How To Start A Project And Increase Its Chance Of Success

Set your project up for success

Setting up a project properly from the start is fundamental to its success. If it is started poorly then the chances are that you will be playing catchup right from the start.

I have rescued many projects over the years, and what is often very clear is that they were never set up for success from the very start.

It’s like playing a game of football: if you get 2 goals scored against you in the first 5 minutes – then the game may well be winnable, but you have a lot of work to do to get it back on track.

This article gives some pointers on how to set projects up properly from the start.

You can also try our FREE Training course that will take you step by step through the process of setting your project up for success.

Avoid the temptation to just get going with the project

Once the project has approval to start it is really tempting to gather a team and get going immediately. However – all projects need a plan and there are some fundamentals to put in place before the plan can be started.

A few simple steps can be taken to avoid a world of pain later in the project.

How do we set up the project for success?

Five questions to answer before planning

Before starting the detailed project plan it is essential to get these 5 key questions answered first.:

  • 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?

Getting answers to these questions will mean that you have a really solid foundation from which to start the detailed planning.

The Project Sponsor

Question: Who wants the project?

Answer: Project Sponsor.

Role of the Project Sponsor

The Project Sponsor is the person who wants the project and is typically the person paying for, or funding, the project.

Identifying the Project Sponsor is the key first step as they can tell the Project Manager what the project is about and help them work out who they need to talk to get a detailed understanding of the full project scope.

The Sponsor is also likely to be one of the main stakeholders in the project. They should be seen as the main customer and key decision maker in the project.

It is really important to be clear on who the Sponsor is (not always as straightforward as it should be) 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.

Sponsor helps define the scope of the project

Question: What is the project about?

Answer: The Project Sponsor will tell you what is in-scope and what is out of scope for the project. This will likely be at a high level initially, but it can then be scoped out in detail in the planning stages of project initiation.

Project Stakeholders

Question: Who is impacted by the project?

Answer: The Stakeholders are the people impacted by the project.

Role of the Stakeholder

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 – these are the groups, departments, teams etc. that are most impacted by the project

Key Stakeholders help define detailed project scope

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 throughout the project as they are effectively the customers for the project deliverables. They have a big say in the project so it’s really important to work well with them.

The Business Case

Question: Why are we doing the project?

Answer: This should be written down in the Business case.

Understanding the business drivers for the project

Understanding why we are doing the project is essential for success as it provides a reference point throughout the project for what is being delivered.

The Sponsor should be able to articulate the business drivers, benefits and Business Case for doing the project. Often there will be a detailed Business Case document that is agreed before the project has authorisation to start. Sometimes this may not be the case – but the project may have very strong business reasons for its existence.

Use the Business Case as a reference point throughout the project

The Business Case should be summarised in the Project Plan (may also be called the PID – Project Initiation Document, or Project Terms of Reference). 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.

If there isn’t a written down Business Case then this needs to be agreed with the Sponsor and documented, either in detail or at least in summary level in the Project Plan.

Typical business drivers

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

  • Improve operational efficiencies and reduce 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.

The Project Vision and Objectives

Question: What does success look like for the project?

Answer: This is defined in the Project Objectives and Vision statement.

A clear definition of success

Having a Project Vision for the project and a set of clear Objectives give a very clear definition of success for the project. If this is done properly it can be referenced throughout the project when decision making. It will also provide clarity and direction for the project delivery teams.

The Project Sponsor will help with definition of the high-level project Vision and Objectives.

Use the Vision and Objectives as a reference point throughout the project

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 can be used as a reference framework for creating detailed requirements, and defining the of scope for deliverables.

Ready for detailed planning

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 part of the Project Initiation process.

It all starts with the Project Sponsor – they will define at a high level what the project is about. They will also tell you who the main Project Stakeholders are. The Sponsor will also tell you the main business drivers for the project – ie why we are doing the project.

When you know who the Stakeholders are, then you can talk to them to start to scope out the detail of the project in terms of the project requirements, deliverables and constraints. You can also then start to work out what the key project objectives are and agree a vision with the stakeholders and sponsor.

You are now ready to start the detailed planning.

For a much more in-depth walkthrough you can also try our FREE Training course that will take you step by step through the process of setting your project up for success.

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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