A strong start
strategic thinking, leadership skills and business acumen can help a project team hit the ground running
BY KATE ROCKWOOD PORTRAITS BY JONATHAN TIMMES
Clearly marking the finish line helps team members keep their eyes on the prize—and make sure they're moving in the right direction.
Project initiation processes help unify the team by defining the path, purpose and parameters of the project. They clarify the end goal from the beginning and get buy-in from everyone involved.
“Initiating a project means converting ideas into reality.”
—Mohammed Khedir Sultan, PMP, DAL Engineering Co., Khartoum, Sudan
“Initiating a project means converting ideas into reality,” says Mohammed Khedir Sultan, PMP, senior projects planner, DAL Engineering Co., Khartoum, Sudan. “Considerable effort is required to collect information and prepare a proper plan in order to convert that idea to reality.”
Project initiation transforms the whirlwind of agreements, goals and assumptions surrounding a project into a concrete project charter. It develops a project's feasibility, defines its constraints and brings together a cohesive team that can move the project forward.
But not all teams take the time to start their projects right. Some project managers think skipping the initiation phase will help them get a jump start on the schedule and deliver their project faster, says Jee Peng Lim, PMP, project and compliance manager, Abbott Manufacturing, Singapore.
“However, this could also lead to a lot of conflicts or confusion later,” he says. “What's worse, the cost of changes exponentially increases toward the end of the project. Thus, skipping project initiation makes project control more challenging and puts scope, cost and timeline at risk.”
Getting all the pieces in place requires a sharp strategic focus. Honing strategic thinking, business acumen and leadership skills helps project managers make sure their projects start—and finish—strong.
Avoid these common initiation pitfalls to start a project on solid ground.
Anxious ambition: Don't let antsy team members or impatient sponsors rush the initiation process. Hurrying ahead will only put the project behind from the beginning.
Crippling indecision: Sponsors must be confident enough to clearly define the project scope and requirements. Confronting a lack of commitment early on can help clear up any underlying leadership concerns.
Lack of consensus: Glossing over disagreement about the project's purpose can sign its death warrant. Get everyone on board with the strategic vision from the start.
Unavailable resources: Getting the right people on board can be the difference between success and failure. Avoid the temptation to get started without key stakeholders—even if it seems impossible to get on their schedules.
SETTING THE SIGHTS
Defining a project's final destination requires outlining the benefits it intends to deliver—and understanding how they'll help the organization achieve its strategic goals.
“A project that's not aligned to the organization's goals may waste millions of dollars,” Mr. Sultan says.
“Skipping project initiation makes project control more challenging and puts scope, cost and timeline at risk.”
—Jee Peng Lim, PMP, Abbott Manufacturing, Singapore
Yet less than half (44 percent) of organizations report high alignment of projects to strategy, according to PMI's 2016 Pulse of the Profession®: The High Cost of Low Performance report.
This difficulty stems from the elusive nature of organizational strategies. They shift with changes in the business climate, technology trends and the competitive landscape—and people on the low end of the ladder can't always keep up.
Organizations rarely update their written strategy and distribute it to all employees, so this is where it pays to ask proactive questions. Check in periodically with the project management office (PMO) manager or portfolio manager who can clarify the organization's strategic vision—and specify how the project will help deliver on its big picture goals.
“If you're assigned a project that doesn't seem to align with the organizational strategy, speak up,” says Mr. Sultan. “Write a clear report detailing your concerns and submit it to the responsible entity.” Such a report could clarify a project's strategic purpose—or even spark a shift in the scope.
“Putting in a phone call [to your stakeholders and project team] early on to introduce yourself and form a connection can help you build up some credibility.”
—Charisse Brossard, PMP
LAYING THE FOUNDATION
While a risk register, phased schedule and detailed budget will get hammered out in the planning phase, initiation is all about building the business case. As the foundation of the project charter, the business case outlines the project's overall time frame, cost, major risks and financial assumptions.
This process is as much about enlisting expertise as crunching numbers. This is the time for project managers to make sure they're asking the right questions to the right people, says Mr. Lim. “Always ask around and never assume things.”
He recommends finding out if anyone has executed a similar project before and asking the team to clearly outline the project's constraints and underlying assumptions.
“The project manager should have a session with the project sponsor to understand the scope more in depth,” Mr. Lim suggests. “Which of the requirements are must-haves and which are good-to-haves? That lets you prioritize the critical requirements and let the lesser requirements get completed later or dropped with the support of the sponsor.”
While a risk register, phased schedule and detailed budget will get hammered out in the planning phase, initiation is all about building the business case.
RALLYING THE TROOPS
The initiation phase should go beyond completing paperwork to connecting with the people who ultimately will drive the project forward, says Charisse Brossard, PMP, engagement leader, ADP, Washington, D.C., USA.
“I've worked here for 24 years, and I used to jump into all of the documents and technical aspects. But what I've learned is that you really have to set the tone of the project,” she says.
“The project manager should also understand the level of authority he or she has and the governance model of the project, whether that includes leading steering committees, change control committees or internal meetings.”
—Gustavo Pastrana, PMP, Grupo Protg, Mexico City, Mexico
Ms. Brossard often works with stakeholders and project teams that span geographies and generations. So she makes it a priority to develop professional relationships early on to keep everyone focused on the same vision.
“You're going to be working with these people for a couple of months, if not a year or more. Putting in a phone call early on to introduce yourself and form a connection can help you build up some credibility,” she says. “That's what you need with project initiation—instant credibility.”
Icebreakers are an effective go-to for team building, Ms. Brossard says. The trick is to pick an activity that will create unity, not just introductions. At a recent initiation gathering, for instance, she asked team members to share their very first phone numbers.
“It brought back such nostalgia in the room, whether it was older people discussing landlines or younger people talking cellphones. Instead of everybody feeling tense and focused on the new project, we were focused for a minute on getting to know one another and share this common connection,” she says. “So much of project management is about relationships, and if you can use the project initiation phase to build connections you'll be in a better position to be effective for the rest of the project.”
This getting-to-know-you phase is also a good time to demarcate roles, especially across departmental lines, says Gustavo Pastrana, PMP, chief operation officer and deputy managing director, Grupo Protg, Mexico City, Mexico.
“Sometimes the borders between team roles can be blurry and cause confusion,” he says.
Starting a project out right requires a strong professional foundation. The ideal project management skill set—outlined in PMI's Talent Triangle—is a combination of technical, leadership, and strategic and business management expertise.
To nip later miscommunication in the bud, he suggests using project initiation meetings to make sure everyone understands both the big-picture vision of the project and the responsibilities tied to their specific post.
“The project manager should also understand the level of authority he or she has and the governance model of the project, whether that includes leading steering committees, change control committees or internal meetings,” Mr. Pastrana says.
Project managers also should use these early meetings to set a clear definition of project success. Outlining specifically what the sponsor is looking for makes it easier for the team to achieve the desired results, he says.
“Interview all key stakeholders to validate each expectation of the project outcome and which key performance indicators will be needed to assure the business benefits will be delivered,” Mr. Pastrana says. PM
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