Project initiation is oftentimes what makes or breaks a project. As organizations gear up for growth, they’re initiating many new projects and bursting at the seams with excitement to kick off. The thought of initiating a new project, however, can be overwhelming to project managers. When propelling a project forward, there are simply too many things to consider.
And unless you’re able to create effective project initiation processes, chances are high that these projects will fail or under-perform. In short, they won’t achieve the return-on-investment that management is hoping for. Take a recent survey saying that 75% of people in IT always or mostly believe that their projects are doomed from the very start.
But where does the project start, how do you identify it, and what are the things you can do to raise your chances for success? Here is the ultimate project initiation guide that will explain to you how to take the driver’s seat from the get-go and always start your projects on the right foot.
- What is project initiation and where did it come from?
- What makes the project initiation phase important?
- What goes into the project initiation process?
What is project initiation, and where did it come from?
Project initiation was introduced by the Project Management Institute (PMI) as a part of a standard five-phase project management process. The PMI is the largest nonprofit membership association in the world focused on project management as a whole. Out of the five project management phases they came up with, initiation is the first one and it is followed by planning, execution, performance/monitoring, and project close (in sequential order).
PMBOK, a book on project management guidelines by the PMI, defines project initiation as “the process of formally recognizing that a new project exists or that an existing project should continue into its next phase.” In other words, this is the first major step in your project management lifecycle where you need to persuade your company into launching a specific project. As a part of the process, you get to assemble a team, define your project from A to Z, and work out a strong business case to support it.
The big questions to answer here if you want to get the project off the ground quick are:
- Why are you initiating the project and what business value can it deliver to the company?
- How feasible is your project and how will it affect the stakeholders involved?
As you might have guessed by now, there are two main metrics that help companies determine how beneficial and relevant the proposed project initiation plan is: a business case and a feasibility study.
What makes the project initiation phase important?
The initiation phase is not just a nice-to-have in project management, it is a mandatory and, for that matter, decisive step where the project either gets the green light or gets labeled as a no-go. Basic resource management questions get lined up, new faces enter the picture, and key stakeholders sit at a round table passing their judgment on the project.
If you picture an upside-down triangle, the project management initiation phase should take the very top of it because that is where you make general decisions and give your project some sort of a definition, both literally and metaphorically speaking. It is the best time to hire and assign relevant people to the project and work out the goals that will drive the project all along the way.
Going through this phase is, in some way, like trying a demo version of a product you are not sure you can really benefit from. You get to see what it can give you and what you need to give in return before making a decision. Entering this phase by no means guarantees that the project will move forward. In fact, the very purpose of the project initiation steps you take is to determine IF the project SHOULD move forward. The project team has to evaluate all the business and project risks, align expectations, reduce the amount of uncertainty hanging over the project, and make a final decision whether it is worth the trouble.
Finalizing this stage should give confidence to all the stakeholders involved so that no one has to question why they are working on the project and what kind of challenges might lie ahead. That is why the process requires reasonable time investment and determination for you to thoroughly comb through all of its steps and get maximum value before entering the next phase.
What goes into the project initiation process?
What counts in the project initiation process is the outcome: getting business approval and being able to execute the project. Truth be told, there is no golden number of steps you need to take for the project to get approved, but here are 6 crucial elements that make a winning project conception and initiation.
Step 1. Developing a business case
A business case should be the first thing to check off your project initiation checklist. A business case is the backbone of any project. It answers the question, “why are we even doing this?” A strong and solid business case can not only justify the budget for an initiative but also help sell the project to senior leadership within your company.
Even the name speaks for itself: such a case aims at explaining how the proposed project relates to the business without getting into too much detail or planning. Look at this part as a project pitch (which, essentially, it is) where you need to explain the reasoning behind starting the project. After all, the ultimate goal here would be to explain how the project’s goals align with the company’s long-term ambitions.
In plain words, you need to draft the business case and pitch it to the upper management of your company. Considering the audience, this project initiation document should be succinct, logical, clear, and, most importantly, relevant. This is why you need to follow a relatively simple and generally familiar structure when drafting your business case. Here is a good example you could follow:
- Table of Contents
- Executive briefing (explain what the project is about, why the company really needs it, and what results you expect to deliver)
- Projected costs (talk about the resources and investments required to make the project happen)
- Expected benefit (show what the company can get out of it, but don’t forget to mention the risks involved, no one likes unpleasant surprises)
- Conclusion and a brief overview of the next steps
Business cases are very important in project initiation because they provide an initial assessment of the value of support and funding for a project at the organization level.
Step 2. Running a feasibility study
If you’re still wondering which document is created during the initiation phase of a project, the answer is there are multiple and a feasibility document is one of the hotshots on the list. Let’s see what this document is all about and why is it so important in the initiation phase of the project.
