Project Definition


Why, What, How?

How does a project get started?

How do you know what it is supposed to achieve?

How do you know what approach is required?

How do you know that it is a good idea in the first place?

How will you know if you succeeded?

Business needs Project definition Project execution

Before you can effectively manage a project, there needs to be a shared understanding of that project - its purpose, objectives, scope, sponsorship, funding and mandate. Some people would define the project as not existing until it has an adequate definition. In the real world, projects often need to get moving while at least some of these questions remain imperfectly answered.

That is particularly true for eProjects. The pace of eBusiness development means that no one will be thanked for slowing the process down by demanding answers to difficult questions such as "what benefit will you get?" That does not invalidate the issue - just the response. In an eProject we need to allow for rapid project definition and approval, often with little more than a gut feeling about the benefit or the way the project will evolve. The Project Manager still needs to consider the issues and ensure there is the necessary degree of sponsorship and authorisation. Much more responsibility will fall upon the Project Manager to keep track of the evolving initiative and to report back on its potential benefits, successes, failures and risks.

Many organisations have specific processes and standards for requesting and evaluating a project. There will often be norms for assessing the financial benefits, eg payback period, internal rate of return, discounted cash flow etc. There may also be standard procedures for presenting a business case and obtaining approval for the capital investment. Make sure you are aware of any defined standards that apply to you.


Project sponsor

All projects have sponsors - people who see a need for change and have the authority to make something happen. Without them, the project would not have been proposed. Make sure that you understand who the real sponsors are and check that they do have the authority to propose the project and the commitment to make it succeed. If they are not the right people, you probably need to identify further sponsors who have that authority and commitment.

You need to ensure that the sponsors have enough authority or influence to undertake the work and bring about the proposed change in affected parts of the organisation. For example, a new business solution may not succeed if it is only sponsored by the IT Department and does not have the support of the operational business units. Most often, the best sponsors are from the business - leaders who want to change the way the business operates. As well as the original sponsors, you may need to build supporting sponsorship across the organisation and at multiple management levels. A significant project will normally require sponsorship from the organisation's executive level. Such sponsorship is an important tool in Organisational Change Management.

The sponsors may have already constructed a good definition of the project and have a clear view of what is required. More often, they have an incomplete concept and no real feeling for how it should be addressed or to what extent it would be beneficial.

The Project Manager needs to guide the sponsors throughout the project - they cannot be expected necessarily to have a deep understanding of the issues. In particular, the project needs to be clearly defined before the Project Manager accepts personal responsibility for its success.


Project Definition at project start-up

Here are the fundamental things that should be clearly agreed at the commencement of a project. They form the basis upon which the project will be defined and measured. That means they also form the basis upon which the Project Manager will be judged!

Mandate Is there a clear, reliable mandate for this project, ie:
  • Do the sponsors have the power to initiate this project?
  • Can the sponsors provide all the resources that may be required (funding, people, time, etc)?
  • Are there other people or bodies (internally or externally) who need to agree?
Purpose and objectives Is it clear what is the purpose of the project?
  • Are we able to define clear, measurable objectives that identify what is to be achieved?
  • Are the objectives reasonable, achievable and measurable?
  • Do the sponsors and other stakeholders all understand and agree?
Scope What is the scope of the project, for example:
  • Is the project addressing the overall business change (ie people, process and technology elements), or just the technology?
  • Which locations, divisions, departments?
  • Will there be organisational change - restructuring, revised responsibilities, new staff capability requirements, retraining, recruiting, redundancy, etc? Is that organisational change to be seen as a driver for the project or just a consequence to deal with?
  • Which business processes? Do we wish to change those processes or try to leave them the same? Is that process change to be seen as a driver for the project or just a consequence to deal with?
  • Which existing processes and systems will be replaced? Which existing processes and systems will be retained? Which existing processes and systems will need to interact with the new ones? Is the technology change to be seen as a driver for the project or just a consequence to deal with?
  • Should the results be delivered as a single "big bang", or could there be stages or phases of delivery?
  • Is it clear what other projects or initiatives are in planned or in progress that could impact upon this project? Will they compete for resources? Will they make our business solution a moving target? Will we require interim solutions?
Benefit At the earliest stages of a project it will be very difficult to establish a solid benefit case for the project. It is still possible to identify the types of benefit that are expected. During the project startup, the Project Manager will work with the sponsors to define and agree a full model of anticipated benefits. These benefits would not normally be limited to the financial bottom line. They would include all types of benefit that are sought - measurable / unquantifiable, financial / non-financial, internally focused / externally focused.

