As project managers, if there’s one thing we all know for certain, it’s that nothing is certain. Managing changes and unexpected variables comes with the territory – but perhaps one of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a Project Manager is being thrown into a project that’s already underway. Perhaps you just started a new job and you’re being brought in on a project in progress, or another PM left suddenly and you are taking their place.
Below, I’ve outlined 10 project initiation questions that every Project Manager must ask when you’re thrown into a new project. Whether the project is already in the project execution phase or still early in the project initiation phase, this list is just a starting point and it isn't a substitute for official PM training.
But these fundamental questions can serve to guide you to smooth sailing when you’re crunched for time! Of course, these questions can be tailored to suit any unique project or client, and can be asked in person at a meeting, virtually via email, or over the phone.
No matter how you do it, document the answers so that you can refer back to them later or share them with the team and project stakeholders as necessary.
10 Project Initiation Questions To Ask Before Starting A Project
1. What Are We Actually Delivering?
A project might have one overarching deliverable: a website, a program, an event, a brand design. But most projects are made up of several or more phases or items meant to be completed in a certain order.
All of your documentation including scope statement or statement of work, contract, project charter, and project plan should include a straightforward list of each item your team is expected to deliver. For example, if you are building a website, the list might include:
- content strategy
- design round 1
- design round 2
- design round 3
- content input
Even though the project is a “website,” it is your responsibility as the Project Manager to stay on top of each of the project deliverables and moving parts to ensure that they are completed in order, on time, and to specification.
Ask your manager, team, or client to confirm that you have the full list of deliverables and project tasks, and that nothing is missing. Also make sure to find out what has been completed, what’s in progress, and what is yet to come.
2. What Are We NOT Delivering?
Equally as important as what IS part of the project is knowing, clearly what is NOT. This is one of the easiest ways to avoid scope creep, confusion, and extra work.
For example, in the simple website from #1, your firm is providing content strategy, but does that mean you are also writing all of the copy and providing photographs, videos, or illustrations/visuals to go along with? Make sure that you ask each stakeholder if they will be providing these types of items, or if they want to add them to the project scope.
There is also of course a middle ground, where perhaps you recommend another firm or a partner company to provide some additional services. Either way, it’s incredibly important to determine early on who will be responsible for all elements of the project so that 2 weeks before launch you’re not having a moment with your client explaining that you thought THEY were providing the copy and they assumed YOU were providing the copy.
If the previous PM on the project already went over this with the client, asking again could be a good opportunity to check in and see if the client has changed their mind or if this might be an opportunity to sell more services.
3. Is There A Deadline?
Most projects have deadlines, and believe it or not that’s a good thing. Having a concrete amount of time within which you must complete a project helps your team stay focused, hopefully ensures that the client stays focused, and helps you figure out time and budget allocation.
When you land on a new project, ask your stakeholders about their deadlines. Perhaps there is a firm deadline due to a product launch, event, or budget constraint. (I call this a “drop-dead deadline.”) Sometimes you’ll find that deadlines can be a bit more fluid, i.e. “we’d like this done sometime this summer.” Either way, as PM, you should determine when the true deadline is early on so that you can plan backwards from there.
This is also a good time to check progress against your timeline – until you arrived on the scene, was your team on track to finish by the deadline? If so, great! If not, then here is your opportunity to assess what’s wrong and go about fixing it to get back on track.
4. What Is The Benchmark For Project Success?
This is one of the most important project management questions to ask at the start of any project. The project goal may seem straightforward, ex: build and launch a new website. But don’t be afraid to dig a little deeper.
Ask your clients and stakeholders what they are really trying to achieve with this work. Do they want to gain more brand awareness? Ensure a successful project or product launch? Acquire more users? Increase revenue? Get your client to be open with you about why they are embarking on this project, and keep that goal or project objective at the forefront of your discussions. Knowing what success will really look like can help your team stay focused and make important decisions throughout the project life cycle.
Coming into the project midway through its lifespan also means this is a good time for you to ask the stakeholders whether their vision/goals have changed at all since kickoff, and how you can most effectively help them reach all of their goals.
