The Ultimate Guide to Project Initiation

The project initiation phase is the most crucial part of any project, as it lays the groundwork that will determine whether the project successful. This guide will help you master it.

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When a project fails, chances are it's not because of execution — it's because of bad planning. One survey found that 75% of business and IT professionals felt that their projects were often doomed from the beginning.

If your project does not have a solid foundation, it has no chance of success — and even if it did succeed, you would have no way of knowing.

That's where project initiation comes in. This vital first step in the life of the project lays the groundwork for the execution. Without it, you won't know what you're trying to achieve, what it will take to be successful, and who has what responsibilities.

Let's explore how you can make sure you get it right the first time.


Overview: What is project initiation?

Project initiation is the first phase in any project life cycle. It's where you define the project scope and goals, and where you figure out logistically how it's going to get accomplished.

During this phase — which will inform all future project phases — you'll assemble a team and conduct a feasibility study. You might also draw up a business case to justify the project, or compose a project charter to lay out some of the initial details.

This might be the most important part of the project, because if you haven't laid out a good purpose for the project and you haven't determined the basics on how it's going to get accomplished, you're going to run into trouble down the road when it's too late to easily change course.


5 steps to follow for a successful project initiation

It’s easy to spend too much time in the project initiation phase, so it’s important you don’t get bogged down with planning at the expense of execution. Here are five simple steps you should take during this phase that will keep it as short as possible while ensuring you cover all the bases.

Step 1: Draw up a business case

Before you even begin to dive deep into this phase, you need to draw up a business case and project plan outline. This is the justification for the project's existence, and an explanation of what success will look like in specific terms.

It's important not to go overboard here. You just want a brief document that spells out some basics that anyone could understand on why this project is necessary.

But exactly how will the business case be laid out? It's up to you, but it might be good to start with a brief description of the project, a list of possible benefits, a basic estimate on funding and manpower needed, and a basic project schedule or next steps.

Sometimes, a basic business case won’t be quite enough. If you need to go further than that, a project charter, scope of work, or even a full statement of work will lay out what you plan to accomplish in more detail.

3 quick tips to do this step right:

  • Be specific: Vague goals are not going to inspire anyone to make the project a success, and you won't even know what success looks like. Use actual numbers whenever you can.
  • Do a gut check: Have one or all of your stakeholders look over the business case to get a second set of eyes on it. Ask them if they think you're missing anything or if it's a solid business case.
  • Identify risks and obstacles: While you'll get into more detail later on how the project is going to shake out, it's beneficial to identify potential obstacles to success up front so they can be weighed against the benefits.

Step 2: Identify stakeholders

A stakeholder is someone who either has influence over your project, will be impacted by your project, or both. Stakeholders can include a wide range of individuals, and it's important that you identify all of them before beginning a project.

Some obvious stakeholders include the project manager and the president of the organization. Then there are less-obvious stakeholders that you may not think of as being involved in the project but actually are.

Examples might include the local government if you're doing a construction project, since it will expect you to abide by permits and regulations and can shut you down if you don't. Or if you're a retailer, it might be a supplier who you will rely on to provide goods that you will use to complete the project.

3 quick tips to do this step right:

  • Brainstorm, and then just ask: Create a list of as many stakeholders as you can think of, and then simply ask them to identify other potential stakeholders. This will help you flesh out the full roster of individuals who have some interest in your project.
  • Prioritize: Once you identify these stakeholders, sort them based on priority. People with high influence and who are impacted the most get the top priority, while people on the other end of the scale get the lowest priority.
  • Draft a questionnaire to flesh out expectations: It's a good idea to just ask stakeholders straight up what they expect from the project. Draw up a questionnaire that asks each stakeholder what results they expect, what measures should be used to validate these results, and what level of impact or involvement they see for themselves.

Step 3: Conduct a feasibility study

Now that you've laid out the purpose of the project and identified stakeholders, it's time to figure out whether the project is even feasible. It's important not to skip this step because discovering that the project can't succeed on a fundamental level is not something you want to find out midway through.

A feasibility study will answer vital questions about funding, the market, the organization of the project, logistics, the risk breakdown structure, and other things that will help you determine whether this project should even be attempted.

Once this study is complete, you should get together with stakeholders to go over the conclusions of the study and to determine whether it’s wise to proceed to the next step.

3 quick tips to do this step right:

  • Map out funding: A feasibility study should answer questions about the budget. What kind of investment is necessary? How quickly could you realistically expect returns? How long would you be running at a deficit, and how much?
  • Conduct market research: You'll also need to do some market research to determine critical elements such as competition, demographics, size of market, and more.
  • Lay out logistics: You should describe how the organization of the project would be set up, and what equipment, personnel, supplies, facilities, and other things would be needed before you could get started — as well as how long it would take to get everything in place.

Step 4: Prepare a budget and timeline

If the project has passed the first three steps with flying colors, it's safe to proceed to step four, which will involve putting a plan in place.

You'll need to prepare a detailed, line-item project budget that captures every single expenditure you expect to make over the course of the project.

Once that's in place, you'll need to draw up a timeline that describes when you will hit certain milestones and deliverables. You should also be assigning stakeholders to each milestone, so everyone knows their responsibilities at each stage of the project.

Then, schedule a kickoff meeting to go over the project and assign responsibilities.

3 quick tips to do this step right:

  • Revisit the feasibility study if necessary: If you find that getting into the details reveals that the initial projected costs and assumptions about the project were incorrect, it's wise to call another meeting with the stakeholders to tweak the feasibility study and make a new determination about whether you should go forward.
  • Look at past projects: As you draw up a budget and timeline, it's a good idea to look at past projects that have some similarities. This will help you spot things you may have missed in your own project plan.
  • Create a work breakdown structure (WBS): A WBS will help you divide up larger milestones into bite-size tasks that you can dole out to various stakeholders.

Step 5: Review

When you finish project initiation, you’re not really finished; you’re going to need to do a review. And it's important to conduct a review both before you start the project, as well as after the project is completed.

A review before the project starts will help you determine if you made any mistakes or faulty assumptions when you laid out the project plan.

A good idea is to have a final meeting before the project begins to make sure everyone understands the plan and to see if there are any questions or concerns about anything.

After the project is over, you should compare your original plan to the final results of the project with the help of project documentation. This will help you do a better job of executing the initiation steps on the next project you take on.

3 quick tips to do this step right:

  • Encourage frankness: It's not easy to convince your team to open up, but you should try to create an atmosphere where people feel like they can share their honest opinions. You might even share one brutally honest opinion of your own performance at the start to encourage others.
  • Keep your eye on the future: When reviewing, it's important not to dwell on past mistakes or second-guessing. Instead, use it as an opportunity to improve future prospects.
  • Do a gap analysis, and then discuss: After the project is completed, analyze how closely your results matched your expectations, and then talk it over with the team to figure out why and how you could do better.

Project management software can help with initiation

If you’re not sure where to start, software can help. The Blueprint has reviewed a number of effective project management software platforms that can assist you with the initiation phase as well as the management of all other phases in a project.

These platforms offer project management tools that you won’t be able to replicate on your own.

You should choose a few software options to try out and then give them a test drive. Doing so will help you figure out which one best meets your style of management, and ensure that they have the tools you need to draw up a proper project plan.

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