The benefit model would normally be used to justify commencement of the work. Beyond that, it forms an important yardstick against which the project can be assessed. It may form:

  • the basis for change decisions during the project,
  • a way of measuring the anticipated success of the project,
  • the final assessment of the success of the completed project, and
  • a way to monitor the continuing performance of the business function.
Timescales In what timescale should the benefit be delivered?
  • Are there specific external requirements for timing, eg new legislation, contracts with third parties?
  • When do we expect to be able to commence?
  • What is the initial expectation for the duration of the project (and any intermediate stages or phases)?
  • Over what period of time should benefit be assessed for the purposes of prioritisation and the benefit case?
Control How will the project be managed and controlled?
  • Who has ultimate responsibility, accountability and authority for the project?
  • Who handles day-to-day Project Management?
  • Which people form the executive control body (eg steering committee) such that they can deliver the full stewardship, decision making, resourcing, and funding that is required for or on behalf of the sponsors?
  • How do these participants expect to participate, eg frequency of meetings, format, formality, reports, minutes etc?
Prioritisation, sanity check and permission to proceed Do we definitely agree to start this project?
  • Is it truly achievable? Can we get the people, resources, funding, and technology that it will take?
  • Are the main risks in doing this understood and acceptable?
  • Is it a good use of the organisation's limited resources when compared to other potential investments?
  • Is there an absolute commitment from the organisation's leadership that this project should be initiated and that it will get the degree of support it needs to succeed?


Scope Meeting - Available as a PowerPoint97 slide It is important that the Project Definition is fully understood and agreed by all persons concerned. The details should be incorporated into a document which should be formally agreed by the project sponsors and communicated to all interested parties. This document should also provide a good source for communicating the project's definition, purpose and intended approach to future participants and other stakeholders.

Many organisations have a standard name for such a document. You may hear it referred to as a "Project Initiation Document" or "Project Charter". In the ePMbook we will refer to it as the "Project Definition".


Project Definition at phase start

The Project Definition forms the project's definitive definition and mandate. It is used as a major input to the detailed planning and resourcing that takes place as each phase of work is planned, initiated and mobilised.

It is also important that the project's purpose and goals are communicated to the team members and other participants. They need to understand the value and importance of their work. In most cases it also improves their ability to deliver if they understand the "big picture".


Project Definition during the project

Remember that things change. The business changes; customers' needs move on; departments are restructured; there may be mergers and acquisitions; there may be demands to cut costs or drive change faster. At any time when the project's purpose might be challenged or the anticipated outcome is significantly changed, the Project Definition should be re-examined to see in what ways it has changed or should be changed to reflect the new circumstances. Where this has an impact on the benefit case, approach, planning, timing, resourcing, or expected outcome, the Project Manager will need to review and re-calculate the detailed changes and present a revised definition for agreement by the project's sponsors and executive leaders.


Project Definition at phase end

Phase end is a good time to measure the success of the project to date. See how well the project's original ambitions are being adhered to and how the anticipated benefit matches up to the original definition. Report back successes, failures and revised expectations to the project sponsors and executive. Give that feedback to the team as well so that they understand how well they are performing and how valuable their work has been.

Where there has been some significant departure from the original intentions, the Project Manager should investigate, review, analyse and report these conclusions to the project sponsors and executive team, along with any specific recommendations or planning revisions. As ever, the guiding principle should be to obtain the optimum benefit for the organisation.


Project Definition at project end

In all good projects, the leadership and participants take time to reflect upon successes and failures. In particular, it is important to determine whether the defined project was successfully completed - both in terms of the most recent definition and against the original intentions. There are several reasons for this:





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