Setting Up for Success: 7 Tips for Initiating a Project
In an ideal world, project managers participate in their projects as soon as sponsors approve a project. From the infant stage of a project, the first step after the project is given a "green light" should be to assign a project manager - if you are reading this, that is likely you. Congratulations, you are now responsible for starting the project on the right foot, aligning all stakeholders and sponsors, and leading your team to victory! Welcome to the always exciting and ever-changing world of project management.
Once funding for a project has been approved, the project sponsors may be eager to begin work as soon as possible. Raise your hand if you have ever been a part of a project where "work needed to begin yesterday, so let's get the teams working ASAP and plan as we go!" If this brings up painful memories of ghost projects past, you are not alone. In this day and age, organizations often want to move quickly and without following proper project management procedures. However, beginning work on a project without first properly initiating makes it much more likely that the project will fail, and this is happening increasingly 70% of projects
fail to deliver what was promised to end users, but proper project management procedures can reduce that rate to 20% or less!
Every successful project life cycle must take the time to successfully initiate a project before work begins. If the Project Initiation phase is not approached with intention, it is often easy to miss important steps that will increase your project's likelihood for success. The following tips will help you initiate your project with confidence and instill trust in your project team.
Top 7 Tips to Initiate a Successful Project
1. Do not begin planning until the goals and objectives of the project are clearly defined. As part of the authorization to perform the project, it is imperative that planning does not begin until all project sponsors are entirely aligned on the goals for the project. Make sure that the goals of the project are crystal clear to all sponsors, especially if some sponsors hold conflicting interests. Scope, budget, and timeline are defined in detail in the planning phase, so do not feel as though the project must have a final approved budget or scope before the team has had a chance to plan. This is a recipe for failure. The initiation phase is the perfect opportunity to align with the project sponsors on the vision and create two important inputs to the project charter: the scope statement and success criteria.
- The scope statement is a brief, but clear statement which all project sponsors should agree on universally about what the project aims to deliver. It should be the "north star" of your project charter and a statement that you can universally go back to when potential changes to the project arise (trust me, they will!)
- Along with your scope statement, your project should also have clearly defined success criteria that the sponsors agree on and can refer back to. This will make sign-off on final deliverables when closing the project much more straightforward and provide guidelines for quality management later in the project.
2. Document Company Culture and Existing Systems / Processes. Information on existing processes will hopefully already exist - nonetheless, spend the initiation phase doing due diligence on your organization's way of working. Make sure that you understand the existing company culture and what works and does not work in your organization. Review past Lessons Learned exercises on similar projects performed by the company so that you have a prepared understanding of how this newly funded project will work. Lessons Learned exercises can help you determine:
- The procedures to follow for this type of project
- The types of stakeholders you may be interacting with
- Comparable risks & issues which may present themselves once work has begun
- Information on the project team and their ways of working
3. Focus on the major outputs. When performing any project initiation activities, remember how the activity will eventually help to create important outputs which will help you with the next phase of the project - planning. Tie each of the activities back to one of these central goals. The outputs that will result from the initiation phase are the:
- Project Charter
- List of Identified Stakeholders
4. Keep it at a high-level. Clarify what you can to the best of your ability - but do not begin detailed planning. Some organizations may have certain high-level criteria that must be established in order to approve a project. Your sponsors already have some of these things in mind:
- The funding that could be allocated to the project
- The project start date and an estimate of when delivery of scope is expected
- High-level assumptions
Know that it is totally fine to define project objectives and assumptions at a prominent level before detailed planning begins. Organizations do this often. However, it should be established with your sponsors and stakeholders that these dates are not set in stone, and the finalized budget, scope, and timeline will be finalized in the project plan during the planning phase.
5. Establish trust with your stakeholders. As early as possible, establish a one-to-one relationship with your most important project stakeholders. It is a common mistake to begin to build relationships with stakeholders once planning has started. A misconception exists that you will not begin to gather valuable information from stakeholders until the planning phase, when the project plan is built. However, communicating early and establishing a relationship (especially with difficult stakeholders) is the key to setting up a project for success. Some stakeholders may require more attention than others, due either to their power/influence on the project or their level of engagement. By building rapport with stakeholders early, you can:
- Identify the needs of the organization
- Identify stakeholders who may require elevated levels of engagement
- Establish trust with your most important stakeholders
6. Document the needs of the business. As hinted at above, initial meetings with stakeholders are not only an effective way to build trust and establish rapport. Allow your stakeholders a platform during the initiation phase to tell you what the most critical needs of their business are. This may differ from the needs of the organization. On complex projects, stakeholders will often hold conflicting interests, and some may be more focused on one piece of functionality than others are. For example, the finance director may be more concerned with how a new inventory management system will affect accounting procedures, while the operations manager will be focused on simplifying coordination. Identifying these conflicting needs of two important stakeholders will help you as the project manager build a unified scope statement and resolve potential conflicts in the future.
7. Do not commit to specific milestone or deliverable due dates. During initiation, you may have a particularly difficult sponsor who wants you to immediately commit to a specific deadline. When being pushed by a project sponsor or faced with a potentially tight deadline, it may be tempting to agree that a milestone could be delivered within a certain timeframe. Instead of giving into the pressure, think of this is an opportunity for you to assert your authority as the project manager and set expectations with your project sponsors. Committing to a timeline or budget for any deliverable involves planning and input from your stakeholders and especially from your project team (they are the ones doing the work, after all!) Depending on the structure of your organization and your specific expertise, you may be expected to commit to a work start date or a rough end date for the project (for example, we expect this to be completed in the second half of 2022). However, specific deliverable due dates should not be specified until planning is well underway.
Project initiation does not have to be laborious and time intensive. That being said, there are important procedures to follow during the initiation phase that will increase the project's chance of success. Do not gloss over this important first phase of the project! Improper initiation of a project can lead to disaster. At the very least, it will lead to headaches down the line if stakeholders and sponsors are not aligned on the specific goals of the project. By taking the time to properly set expectations and following these project initiation tips, you are doing as much as is in your power to ensure that the project is successful.