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A How to Guide on Initiating a Project

By: Dr. Michael Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM

Are you a project manager or team member tired of projects that get out of control, consume resources, and seem to go far beyond their original scope? 

Imagine initiating a project so effectively that it stays on track and aligns perfectly with organizational goals. Your stakeholders are pleased, your team is motivated, and you become the go-to person for executing successful projects.

In this article, we provide step-by-step tactics for “Initiating a Project” the right way. By managing the critical phase of project initiation, you’ll set clear objectives, manage risks, draw in critical stakeholders, and allocate resources effectively. Say so long to scope creep, disgruntled stakeholders, and skyrocketing costs.

Discover the secrets to initiating a project that will succeed and make you a leading project manager in your organization. Follow our proven method to ensure your next project is well-poised for success from day one!

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Key Takeaways

Importance of Project Initiation: The initiation phase isn’t just the start of your project; it’s the backbone that supports every subsequent stage. An ineffective project initiation document can lead to many problems, such as scope creep, escalating costs, and even project failure.

Clear Objectives and Scope: One of the primary outcomes of a successful initiation phase is a set of clear objectives and a defined scope. This roadmap guides every subsequent decision, from resource allocation to risk management, ensuring the project remains aligned with organizational goals.

Stakeholder Engagement: Early and meaningful stakeholder engagement is crucial for project success. During the initiation phase, identify stakeholders and seek their input, which can shape and improve the project

Identification and Risk Management: The initiation phase allows you to identify and evaluate potential risks. This proactive approach helps you prepare for obstacles, making it easier to navigate them when they do occur.

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What is Project Initiation? 

Project initiation is the opening process in project management, where the project’s foundation is established. This phase determines crucial information such as the project’s goals, scope, deliverables, and key stakeholders. It articulates understanding in critical documents such as the project charter and business case, setting clear expectations and providing a roadmap for success with the customer/client. During this process, the project sponsor will likely appoint the project manager to oversee the work’s planningexecutingmonitoring and controlling, and closing. Upon appointment, the project manager should conduct a kickoff meeting to ensure the project aligns with the organization’s strategic objectives and holds potential value. In short, the initiation process sets the project’s guideposts from the start.

In short:

Project initiation is the first step in starting a new project. It ensures that you lay a strong foundation by outlining the project’s purpose and securing buy-in from key stakeholders. This phase is essential to prove the business need for the project, confirm its feasibility, and start assembling the project team.

Reasons You Need to Know Project Initiation

Understanding the concept of project initiation is pivotal in project management. The initiation phase is not just the kick-off of your project lifecycle but also sets the groundwork for subsequent stages. If a project isn’t initiated correctly, it could result in a lack of direction, unforeseen risks, and waste of resources, potentially leading to project failure.

  • Clear Objectives: Correct project initiation ensures that all goals and objectives are defined clearly. This provides a roadmap for the project, setting the trajectory right from the beginning.
  • Risk Management: Potential risks are identified during the initiation process. Knowledge of these risks helps prepare mitigation strategies and foresee possible hurdles.
  • Stakeholder Involvement: At this stage, key stakeholders are identified. Their involvement and approval are paramount as they directly or indirectly impact the project’s outcome. 
  • Resource allocation and planning: The initiation project process also helps to understand the project scope, allowing for effective planning and resource allocation.
  • Aligning with Organizational Goals: Every project undertaken needs to align with the organizational objectives. Project initiation ensures the project’s goals align with the broader organizational strategy.

Understanding the nuances of project initiation enables you to confidently set the correct tone for the project. It also helps you accurately define the project, identify the constraints, and plan resources that set you up for success. Further, successful project initiation lays the foundation for practical project planning, smooth execution, and effective and efficient closeout. This ensures the project is optimized from an input, tools and techniques, and output perspective to meet the organization’s strategic aims.

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Step-by-Step Instructions to Initiate a Successful Project

Getting started with a project can often seem daunting, but it becomes a much more approachable task when you break it down into manageable steps. The following steps will help you smoothly navigate the project initiation process, setting a firm foundation for success.

  1. Identify the Need/Opportunity: Start by identifying a business need or opportunity the project will address. 
  2. Draft the Project Idea: Define the project’s initial idea. At this stage, you should determine the project’s ‘what’ and ‘why.’
  3. Evaluate the Project: Evaluate the feasibility and alignment with organizational goals. 
  4. Prepare a Business Case: Outline the reasons for undertaking the project, including the estimated costs, timelines, benefits, and risks involved.
  5. Identify Key Stakeholders: Determine the individuals or groups who will be impacted by or are interested in the project’s outcome and begin engaging them to determine levels of support.
  6. Define Project Objectives and Scope: Document the specifics about what the project should achieve and what work will be done to meet these objectives.
  7. Assign Project Manager: Assign the project manager who will be responsible for the planning, execution, monitoring and controlling, and closing of the project.
  8. Create the Project Charter: This document serves as the project’s formal authorization. It should contain items such as project purpose, objectives, scope, key project stakeholders, project manager, and approval signatures.
  9. Get Approval: Present the project charter and business case to senior executives or the project sponsor. Once approved, the project can shift to the planning process.

