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Managing Project Initiation Phase – A List of Critical Problems & Suggestions

Eric McConnell
July 16, 2010

Suggestions on how to get your project initiated

Project InitiationThe project initiation phase is critical to successful project development and implementation since this is the time when the project manager takes initial steps to create a solid foundation for success in all of the following project phases and activities. The fact is that there is a set of failures associated with project initiation, which are caused by typical problems and issues. In order to be successful in initiating projects, you need to know those problems, understand how to solve them, and be ready to follow project initiation best practices. Let’s learn the most critical problems you may have to solve when stepping into the first phase of your project.

Some Terrible Statistics

If being specific about the problems that most project managers suffer from at the initiation phase, about 65 percent of the projects are failed because of the various project initiating problems. Those failed projects were either challenged or cancelled. It’s really a terrible situation in terms of missed opportunities and unearned incomes. It also confirms the fact that any project is not perfect so it requires improvement at the very beginning, even if there is no approved plan for the project.

In my management practice, I personally failed about 10% of my projects, and the key reason why I did so is the lack of experience. I believe that if I knew more and had more developed skills I wouldn’t fail all those projects (about 5-6). Unfortunately today I’m not able to fix the failures; however, I can avoid them. Below I give the most critical problems I face in my practice from project to project. I hope my experience will help you avoid project failure and keep your project up from the initiation phase through the completion.

Critical Problems

Here is a list of the main problems that may occur in your project at the initiation phase and that have an impact to further project development and implementation:

  • No Business Strategy to Follow. The results (benefits and deliverables) of your project effort should comply with the organization’s strategic objectives and the business strategy. If the organization’s business strategy and strategic goals are not followed by the team and not used as a starting point for planning the project effort and making the proposal during the initiation phase, then it seems to be impossible to gain necessary investments, justify the project for feasibility and cost-effectiveness, allocate budgets, and set realistic expectations. What I suggest is:

    First you must be sure that there is some problem or need your organization wishes to address. For this purpose you can perform a kind of environmental analysis (SWOT, PERT, or whatever else you like) to identify all the internal, external and general factors that either positively, negatively or naturally affect the operational environment. Secondly, when the analysis is done, you just determine what factors cause a trouble to the organization, and then transform that trouble into a problem that your project needs to address. Remember the problem should be linked to the strategic context of your business; otherwise your project will do nothing to your company.

  • Lack of Human Resources. Often it’s difficult to select and assign the right people with the right skills to the right roles and duties within a project. Many project initiation problems are linked to the selection and organization of project HR required to perform initiation activities. As much your project is complex as it’s harder for you to select and sort out the best candidates to the team. Here’s what I suggest on this point:

    Before trying to recruit employees for your new project, why don’t you look at your organization’s personnel? perhaps you have all the necessary staff for your project. Doing so will help you 1) reduce recruitment costs and 2) be sure you have people available to the project. Meanwhile, you can search for external specialists. Anyway, remember you need to have:

    • a clearly defined description of all jobs involved in your project
    • a list of skill and knowledge requirements that you will use to match the best candidates to your project team
    • a good management team which includes people who can provide necessary leadership and motivation to the project team
  • No Stakeholder Support. Key stakeholders (those executives and business owners who have an interest in or affected by the success of your initiative) should provide backing to the project by authorizing project launch and making necessary investments. Stakeholders control the project funding so they are at the inception of your project, and it’s impossible to start the project without the support. Here’s what you can do to solve gain the necessary support:

    First, be sure your project offers an effective solution solution that really addresses the problem or business need. That solution should technically feasible (perform feasibility study) and cost-effective (perform cost-effectiveness analysis). Then you must provide a preliminary assessment of costs and perform a risk analysis. All this data (solution name, feasibility, costs, risks) should be wrapped into a proposal document that explains the reason, benefit an concept of your project. Submit this document to your top management for review and approval. If you were persuasive enough in the document, then most likely your will gain the management support.

  • No Consensus on Project Output. In order to avoid this problem at the project initiation phase, it’s critical for you to specifically and unambiguously agree on project output between the customer and sponsor from one side and the project manager and the team from the other one. Often many different ideas and expectations about project development and implementation are expressed unambiguously so it becomes difficult or even impossible for the team to deliver the required product. In this regard, I suggest you do the following:

    Develop a document that includes a description of the project concept, its goals & objectives, deliverables and other information that explains what and how to do by the project. It might be Project Charter, Project Brief, Project Definition, or any other kind of project initiation documents. You must organize a meeting with the customer and the sponsor to agree on:

    • the deliverables to be produced
    • deliverables acceptance criteria
    • preliminary time-line for all work to be done
    • amount of investments to be made in the project
    • the product to be delivered at the end of the project

The listed problems are common to most projects that step through the initiation phase. Sure there are other problems such as poor leadership, lack of materials, methodology failure, and so on. I gave you my suggestions which reflect my own vision on how to reach effectiveness during the initiation phase. If you have something to say about my publication, please feel free to leave your comments below.

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