The beginning of a project: the calm before the storm or a manic rush to get things sorted ready for the core work to start? Whichever way it happens, the start of a project is critical to its future success. From estimating and scoping, to assigning resource, defining requirements, briefing in your team, the all important first meeting with the client—there’s a minefield of tasks out there which can shape how your project develops. You have to set the tone for success.
I’m going to arm you with the tools and information you need to kick your projects off in the right way, so that your project starts off right and hopefully eases the future path (NB I cannot guarantee what factors happen after!)
I’m going to walk you through the core aspects of the project initiation phase, how to protect against future challenges, set the right expectations and also look at some areas to focus on that can really help you to succeed later. I’ve added lots of links to further reading if you want to delve deeper into topics. Also, you can then get a handy project initiation checklist to refer to at the start of any project.
What Is The Project Initiation Phase?
Firstly, what is Project Initiation? Let’s talk about the life cycle of a project. Whatever your chosen methodology or process, every project has to start somewhere. Any project generally has five steps to it: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling and Closing. The initiating phase is the first phase, where the project is kicked off, both with your team and with any clients and stakeholders. Any information you have (e.g. from pitch stage, from the client, from any background research) is gathered together in order to set and define the project’s scope, timings and cost. This is the core set up for your project where you identify the stakeholders, the team, goals and objectives and deliverables.
How To Start A Project And What Do I Need To Do In The Project Initiation Phase?
The outcome of the Project Initiation phase is generally one of two documents (or sometimes both!): the Project Initiation Document (PID) and the Statement of Work (SoW). A good way to focus on your Project Initiation and to really drill-down on what you need to outline for your project and for one of these two documents, is to work through it in terms of three areas: People, Processes and Product. These are central to any project.
Planning Your Team Shape
In the Project Initiation phase, you need to define and set up your team. Firstly, review your project and deliverables and work out what team shape you need. Check availability, and get your resource provisionally booked in. When you’re thinking about who to book on a project however, don’t just look at availability—you really need to think about what skills you need to deliver your project successfully. Think about the client or stakeholders here too: how will your team members work with them? Run through the following checklist when forming your team:
- Skills (what will they need to do)
- Experience (what will they need to have worked on before)
- Stakeholders (how will they need to communicate)
- Availability (will they have to the time to dedicate)
- Budget (can you afford them)
Remember, don’t do this in isolation. Speak to the varying discipline leads if you have them, make sure you aren’t making assumptions on your own. It’s good to hold a quick meeting with the leads upfront, to run through the project and deliverables and get their help in outlining the resource requirements. Working through the above should give you a team shape for your project, but remember to leave some contingency time after planning this before proper project kick-off in case you need to look outside your organisation for the right skill-set to freelancers or contractors perhaps.
Getting The Team Involved: Kicking Off The Right Way
It’s good to precede any client kick-off, with an internal kick-off session. This helps to get their buy-in and involvement in the project early. When setting requirements, team shape, and objectives, always remember that it’s best keeping people involved and aware. Whilst you don’t want to add loads of overhead (and it’s often tricky to get people involved when they are busy!), the best way to kick-off a project in the right way is to set and manage expectations early. By getting your team involved upfront, they will feel more included and involved in the decision making and therefore have a much more positive impression of the project as a whole.
So hold an internal kick-off session. Set up a meeting, with a good agenda (always make sure a meeting is useful and for the right people) and run through the background to the project, any objectives and goals, and requirements that are already set. Something I’ve found useful is to leave space at the end of the meeting for a more workshop-like forum to gather team thoughts. Some good areas to discuss and raise early are:
- How do the team want to work?
- How and when should the team get client or stakeholder feedback?
- How do the team want to communicate with the client or stakeholder feedback?
- What regular meetings should the team have internally? When should these be?
- Should catch-ups be ad-hoc and informal, or more planned in?
Like I said, getting team involvement in decision-making upfront is likely to cause them to feel much more invested with the project as a whole. Getting this meeting in before the SoW is completed can help feed the team’s proposed ways of working into the document, making it much more relevant to how the project is actually going to run.