Project initiation is more than just the beginning of your project management lifecycle; it is the cornerstone for your project’s success. It is to ensure your project has a solid foundation to build.

Here’s each step:

Step 1: Identify the Need/Opportunity

How to Execute:

  1. Conduct market research. Gathering market data is the first step in identifying a business need or opportunity, such as consumer trends, technological advancements, or gaps in current services or products.
  2. Consult Internal Stakeholders: Talk to department heads and team members to identify internal challenges a new project could solve.
  3. Prioritize: Once you have a list of potential needs or opportunities, prioritize them based on urgency, alignment with strategic goals, and ROI potential.
  4. Documentation: Document the identified need or opportunity in a structured format. This can later be included in the project charter or business case.

By identifying a clear need or the opportunity the project will address, you’re justifying the need and providing the foundation for all subsequent phases.

Step 2: Draft the Project Idea

How to Execute:

  1. Brainstorming Session: To flesh out the project’s initial idea, invite team members and stakeholders to a brainstorming session.
  2. Outline the Scope: At a high level, define what the project will and will not include. 
  3. Identify Deliverables: List the expected deliverables at this stage, understanding that this could evolve as the project progresses.
  4. Set Initial Objectives: Define what success will look like for this project. Be as specific as possible.
  5. Document the Idea: Create a one-pager or presentation that outlines the initial project idea. This can be a precursor to the formal project charter.

A well-drafted project idea is a precursor to a more detailed business case and project charter, making this step essential for project success.

Step 3: Evaluate the Project

How to Execute:

  1. Feasibility Study: Conduct a feasibility study to ensure the project is technically and financially viable. This should include cost estimates, resource availability, and technology assessments.
  2. Alignment with Strategic Goals: Revisit the organization’s strategic objectives to ensure the project aligns.
  3. Risk Assessment: Conduct a preliminary risk assessment to identify potential obstacles to the project’s success.
  4. Stakeholder Analysis: Consider the project’s impact on various stakeholders and whether it meets their expectations or needs.
  5. Make the Go/No-Go Decision: Based on the evaluation, decide whether to pursue the project. Document the reasons for this decision.

Step 4: Prepare a Business Case

How to Execute:

  1. Collect Data: Gather all the information you have collected thus far, including needs, opportunities, objectives, and feasibility.
  2. Cost-Benefit Analysis: Conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis to outline the expected expenses and the benefits that will accrue from the project.
  3. Draft the Document: Create a structured document stating the proposed project’s business justification. This should include the project’s objectives, expected costs, timelines, benefits, and risks.
  4. Review and Revise: Have key stakeholders and experts review the document and make any necessary revisions.
  5. Finalize business value: Prepare the final draft of the business case for approval.

The business case is critical for stakeholders to assess the project’s value and feasibility. It is often used for project approval and securing funding.

Step 5: Identify Key Stakeholders

How to Execute:

  1. Map Stakeholders: Conduct a stakeholder analysis to identify who has a stake in the project outcome.
  2. Prioritize: Classify stakeholders based on their influence and interest in the project.
  3. Engage Early: Notify and involve key project stakeholders as early as possible. This will help garner support and make the planning process more robust.
  4. Document: Keep a list of stakeholders with contact information, roles, and expectations.

Step 6: Define Project Objectives and Scope

How to Execute:

  1. Set SMART Objectives: Objectives should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
  2. Define Scope: Outline the boundaries of the project. What will be included, and what won’t be?
  3. Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): This helps divide the project into smaller, manageable pieces.
  4. Get Stakeholder Approval: Once the objectives and scope are defined, get approval from key stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Step 7: Assign Project Manager

How to Execute:

  1. Identify Candidates: Create a list of potential project managers based on experience and skills.
  2. Interview and Select: Conduct interviews and choose the most suitable candidate.
  3. Onboarding: Once selected, the project manager should be up to speed on all project details and expectations.
  4. Formalize Appointment: Confirm the project manager’s appointment in writing, specifying their authority, responsibilities, and resources available for the project.

Step 8: Create the Project Charter

How to Execute:

  1. Compile Information: Use the data on the project sponsor, scope, objectives, stakeholders, and business case to form the project charter.
  2. Draft the Charter: Create the first draft, including all essential elements such as project purpose, objectives, scope, key stakeholders, project manager, and approval signatures.
  3. Review and Revise: Circulate the draft among key stakeholders for feedback, then make the necessary revisions.
  4. Get Sign-offs: Secure formal approval signatures on the charter, effectively authorizing the project.

