from the start.

Even if you do not want to run the project, go ahead and accept the job; the faster you embrace the challenge, the faster you can make a realistic assessment of what you will need to do to be successful or to at least avoid failure. Also, the time you spend resisting the assignment is time you’ll need to get over the learning curve on your new challenge. You have been given the job, and taking on the tough projects is one of the key hurdles to achieving the CIO role and beyond.

Look at your planned professional activities in the immediate future and consider which activities you can delete from your calendar. You will need to delegate some noncritical activities to your managers and staff. Your staff may not like it, but everyone has to pitch in to navigate this specific career challenge. Maximize the time you can commit to your project, because you’ll need every minute.

2. Commit talented people to the project.

Managers and staff available in IT organizations to commit to special projects may not be high performers. They are available for a reason, and other managers are often willing to assign their least desirable staff to your special project. You do not want a poorly staffed team for a career-critical project. You will need to make some hard decisions early on to free up some of your top talent to commit to the project. If you cannot control the project staffing, carefully interview each person assigned to the project to understand what he or she can contribute.

When a new project requires knowledge you do not currently possess, you will need to make managers and staff who work best in unstructured environments available for the project. While you will eventually need to carefully structure, plan, and execute your project, your initial project time will involve some level of unstructured learning. You need your team to be able to adjust quickly as you form a vision for the project and take this vision into tactical execution.

3. Get over the learning curve as fast as possible.

We all see our special projects as unique, but your project has likely already been executed at numerous companies, government agencies, nonprofits, or universities. While the Internet provides access to a vast variety of information, it is also a data landfill where you can lose critical time sifting through mountains of raw information to get to the critical knowledge you need to succeed.

You should use your professional and personal contacts, as well as publicly available information, to cull lessons learned on how other organizations tackled similar projects. Social networking tools, such as LinkedIn, provide a forum where you can ask questions in specific communities to quickly gain knowledge. For example, if your challenge is an IT Service Management (ITSM) implementation, there are a number of ITSM communities on LinkedIn where you can ask intelligent questions to narrow your search for relevant information. There is also excellent project information on the Web sites of a number of IT consultancies and industry trade groups. Tap professionals who have faced the same challenges you face and ask for input.

4. Plan the project work but adjust quickly.

You are committed to the project, you have gathered a good team, and you have a handle on some good lessons learned from similar projects executed at other organizations; the next step is to treat this project like any other project you have executed. Develop a charter to define the project, support the charter with a detailed project plan with committed organizational resources, develop key milestones, and have a clear vision for what success would look like at project completion.

As you begin to execute the project, unexpected challenges will occur despite the initial project planning; be willing to quickly adjust to these challenges as you go. You’ll gain knowledge as you progress in the project, and you’ll probably realize that you made some faulty assumptions at project inception that need correcting. Adjust your project plan and keep moving.

5. Keep communicating.

I’ve seen many IT managers derail their once-in-a-career projects by failing to communicate with any of the various groups who are impacted by, or directly involved in, the project. The CIO and other senior leaders do not want to be surprised by a project that has gone off track from the original project plan and is failing. Senior leadership should not learn of any challenges or potential failure from anyone other than you. Be proactive in communicating successes and challenges to the leaders of your IT organization. You also need to keep IT managers and staff who are potentially impacted by your project informed. If this group will ultimately be responsible for executing the outcomes of your project, the earlier you engage them in the process, the better. Many project managers fail to keep up timely, focused communication while executing a project, and the project flounders in implementation.

Once-in-a-career events represent opportunity, as well as risk, to your career. Embrace the challenge, and you will give yourself the best opportunity for success!