Project Initiation: It’s Not Like a Fast Food Drive-through Window

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

The Project Initiation step is often crushed  by executives who hysterically shout, “Get started quickly! We’ll plan when we have more time..this project is critical.” This hysteria saves them from having to commit to exactly what they want. Avoiding a commitment about what they want the project to deliver makes it easy to blame other people when the project fails. To be fair, however, the executive may not know what the project should produce.  A person higher up the chain of command may have dumped the project in their lap.

Experienced project managers know the bitter consequences of skipping Project Initiation. They include scope creep, time wasted on pointless tasks and significant overruns.  So experienced PMs try to stop the freight train and say, “Sir, if the project is that critical, we can’t take short cuts. We have to initiate the project properly.  I certainly wouldn’t want to explain why we skipped the initial planning step if the project fails.”  That approach works some of the time. Project Phases Main Page

A professional project initiation process for small or large projects addresses the following important decisions:

  1. The sponsor tells the PM how he will measure the result of the project  at the end. That is the scope of the project. It’s how will the sponsor will measure the success of the project. In other words, he defines a good job on the project with metrics (costs are reduced 23%, sales are up 10%, turnaround time is reduced 1.5 days, error rates are reduced 4%).  The end result is the target the PM and team aim for.  You will waste a lot of person hours if you don’t know the project’s scope.
  2. With the scope defined you can talk about the path to reach it from  where you are now.  You define this path with measured deliverables. These are numbers that define success, just like the scope.  Each deliverable must be a metric.
  3. Next you breakdown each deliverable until you reach the level of a task that our team can deliver in less than two weeks.

The Project Initiation Drive-through

Failed projects are often initiated like the sponsor ordered at the drive-through window of a fast-food joint. In this situation, you, the project manager, can’t control the scope so the project finishes late and produces very little business value. Consistent project failure usually starts when PMs and sponsors initiate projects with fast food order-taking techniques. Let’s see how this order-taking process works.

The project manager stands at the drive-through window wearing a red and yellow cap that says “Projects Are Us.” The executive drives up in a shiny black car, stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by March 30th.”

The project manager nods eagerly, gives the executive the “thumbs up” signal and screams at the project team:
“You two, put some new software on the grill!”
“Dan, dump some training into the deep fry!”
“Monica, we need more service rep cubicles and new computers, now!”

The executive smiles, “Wow, you know how to manage a project; no needless meetings or endless paper work.”

The order-taker project manager gives the executive another toothy grin and says, “We are cranking and everything is in green light status. We’re already about half done.”

The executive leans back thinking, then says,”I’d like a network with 30 nano-second response time and 50 gigamondo disk drives. And…can we add mauve wall coverings in the computer room? How about multi-lingual training?”

The order-taker project manager grins and says, “No problem; we’re flexible. I can make any changes you want.”

The executive frowns, “I’m in a hurry, so speed it up.”

The order-taker project manager whirls and whispers to the project team, “Let’s go! Get something slapped together by the due date…we can tweak it later. Let’s get to it!” Then he smiles at the executive and gives the thumbs up sign.

The executive returns two weeks later and says, “Your crappy software doesn’t work. No one knows how to use it and the new computer room is a fire hazard. The customers are still howling about being on hold too long. That’s what I wanted fixed. This is another project disaster!”

Happy Executives at Project Initiation… or at the End of the Project

The sad thing about this order-taking technique for Project Initiation is that it makes some executives and users happy. When you initiate projects like this, you and the team start work quickly. Executives like that. They also like that they can avoid deciding exactly what they want the project to produce. That lets them off the hook for committing to the project scope. However, the odds are nearly zero of the PM delivering a successful project and having satisfied executives/users/customers when the project is complete. This order-taking approach begins a process that allows changes every week. Why is that? Because the order-taking process does not produce a scope definition that is objectively measured or controlled. Order-taking does not make the executives commit to what they want. Even worse, when the PM acts like an order-taker, that’s how the executives perceive them. So what is the best Project Initiation process?

The Best Practice for Project Initiation

First, you must abandon the order-taking process of listing vague requirements and starting work quickly. Instead, you must ask questions to learn enough about the executive’s business problem so you can help them define the project scope.

Project InitiationExecutives who are not used to project managers asking questions may resent it. But a successful project manager responds to these objections with a reasonable statement like, “How can I deliver the business end result you want if I don’t know precisely what it is?”

Executives may not like that push back. But it’s worth some early executive dissatisfaction because it helps you define a measured business result for the project scope. It helps you avoid a list of ever-changing requirements. Let’s return to our story and see how to do this correctly.

How to Use the Best Practice for Project Initiation

The executive stops at the drive-through window and says, “I want to clean up customer service by March 30th.”

The project manager answers, “Exactly what result are you looking for?”

A flash of anger washes across the executive’s face, “Just get started. I’m in a hurry. When are you going to start work?”

The project manager says, “We’ll start immediately after I understand the results you’re looking for. What’s the result you want from the project?”

“I need better efficiency,” snaps the executive.

The PM says, “I understand. How much improvement in efficiency?”

The executive frowns in anger again, “Why are you asking all these questions instead of starting work?”

The PM politely responds, “Because you won’t be pleased with our work if it doesn’t help you achieve your objectives. So I need to know what they are. What amount of efficiency improvement do you need?”

“Enough to cut costs by 12% from the customer service department. We need training, new systems, new cubicles, etc,” the executive says.

“Well, if you want to have a 12% cost reduction by cutting staff, each customer service rep will have to be able to handle 12% more customer calls.”

The executive smiles, “Right. Then we could gradually let attrition reduce the staff. Now let’s get into the details of how to do that…”

Using this approach, the project manager avoided starting a project that was almost certain to fail. A results-focused approach to project initiation and planning produces benefits for the entire portfolio of projects. Learn more about how to initiate and plan projects.

You can learn all these skills in our project management courses. Take a look at the courses in your industry specialty.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com