Note: The project charter is the official project authorization and provides a reference point throughout the project lifecycle.

Step 9: Get Approval

How to Execute:

  1. Prepare Presentation: Create a presentation or report that summarizes the project charter and business case.
  2. Set Up a Meeting: Schedule a meeting with senior executives or the project committee responsible for approvals.
  3. Present: In the meeting, you should present your case by focusing on the project’s alignment with organizational goals, feasibility, and expected ROI.
  4. Obtain Formal Approval: Once approved, document the approval, which often involves formal signatures. This allows the project to move into the planning phase.

Securing approval marks the end of the first phase of the project initiation planning and the beginning of the project planning.

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Key Considerations for Successfully Initiating a Project

The importance of an effective communications plan cannot be overstated. Clear, timely, and transparent communication with project team members and stakeholders will help resolve ambiguities and mitigate potential conflicts. It also ensures everyone is aligned with the project’s goals, scope, and overall vision, making it easier to adapt to changes or make data-driven decisions.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of flexibility. While the initiation phase lays the groundwork for the project, unforeseen changes and challenges are inevitable as more information becomes available. The capacity to adapt to new circumstances, whether they are changes in resources, timelines, or stakeholder expectations, can make a difference; therefore, building some flexibility into your project charter, business case, and other planning documents can offer much-needed leeway for later. That said, any change requires careful consideration to not extend the time, scope, cost, or quality without customer/client approval.

Pay close attention to your project’s alignment with your organization’s broader strategic objectives. A project that does not contribute to these larger goals will likely face hurdles in obtaining stakeholder buy-in and may even be deprioritized or canceled; moreover, if the project does not have strategic alignment from the outset, it is not worth pursuing in the first place.

Taking it to the Next Level: How to Excel Beyond Basic Project Initiation

Project management software can streamline the project initiation documentation and offer a centralized repository for items like stakeholder communications and resource allocation. These tools often come with features like real-time collaboration, analytics, and advanced risk-assessment capabilities that can provide a more nuanced understanding of your project.

Data analytics is another method to provide more in-depth feasibility studies and risk assessments. Instead of basing decisions on qualitative insights alone, use quantitative data to assess potential ROI, stakeholder impact, and other critical metrics. Doing so provides a solid foundation and makes it easier to gain stakeholder buy-in.

Also, consider ongoing training and professional development in project management best practices. The field is constantly evolving, with new methodologies and technologies that can offer a competitive edge. Stay updated on these trends and be willing to adapt and learn. This commitment to continuous improvement will make you a better project manager and contribute to your projects’ long-term success.

Alternatives to Traditional Project Initiation Methods

While this project initiation guide offers a comprehensive approach, alternative methods may suit specific projects or organizational cultures. Agile project management, for instance, employs a more iterative and flexible initiation process that allows for changes and adaptations as the project develops. This method is particularly beneficial for projects where the result is unclear or may change, such as software development.

Another alternative is PRINCE2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments 2), a process-driven project management methodology that separates the project management office and layer from the work layer. Its initiation phase is highly structured and provides a clear framework for managing complex projects. PRINCE2 is widely used in the UK government. It emphasizes predefined roles and responsibilities, making it highly suitable for large-scale projects with many stakeholders.

Lean project management focuses on delivering more value with less waste. Concentrating on key performance indicators and continuously refining the project plan aims to improve efficiency throughout the project’s lifecycle. This methodology can be particularly useful for projects that optimize existing processes or systems.

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Wrapping Up and My Experience With Project Initiation

Project initiation is the cornerstone of any successful project, laying the foundation for everything that follows. This article provides a helpful roadmap to navigate critical steps in the initiation phase, from identifying a need to getting the final approval. These steps clearly define the project’s path, minimize risks, ensure stakeholder involvement, and align the project with organizational goals.

With years of project management experience across various industries, I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of a well-executed project initiation phase. It’s been the essential first factor between project success and failure.

References

Ambler, S. W., & Lines, M. (2022). Choose your WoW!: A disciplined agile approach to optimizing your way of working (2nd ed.). Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK guide) (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2023). Process Groups: A Practice Guide. Project Management Institute.

About the author: Dr. Michael J. Shick, MSPM, PMP, CSM, founder of ROSEMET, is a combat-wounded warrior and retired senior military officer turned esteemed academic and project management expert. Holding a doctorate from Creighton University and serving as an Assistant Professor at Western Carolina University, Dr. Shick’s dedication goes beyond credentials, as he commits to empowering individuals and organizations toward project excellence. With an extensive military, academic, and project leadership background, he epitomizes resilience, expertise, and a steadfast devotion to fostering growth and success in others.