Defining Who Is Involved And When
As part of Project Initiation, outline and define the stakeholder involvement. Whether this is client or internal stakeholders, it’s really important to be clear on who is doing tasks, signing off deliverables or reviewing and feeding back. Creating a RACI is a great way to do this. I’ve written an article which dives into the world of the RACI and helps you create a RACI that is useful and can be used. Take a look here and download a free RACI matrix as an added bonus!
Setting Project Communications
As part of the SoW or PID it’s useful to define when and how communications will take place with the stakeholders. After creating your RACI, review what you feel is necessary for updates and meetings with your core stakeholders. If there is a clear project lead client-side, then starting out with how often you formally update them is a good way to approach this. Then widen this out to others in the team and when their involvement should be. List out your project updates you feel are necessary, then fill out the who and when. Here’s an example:
Meeting / Comms
|Stand up||All internal people||Daily|
|Weekly status report|
Sent to project lead
Project lead to circulate to wider team
|Weekly, Monday end of day|
|Weekly review||Project lead and core stakeholders||Weekly, Friday 10AM|
|Fornightly status update||Wider team||Every two weeks, Tuesday 10AM|
Stakeholder Kick-Off Meeting
Firstly, make sure you’ve had your internal kick-off meeting before this. Don’t throw team members into a meeting about a project they know nothing about. Also, it’s good to have already introduced yourself to the client or stakeholders involved prior to the meeting, either over the phone or ideally in person. Make sure you have a clear agenda, and aren’t inviting the whole world to the meeting. Always remember to keep a meeting contained and relevant.
Things to run through in the meeting:
- Roles and responsibilities
- Team shape
- How to run a great client project kick off meeting
- Kickoff Meeting: The Complete Guide To Starting Projects Right
3. And don’t forget about… you!
Don’t forget about you within all of this! It’s easy to focus on stakeholders, clients and your team over yourself, but it’s important to make sure your expectations are set right for this project. Have a think through what you want to get out of your project, and your objectives and try to plan some ways you can achieve them throughout the course of it.
Ah process, one of the things most DPMs love to talk about! It’s important to set out the process for your project at the beginning so there are clear perimeters for you and your team (and client) to follow. However, avoid becoming too bogged down in processes, documentations and rules. Sometimes process is the fastest way to kill a team’s enthusiasm! There are some core areas to set out when you initiate a project.
The age old obsession in project management—which methodology to follow? This might be clear already by how your client works, or how your agency or team are set up for example. Ideally though, you review the project, deliverables, team and then find a process that will suit the needs. Often it’s a blended mix of different methodologies—don’t be worried by this, always think what is best for the project rather than trying to force it to fit a certain methodology. Think about the following things when considering the methodology:
- What is the size of your project?
- How fixed are the scope, timings and budget?
- What team do you have to work on it?
- Do you have a full-time team or are they shared with other projects?
- How does the client currently work?
- Will you have a fully invested client project lead?
Using answers to the above questions, you should be able to have a clearer idea of what type of project it is and therefore how it should be run. For example if all scope, timings and budget are set this will be more Waterfall, or if you have a full-time dedicated team with a fully invested client project lead this could lend itself more to an Agile-style project.
- I’ve written an article about methodologies, focusing on Scrum and Waterfall, and discussing how to make hybrids work: Agile vs Waterfall. What Should You Use For Your Project?
- Also check this out for an overview: 9 Project Management Methodologies Made Simple
Another PM obsession, what are the right tools to use for the project? Well, again, this really depends on your project. As I’ve said throughout, avoid too heavy processes and this is the same for tools—avoid throwing lots of unnecessary tools into the mix. Some areas to consider when selecting what tools you need are:
- Resource planning and management e.g. Harvest or Traffic
- Project planning and managing timescales e.g. Microsoft Project or Smartsheet
- Communication to stakeholders e.g. Google Sheets or Confluence
- Managing internal tasks e.g. Jira or Trello
Personally, I’m all for keeping things simple and often find myself using Google Sheets for a lot of things. Whichever tools you use, ensure your internal team and stakeholders are in agreement, and know how to use them effectively. Avoid over-complicating things, and you can always refine the tools later in the project if you find things aren’t working.
