How to start your project faster

Getting your project started correctly is the foundation to the future success of the project. If you don’t start the project off properly you will find it challenging to get it back on track later on.

Avoid the temptation to just get going with the project

There is a temptation to just get going on the project without some of the key project fundamentals in place. Avoid this approach at all costs – you will pay for it later.

You may initially come flying out of the blocks, everything will go great for the first few weeks, even a few months, and then gradually you will get into a quagmire and everything will slow down to a crawl. At the start everyone was really excited to be working on something new – but things aren’t going quite so well now.  People are uncertain about what the project is about, where it is heading and who is doing what.

Get the project fundamentals in place

This is actually quite common with projects and even happens with some experienced Project Managers. Most often I have seen this happen when the project has not been setup properly from the start. Specifically – I mean that some of the project fundamentals are not in place. These are typically some, or all, of the following:

  • Unclear business owner (sponsor) for the project
  • Unclear reasons for doing the project
  • Unclear project objectives ie what the project is aiming to deliver
  • Unclear definition of what success looks like for the project
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities on the project ie who is responsible for what
  • Unclear understanding of who the project is for, how they are impacted and what influence they have in the decision making processes in the project

These are the fundamental aspects that need to be understood before you can even start to get deeper into the project planning to understand what the detailed requirements are, what will be delivered and then start to estimate timescales and costs on the project.

Document the key project elements in the Project Plan

Another key point to make is that this must be written down. It is remarkable the number of times that I have seen troubled projects in mid flight without these fundamentals in place, with only some vague or very out of date agreements in place. If it isn’t written down people then either forget some of the specifics about what the project is about, or purposefully change what the project is about along the way.

Changing the scope, direction and deliverables on a project is fine as long as everyone involved understands what the impact of the changes are and agrees to the changed approach. Often these changes are subtle and can appear to be small in nature but when added up they can have a major impact. If nothing is written down there is no reference point for making these decisions.

If you build the project on shaky foundations you are not setting the project up for success and as a minimum the project will not proceed as fast and smoothly as you want and at the other end of the scale can lead to disagreement and plenty of stress for everyone.

So how do we set up the project for success?

Create a comprehensive Project Plan

A Project Plan is more than just a timeline – lets clarify our terminology here – I will call the plan the “Project Plan” document. I have worked in many organisations and the name of this document can vary from place to place. It is also often called a “Project Initiation Document” or PID (a PRINCE methodology term) or sometimes it can be called a “Terms of reference” (ToR), if it is to be used as an external customer facing document it may be called a “Proposal” or even a “Statement of Work” (SoW). However essentially all of these documents have similar content. The purpose of the Project Plan is to outline the key elements of the project.

Project Plan sections

The Project Plan is the written down specification, or shared view of the project and it is used as the reference document on the project so that everyone involved agrees what the project is about and what it will deliver. It can be quite a lengthy document and should have the following sections:

  • Project Overview
  • Vision
  • Business case and benefits
  • Objectives
  • Sponsor and key stakeholders
  • Requirements summary
  • Deliverables and outcomes
  • Main activities
  • Organisation and delivery team
  • Project delivery approach
  • Timelines and schedules
  • Governance
  • Finances
  • Key Risks

Creating the Project Plan is time consuming but worth the effort

Creating (writing down) the Project Plan can be a time consuming and laborious task – this is one of the reasons why it is often done so poorly. It should be written before the project starts but is often written at the very start of the project.

The work, of course, is not just in documenting the plan but in gathering all the information together from everyone involved, then writing it down and then walking it through with everyone again to make sure what you have written down is in fact what they said. Then you have the process of negotiation between all the different stakeholders. Eventually, all being well you get agreement and get the Project Plan signed-off and you can officially start the project.

The process of documenting the plan helps clarify the project itself

There is often huge pressure to “get going with the project” rather than “messing around” writing things down at the start. However the mere process of writing the Project Plan down and getting the agreements in place enables everyone to get great clarity on the project. So it is all about the process of creating the Project Plan and the by-product is the document itself. This pays huge dividends later on in the project. If you don’t do it at the start, then you will end up doing it later on under even more stressful conditions when the project is going off track.