5. Who Is The Client…Really?
If you work in an agency, I’m sure this has happened to you. I know it’s happened to me more times than I can count! While you’re winning a project you’re dealing with one or maybe a couple of individuals, but then once the work is underway all of sudden other people start coming out of the woodwork to offer feedback and make decisions.
I don’t blame clients for bringing a lot of cooks into the kitchen – this could be an issue of politics, or perhaps the initial collaborator wants to get a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth,) opinion on the work so that they don’t have to be solely responsible for success of the final product. After all, we have to remember that in many cases your clients are investing a lot of time and trust in your team and are entitled to some level of involvement in the work.
Whatever the reason, I personally believe that you can manage this sometimes frustrating phenomenon of “multiplying clients” simply by asking at the outset: “Whose opinion matters? Are there additional stakeholders who will be brought in to offer feedback down the line?”
This way, not only can you be prepared for the frenzy, should it occur, but you can also gently remind your primary client, if necessary, that she agreed you would only be fielding notes from 2-3 people, and now that 10 people are putting in their 2 cents, you might be facing scope creep.
6. Who Is The Point Of Contact?
This question might seem redundant if you are already working with a seemingly dedicated project team, but it is hugely important to determine who is the MAIN, in-case-of-emergency, ultimate-decision-making point of contact on a project.
And a bonus project management question: find out what their preferred method of communication is. Email? Office phone? Cell phone? The last thing you want to be worrying about if something goes off the rails with a project is who you should reach out to and whether they’ll even read your email.
7. Who Is Doing The Work?
Most of the project questions on this list are ones you will be asking your clients/stakeholders, but this question is an extremely important one and it’s all about your internal team. Perhaps you are joining a project where you already know the designers, devs, etc., or perhaps you’ve just started at a new company where you don’t know a soul!
Either way, as soon as you are staffed on the project, make sure that you have the right people on the job. Does everyone have the skills necessary to complete the work on time and on budget? Does anyone on the team need additional training or support? Have you filled all the roles needed, and researched contractors/freelancers if you need additional hands on deck?
8. Who Is The Audience For The Work?
Often, in project management, we think of each project as having 2 sets of stakeholders – the client or the person asking for the work to be done, and the team, or the people doing the work. But there is usually a third and sometimes silent group of stakeholders – the audience/consumer/recipient/user who will be interacting with, purchasing, or viewing the work when it’s done.
The audience for your work is extremely important. Some projects will allow for surveys or research to be done to learn more about the consumer at the other end of your project work, but if not, you can still ask this question of the client, your team and yourself: who are we building this for, and what is important to them? The answers to these project management questions will no doubt help you stay focused on what it is you are truly trying to accomplish.
9. Has This Been Done Before?
Even the most innovative, unique, remarkable work in our industry usually builds upon or takes some inspiration from something that was done before. There’s no shame in seeing what else has been done in the space or by similar organizations when you are assigned to your new project!
Asking your stakeholders, (clients AND internal team), what other projects have been done before that your team can take inspiration/learn from is a great way to get everyone excited about the work to come, get some new ideas, and stay aware of your competition. I love to ask clients to show me examples of products/projects that inspire them so that my team knows what to aim for and can hopefully surpass expectations.
10. What Might Get In The Way?
Believe it or not, I think this might be my favorite question to ask when I start a new project. It might seem a little bit messy to delve into all the potential problems you might face as a team embarking on this work, but I think coming together to responsibly identify potential roadblocks to success is not only an exercise in humility – admitting that something is bound to go wrong at some point – but it can absolutely help you be prepared for when that moment comes.
Hopefully you have already insured against common pitfalls – staffing, timeline, budget, tech specs, etc., but what else might get in the way of everything happening according to plan? Huddle with your team and ask your stakeholders what they foresee as potential barriers to success – or what barriers have already arisen – and then ensure everyone that you, as PM, are informed about these issues and ready to tackle them should they come up again.
What Do You Think?
Are there any important questions we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments.
Hear more from Joanna in her podcast episode here!
And if you’re looking for even more helpful insights, check this article out: We’ve Got The Power: How DPMs Influence Ways Of Working