How to Initiate a Project

Welcome to the wonderful world of project management! The Project Management Institute (PMI), the PM’s foremost authority, identifies five basic steps in the project lifecycle.  

  1. Initiating 
  2. Planning 
  3. Executing 
  4. Controlling 
  5. Closing 

This post focuses on initiating a project, formally recognizing the beginning of our process. The initiation phase is the foundation of the project. 

While we’re not talking about program management specifically (According to PMI, “A program is a group of related projects managed in a coordinated manner to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.”), it is here worth mentioning. Before you initiate a project, consider how it fits in with the rest of your work and your business objectives. Looking at the big picture can inform your work as a whole, and can identify dependencies and help see larger initiatives through to completion.  

Develop Project Documents 

Great documentation sets your project up for success. Before making any moves, develop key documents to get everyone on the same page.  

Business Case 

Initiating a project often begins with a business case, which outlines the objectives, purpose, and deliverables of the proposed project. The document should clearly explain how the project aligns with the organization’s strategy and what business value is expected. 

The business case answers three basic project questions:  

  1. What are the objectives of the project? 
  2. What is the project’s purpose? 
  3. What are the deliverables of the project? 

Project Charter 

The project charter looks more into the factors that go into completing a project. 

  1. Scope 
  2. Key requirements 
  3. Budget 
  4. Stakeholders 
  5. Success factors 

In some cases, the charter is used for project reporting. The charter also acts as an input to Phase Two: Project Planning. 

Once you’ve developed your documents, it’s time to present them to others. Gaining input at the beginning heads off trouble at the pass and prevents the wrong projects from moving forward. Just as we touched on earlier with program management, this is the time to assess how the project’s impacts and interdependencies fit in with your organization’s work and larger objectives. Obtain appropriate signoffs to move deeper into the initiation process.  

Select a Project Method 

There are a variety of project management methodologies and infinite blends of them all. No two projects are the same! The trick to picking a method to guide you forward is to ask a variety of project-related questions. 

  • What method helps meet the project’s goals and KPIs?  
  • What fits with the production method of my team and our industry?  
  • What method is suited to the number of people involved? 
  • What is the projected project cost and how important is it to stay on budget? 
  • How risky and important is the project? 
  • Does the scope of the project have flexibility? 
  • What method works with the timeline? 
  • How much involvement do stakeholders (or clients) want? 

Assemble a Project Team 

If you’re the project manager, you shouldn’t be doing ANY of the actual work yourself. Your team must come together to form a supergroup, equal to more than the sum of their parts.  

Resource Selection 

Select your resources carefully, by assessing their current workload and making requests in the proper channels.  

Kick-off Meeting 

Once you have everyone confirmed and onboard, hold a project kick-off meeting. Getting people on the same page creates buy-in and ensures that everyone is hearing the exact same project information.  

Identify Project Stakeholders 

While stakeholders don’t perform the work of the project themselves, they are important people with an interest in the project.  

Identify Interest Groups 

Identifying interest groups is surprisingly simple at its heart. Think: who has or wants a say in the project? A great hack is to rank individuals by support, knowledge, and influence. An excellent tool is our Executive Support Analysis chart. Assessing individuals upfront lets you know where to better focus your energies. 

Win Support 

You analyzed the key stakeholders, yes? By indexing project players, you’ll get a leg up on winning their support. Set a baseline of support, and target tough customers.  

  • What’s important to the person? 
  • Does she work/vote as a team with someone?  
  • What are some of his keywords or pet initiatives—does/can your project incorporate these? 

Define requirements 

Making it clear at the beginning that you want to meet your stakeholder’s requirements goes a long way in establishing rapport. Write down their requirements for the project and address what you’ll need from them in return. As a best practice, file this with the rest of your project documents. If a project should fail due to your stakeholders (heaven forbid), this documentation may be crucial.  

Develop a communication plan 

Say it with me: poor communications derail projects. Do not assume that you’re all on the same page. PS: unclear communications can be just as bad as no communication at all. They leave you in the same spot—guessing or unable to make any moves.  

Developing a communication plan with stakeholders is a crucial part of a project. Don’t just look at this plan from the position of you communicating to them; set expectations of how they will communicate with you, as well. Ensure that everyone signs off on the plan.  

  • Who is communicating?  
  • What are the topics to be communicated? Risks, KPIs, project milestones, setbacks, approvals?  
  • Where are we communicating? Email, virtual meeting, phone call, chat? 
  • When are we communicating? Are there recurring meetings? Do you want a weekly check-in? Do we have deadlines for signoffs and if so, what are they? What if someone is out of the office? 
  • How do we communicate in a way that works with our project methodology? Should we batch requests or communications?  

Assess Your Project Again 

Now that we have a project in mind, documentation created, and stakeholders assessed, it’s time to look deeper.  

Budget assessment: Perform a cost/benefit analysis on key items to look for savings or areas where it may be worth it to invest more. 

Assumptions and constraints: Think about it. Does this project have any hidden dependencies or limitations? What assumptions have you made going into this?  

Identify and analyze risks: Look for the worst-case scenarios. Make risk your friend, not your enemy. You are not a pessimist; you are prepared! Proactively looking at risks lets you avoid reactive messes. 

Propose a schedule: With all the factors considered, when may this project be reasonably completed? If you’ve never tackled a project like this, research industry standards for that particular project type. Now add a little cushion time!  

Gain Signoffs 

Before you jump to the planning phase, gain final project approval from the necessary parties, often a sponsor and/or project steering committee. Ensure that they have access to all your documentation and are fully aware of any of the project’s larger risks and implications.  

And just like that, you’ve officially initiated your project. Congratulations! Now, let’s get on to planning.