I liken not doing a Project Plan at the start to taking off in a plane with no clear idea on where you are going, how you are going to get there and if you have a enough fuel in the tanks – it might work out but there is a good chance that it won’t.

5 key questions to start your Project Plan

Before you can into the actual planning of the project in terms of deliverables, approach, timescales and cost you need to know 5 key things about the project:

  • Who wants the project?
  • What is the project about?
  • Why are we doing the project?
  • Who is impacted by the project?
  • What does success look like for the project

In order to answer these questions you need to identify the Project Sponsor and Key Stakeholders. They will then help you understand the project Business case and benefits and project Objectives.

These are the first few sections of the Project Plan and it makes good sense to “start at the start”. If you don’t have the first few sections confirmed you are going to have a lot of trouble getting the later sections of the Project Plan agreed and written down.

Understanding the Project Sponsor role

The Project Sponsor is the person who wants the project and is typically the person paying for, or funding, the project. It is preferable to have one sponsor as you have only one person to deal with. Projects with multiple sponsors require more project management time as there is the potential to have conflicting requirements and the potential for people to pull the project in different directions.

The Sponsor may also be one of the main stakeholders in the project (see next section) and they can be seen as the main customer and the key decision maker in the project. It is really important to be clear on who the Sponsor (not always as straightforward as it should be) is and the role they will play on the project. They will set the direction for the project and will help you outline the key objectives, requirements and deliverables for the project. They may have a senior role and therefore be busy and sometimes delegate their responsibilities to someone else in the project. Whatever the position this is a key role for the success of the project.

Identifying the Stakeholders

A Project Stakeholder is anyone impacted by the project. In any project there are likely to be multiple stakeholders. The project manager needs to

  • Identify all the stakeholders or groups of stakeholders
  • Identify which are the key stakeholders (normally the ones most impacted by the project)

The key stakeholders will help you define the project requirements and will help you define how the project will need to be approached. They will also provide you with some of the constraints that the project has to work within.

The Project Manager will work closely with the Key Stakeholders or the people that represent the main stakeholder groups.

Understanding the Business Case and benefits

The Sponsor should be able to articulate the business drivers, benefits and case for doing the project. Often there will be a detailed Business Case that is agreed before the project has authorisation to start (this is often dependent on the organisation or type of project).

The business case should be summarised in the Project Plan. This can then be used as a reference point throughout the project to ensure that what is being delivered matches with what the sponsor requires. If there is a request for change in requirements, deliverables etc. then this should be referenced against the Business Case and clarified with the Sponsor.

There could be many different business drivers for a project. Some of the typical ones are as follows:

  • Improve efficiencies and reduce operational running costs
  • Deliver a new product or service
  • Meet a set of legal requirements, standards or regulations

Where possible the business case should state the specific values such as time, cost saved, revenue expected etc.

Project objectives and defining success

I have found that writing down a really clear set of measurable objectives for a project can be really beneficial. It is then really clear to everyone what success will look like when the project is completed. If done well they should be cross-reference throughout the project to ensure what is being delivered is compliant with the objectives.

The objectives need to be agreed with Sponsor and validated with the Key Stakeholders. They should be stated unambiguously ie there is no room for different interpretations of the objective and typically you should aim for a minimum of 5-7 depending on the size of the project. They are closely linked to the Business case and benefits can be used as a reference framework for creating detailed requirements and definition of scope for deliverables and outcomes.

Next steps – planning the project delivery

With these project planning fundamentals in place then hopefully you can see that you have everything in place to start the main planning activity on your project. As stated if you aren’t clear on who wants the project (Sponsor) and who is impacted by the project (Stakeholders) then it is very difficult to have any meaningful discussions about project requirements and from there drive out what the project deliverables and outcomes will be. From there you can build out the rest of the Project Plan and start to plan timelines and costs.

Good luck with your Project Plan!

Chris Wilson

Author: Chris Wilson

I'm a Project Manager based in Brighton, UK. I have 20+ years of experience running technology projects and I can help you to run yours.

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