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.

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.

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