Your organisation may have a defined process for selecting and starting projects but more often than not many clients take a surprisingly ad-hoc approach. This article looks at the early stages of a project focusing on a number of practical recommendations.

There must be a solid reason why any project is identified, selected and initiated. It should not be on the whim or fancy of a Director. That bright idea that brings him or her rushing into the office is all very well but lets perform some analysis on the value of doing that project as opposed to something else (or nothing).

So let’s have a Business Case. This does not need to be some lengthy financially complex document but should look at the direct cost of the project and compare it to the forecast benefit. How long will it take before the return on investment is realised? If a project costs £100k and takes 1 year but gives an annual cost saving of £50k, then it has a payback period of 3 years, i.e. 3 years from starting the project the organisation will start receiving true net benefit. Only a few projects should exist outside a simple cost / benefit assessment and these include projects that ensure legal compliance or adherence to corporate standards.

Is there a list of possible projects that the organisation, or someone in the organisation, would like to kick-start? I suspect there are a number of bright ideas floating around and it is best to get them all on the table at the same time, preferably as part of a budget review. Understand what funding is available and then assign it to those projects that represent the best cost/benefit – simple!

Once the projects are selected it is worth pointing out that the Business Case must be reviewed periodically, particularly if significant changes (variations) are likely. Would the change invalidate the Business Case? Should the project be cancelled and another, more beneficial project started?

Every project should be given a fanfare start. Resources must be galvanised into action and visible sponsorship from senior management must be seen & heard. A project kick-start meeting following a clear agenda is a good way to start things off on the right foot.

Remember that roles and responsibilities within the organisational day-to-day might be clear cut, but the roles & responsibilities on the project must be defined and agreed. Make sure that a named individual is responsible for delivering each piece of work, each element of the scope. Defining the scope of the project is (after senior management sponsorship) the most important part of any project. Scope creep is the number 1 reason why projects fail, so don’t let it happen to you!

Much of the early definition work can be helped through the use of the well respected brown paper and stick note exercise. I use this as part of our Introduction to Project Management training courses and delegates gain a great deal of value from understanding this simple technique.

Write out the key deliverables, the “things” to be created as part of the project onto individual sticky notes. This set of stickys should define the scope of the project. Do think in terms of products or deliverables, so for example, writing a document is not a deliverable, but having a complete or approved written document is. It is often useful to think in the past tense “document written”, “wall built”, “negotiations complete”, “testing approved” when writing out the stickys.

Once you have a good list, start sticking them on the brown paper in logical order. As they are stickys you can obviously move things around until everyone is happy with the flow. Now draw links between the stickys to show dependencies. It is often most useful to look at each sticky independently and ask the question, “what do I need to start this work” – this will enable you to deduce predecessors.

Once you have defined this high level roadmap through the project lifecycle you have a great frame of reference:

  • Team members can be assigned responsibility for the delivery of each sticky. They can then prepare a deliverable definition document explaining exactly what is to be produced, to what level of quality, by who, when and what is the agreed handover / completion criteria.
  • You can use the stickys to help frame a project risk workshop. Rather than everyone staring into space trying to think up potential risks, go through each sticky systematically listing the risks associated with each deliverable.
  • Use the list of deliverables to help create a high level cost forecast or resource plan. Again, it provides a systematic framework that ensures you don’t miss anything when looking at cost or resource.

I recommend that in most instances the brown paper and sticky note exercise forms a key part of the project kick-start meeting. Providing of course you are kick-starting the right project!

We offer customised corporate Project Management training and have worked with many clients such as Honda and The University of Law. Our training would cover a variety of tools and techniques that you can use in every day projects. We can even incorporate Microsoft Project training and the APM Introduction to Project Management certificate.