Thinking ahead is one of the best things that you can do in the Project Initiation phase when you start a project. Establishing risks that might keep the project from delivering is extremely important to do upfront. Create a RAID log to highlight Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies, and also work through how you will mitigate these. Make sure you involve your team, and consider holding a pre-mortem session with your team where you brainstorm areas of risk, as they are often likely to come up with things you haven’t even thought of.
Firstly, what are the requirements for your project? Before kicking off the project properly and gathering requirements in the planning stage, it’s good to outline what you know already. What are the business, client and user needs for what you are creating? This helps you to have a clear understanding of the background and context for the project.
2. Scope And Deliverables
At this stage of the project, you have an idea of what the deliverables are. Now’s the time to start fleshing this out, and putting some perimeters around them, in order to be able to agree to these in the SoW or PID.
3. Setting Deliverables
Taking the information you have, organise an internal meeting to go through the deliverables with your team. If your team isn’t yet in place and you need to push forward with setting the deliverables, meet with the discipline leads. Make sure you get people to feed into these, don’t determine these in isolation! When you review with your team, make sure you have these areas in mind to review per deliverable:
- What is it?
- What format will it be in?
- Will rounds of amends be necessary?
- Who will be involved?
- When should this be delivered?
- Does it have dependencies on any other deliverables?
Here’s an example, from a recent project of mine (I’ve made it a bit more generic):
Initial approach to fundamental design
Format: Design files (Sketch), sent for feedback using InVision
Amends: Iterative until 16/02/18
|[My agency] will define an initial approach to fundamental design that is necessary as part of Stage 1 of this project. The fundamentals needed will be mapped from the 3 agreed platforms that are the focus of Stage 1. Fundamentals will include Typography, Grid, Colours, and Icons.|
The aim is to set these fundamentals to inform the initial design treatment and also future design in other stages.
Component inventory and prioritisation
Amends: Iterative until 16/02/18
[Client] will supply a component inventory to [my Agency], and [my Agency] will review this and the 3 identified platforms to create a component list.
[My Agency] will then prioritise these components on a ‘remove, improve, reuse’ basis, and cluster into categories. The components will be checked across the 3 platforms to identify where common components are used.
This component inventory and prioritisation will identify which are the core components needed for the content to be delivered in the prototype.
4. Budgets And Timings
Following on from your list of deliverables, you now have a rough project scope and need to put timings and roles against this. Work with your discipline leads to estimate timings and the team shape against this. Dependent on process, you might be estimating in Sprints or in phases with sign offs. Make sure you work with the team on these, to set the right perimeters. Again, don’t force a process onto a project, make sure the process fits the project. Agree the team shape, and then put costs against this. At this stage, for the PID or SoW, you don’t need a detailed breakdown of timings but more an overview of phases of time.
- How To Estimate Projects: The Complete Guide To Project Budget & Cost Estimation
- How To Create The Perfect Project Plan. The Definitive Guide
5. Measures Of Success
What is your project or product without success? But what does success even mean? Don’t forget that your project also needs some sort of measurement, so that you can review and understand where things worked or didn’t work, and how successfully you delivered. Create some measurement criteria that you’ll review at the end (or at certain stages along the project). Consider areas such as:
- Core KPIs e.g. increasing visitors to a site
- Client satisfaction i.e. how happy were the client with how the project went?
- Team satisfaction i.e. how happy were the team with how the project went?
- Timings variance
- Budget variance
5 Core Challenges When Initiating Projects—And How To Overcome Them
There are many challenges you can face within the Project Initiation stage. Below, I’ve outlined five key challenges I’ve often come across when going through Project Initiation, and how to mitigate them.
1. The Project Initiation Stage Is Going Too Slowly
It’s often the case at the beginning of a project that everyone takes a little more time over what they have to do, and everything is a bit more relaxed—after all, you’ve got lots of time now to do the project! Sometimes though, Project Initiations can start to drag out too long. I’ve seen this many times, and it can really affect the project down the line when you’re struggling to deliver to the timings that you’ve promised. Here are some tips to ensure you move at the right pace:
- Have calls or meetings to discuss and agree to things—this can often help speed things up rather than having a lot of back and forth on email.
- Ensure the client and team know what their deliverables are for the Project Initiation stage and any dependencies that rest on them. Highlight straight away if they are blocking anything moving forward.