As soon as your business case (document #1) gets a thumbs-up from the C-suite, you’re good to enter the next phase on your project initiation checklist: conducting a feasibility study. In a nutshell, a feasibility study is meant to determine if the project has a chance of succeeding.
You need to start off by making project assumptions, identifying high-level constraints, and potential risks that can either hinder your project progress or stop it altogether. A feasibility study is basically this ‘better safe than sorry’ approach that will give you the needed reassurance to move forward with the project.
When developing the study and running analyses, you get to consider all the available and missing resources, look at your capacity and available funding, as well as how realistic the proposed time frames are. By researching opportunities, threats, and solutions you can see the real picture and ascertain that the project will be worthwhile.
Step 3. Drafting a project charter
Working out an exceptional project charter is quite possibly the most important part of the initiation phase in project management. A project charter is a document that aims to answer three big questions:
- WHAT? (What is the scope of the project, what are its objectives?)
- WHO? (Who are the team members, stakeholders, and customers that will be directly or indirectly involved in the project?)
- WHEN? (When do we need to have it done?)
If you follow the process in the suggested sequence, this stage is where you start going much deeper into your upcoming project. Goals, purposes, constraints, and opportunities clearly defined, project scope and required resources identified, general project structure outlined, deliverables named — if your project charter addresses all of these things then you are most certainly off to a good start.
Alternatively, here is a project initiation template you can use when filling out your project charter:
- Project name (come up with something specific and relevant, don’t get carried away naming it after your cat — people won’t know what it’s about)
- Goal, purpose, and objective: what are you after here?
- Budget: how much is it going to cost the company?
- Deliverables: what product or service can you deliver as your end result?
- Scope and risks: how much work is to be done and what are the potential threats?
- Milestones and timeframes: what’s the expiration date or specific deadlines to meet?
- Main stakeholders: who will be involved in the project?
- Roles and responsibilities within the team: who will be doing what exactly? A simple Gantt chart can help you visualize this last part. Here’s what it looks like at Forecast:
Once these have been clarified through the project charter, you can plan and strategize for the project execution. It can even be used as a guide in cases where project review is necessary. If used correctly, the project charter is not just a great document that will ensure your project is executed smoothly. It can also be a template to ensure other projects are set up and approached in the same way.
Step 4. Enlisting & managing stakeholders
Stakeholder analysis is an integral part of standard project initiation activities. Stakeholders are all the people who have some relation to the project, whether they are your team members, the client, end customers, some partners, etc.
Taking the time to determine all your project stakeholders is important as complex projects are composed of a plethora of needs, desires, and opinions. The more people you involve in the initial identification phase of these wants and needs, the easier it will be for the team to agree on a common goal. A clear, agreed upon vision will help keep the group moving in one cohesive direction. Understanding stakeholders is vital to not only effectively managing your project, but also making sure your team reaches its project goals.
Please note that there is no magic bullet when it comes to dealing with project stakeholders; you'll have to use the tools provided by your organizational culture.
Step 5. Selecting the right team & project office
There is no way you can successfully start a project without a team. The good news is that with a well-written charter at hand, it will be easier for you to find the right people for the project as you already know what expertise you need in the picture for it to end in success. It is actually another good thing about project management initiation: you get to learn early on what kind of people you will be dealing with during the project. You get to assemble the most relevant team, assign roles and responsibilities, and increase accountability of the whole team from day one. That way everyone will be personally interested and invested in the outcome of the project.
The project venue, more commonly known as the project office, is another thing you need to take care of during the initiation phase of project management. It is the physical space like an office or a temporary work site you and your team will be using when working on the project. This is where you need to make sure the office you choose offers the needed tools, equipment, and communications infrastructure you will need when the project launches.
Step 6. Putting the finishing touches
Project initiation and planning can be quite a tangled process so taking some time to double-check if you covered all the necessary steps properly is a good idea. Project management success is actually heavily reliant on frequent reviewing and monitoring during every phase of project progress. The more confident you are about all the stages being in good order the less uncertainty will be looming over your head.
When you are finished with the review step, there will often be one final project initiation meeting that will either make it or break it for the project. With a business case, a feasibility study, and a project charter on the table, you have all the needed cards to seal the deal and get the project official. And this is where your project initiation phase ends and the planning phase begins.
Whether you are a seasoned project management expert or just a beginner trying to understand the rules of the game, adhering to the 6 steps above should make project initiation a smooth and easy experience for you. With that project initiation phase properly finished up, you can confidently move forward towards the next project management stages that will get you closer to the finish line. And for your journey to be more of a pleasant ride, consider signing up for a free trial with Forecast to see just how much of a positive difference an AI-driven project management solution can make.