- Set overall timings for this phase. Pre-kick off it’s often easy to meander along, so make sure there’s a clear goal to work towards
- Think about team and client momentum. How do you get people engaged and motivated, and make it clear that progress is being made? As the Project Initiation phase is less about the doing and more about the setting the scene, try and find tangible things you and the team can do to help make the project more real.
2. Picking Up A Project Mid-Way Through
Often, a lot of advice I read for project management assumes that you are starting at the very beginning of a project and can lead it from the start. But what if you are brought into the project half-way through, or at the beginning of a certain phase? It can be really tricky as you haven’t been involved in the Initiation stage. Try these tips:
- Make sure that you are clear on everything that has happened previously. If someone is handing over to you, ask them to provide a list of links, deliverables and associated status, and any links to important documents.
- Set up project kick-offs with your team, and then the stakeholders, just as you would in Project Initiation at the ‘real’ start of the project. Although you don’t want your team or client to have to repeat things, they will appreciate that you need to get up to speed and also it’s a good way to reset the team and move forward with a new project lead. It’s also a nice point to have a mid-way project review—e. you can go through existing risks or the current burn rate on the budget, to make sure everyone is still aligned.
3. Having One Project Initiation For A Project Spanning Multiple Phases
One core problem with a large and long-running project is only having one Initiation right at the beginning of the project and then never resetting as you go into different phases. What is decided for one phase, doesn’t necessarily count across all phases and span the lifetime of your project. So try the following:
- If your project has clear different phases, for example a Discovery phase separate from the development, treat each phase like a mini-project rather than doing a bigger upfront piece. This provides key starting points for each phase, rather than trying to make a lot of assumptions at the beginning.
- Do mini kick-offs at each stage and make sure you’ve gone through the Project Initiation checklist and have covered off each item within that for the specific phase.
4. There’s A Lack Of Clarity Around The Project
Sometimes when you get started on the Project Initiation phase, things can feel a bit vague and team members are confused about what the project actually is. Make sure you look at the following to create alignment within your team:
- Ensure you have a clear list of requirements from the client. Make sure you’re including business, user and technical requirements within this.
- Run through these requirements with your team if you have one allocated. If not, make sure you have discipline leads involved. Make sure people are engaged from the beginning.
- Once you’ve held internal and client kick-offs, keep the momentum up within the team—make sure the team know what they are delivering and are invested in it. Always involve the team in the setting of the brief, definition of deliverables and approach to the project.
5. There’s A Delay In Getting Your Project Started
Have you ever got all excited around a project getting started, gathered all requirements, defined a plan and next steps… and then, something happens to delay the start? Momentum is lost and your proposed project team disperse. How do you overcome these kick-off delays?
- If there’s discussion over the project budget, make sure you run through all budget decisions with the client properly—what are they getting for their money? Be as clear as you can be.
- If they can’t afford your proposed budget, look at the scope—is there anything there you can remove? Have an open and honest discussion with them to try and work out a compromise.
- To get things moving quickly, try to get a small amount of budget signed off for a Discovery phase.
- If the client isn’t getting involved or is missing early deadlines, make sure you raise this with them quickly—help them to understand what impact this will have on the project.
- If there are internal issues with getting the team in place, or getting going with the work, raise this internally. Again, help your internal team and management to understand the impact of the project slipping.
Top Ten Tips To Remember When Initiating A Project
- Set the tone that you want for your project early on.
- Get your team’s buy in and involvement early.
- This goes for the client too—get them involved early and often.
- Make sure clear communications are set up with any clients or stakeholders.
- Ensure there’s an agreed process for your project to follow – but don’t become bogged down in documentation!
- But don’t try to fit to a specific process if it doesn’t work for your project.
- Try to meet your client face-to-face at least once before kicking off the project (if this is impossible, do a video call!)
- For any kick-off meeting, set a clear agenda and make people feel involved.
- Try and future-proof your project by thinking through risks and dependencies with your team.
- Always think ahead—don’t just focus on the start of the project!
Project Initiation Checklist
Here’s a handy checklist, covering the key elements you need to cover when going through Project Initiation.
Are there any other areas to consider when initiating a project? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!