Chapter 17 - Project Start-up

Part 2

Significance of the start-up phase

The conditions that ensure project success are established in its initial phases. The project start-up phase is the most important project management sub-process because it is the project phase in which the foundations for the subsequent sub-processes are put in place (e.g. the formulation of project objectives).

Common mistakes

Attention

Unfortunately, many project managers make three common mistakes during the start-up phase:

  • Executives provide staff with an imprecise assignment ("Just do it!" projects) and then expect fast results.
  • Owing to a lack of time and funds, no pre-project feasibility study is carried out to clarify objectives.
  • Managers fail to involve end users of the project deliverable in the process of formulating objectives due to time shortage.

In the US, this impatient behaviour is attributed to the WHISCY principle. This is an acronym for "Why isn't Sam coding yet?". In other words, "Why is that guy still formulating the concept instead of getting on with programming?"

Project management literature explains the entirely different approach taken by project planners in Japan. They dedicate a great deal of time to the start-up process, measured in terms of the total project lifecycle, in order to obtain as much information as possible and eliminate risks. Studies show, that in Japanese companies 90 percent of all changes are made at the concept development stage. In contrast, western companies most often make changes only shortly before large-scale production begins - at which time changes are very expensive to make. The Japanese are rewarded for their patience in that they have much less need than their western counterparts to eliminate faults or make improvements later on. They thereby benefit from a shorter project lifecycle.

Differentiation between project launch and the end of the start-up phase

When does a project begin and when does the start-up phase end? It is impossible to answer this question precisely since many projects have a long lead-in:

  • Various people generate project ideas and then discard them.
  • Initial talks between project stakeholders and potential customers take place, fail to make progress and are then put on the back burner.
  • Preliminary concepts that have been discarded are sometimes reinstated in a modified form at a later date.

You can say that the start-up phase ends as soon as there is sufficient information to make firm agreements (e.g. signing a contract) between the project team - represented by the project manager - and the main contractors regarding the tasks to be carried out in the project.

Consensus and budget

The project starts when consensus is reached within the company to act on this topic and that resources are made available to clarify the further procedure. If this consensus has been documented - a procedure we recommend - and a first budget has been approved, it is possible pretty much to pinpoint the project launch date.

Tasks in the start-up phase

In the start-up phase, the people involved in the project (especially you as the project manager and your team) need to

  • define the project objectives and project content (in collaboration with the customer),
  • clarify and establish the overall availability of resources (i.e. human, financial and other resources),
  • form the project team and establish rules governing cooperation among team members, with line managers and with the customer,
  • set up the project management structures,
  • prepare the first project plan and
  • undertake an initial risk analysis.

It is the task of the executive management team or a steering committee to analyse whether

  • the project is compatible with the organisation's business strategy and whether
  • it will contribute to attaining the organisational objectives (e.g. increasing return on investment, improving image).

On the basis of this analysis, decisions on the priority of the project will be made.

Definition of project stakeholders and project objectives

The stakeholders' different expectations of the project should, to the greatest extent possible, be reflected in its objectives. Therefore, you need to define the project stakeholders and their expectations at the outset.

The most important stakeholder is generally the person financing the project. Their representatives will introduce their technical requirements on the project. Your role is to document the roles of these various representatives and their associated expectations. Intensive communication at the outset of the project with the end users of the project deliverable is rightly believed to be a critical success factor. This is particularly important in IT projects where failure to include the end users early-on can jeopardise their approval of a complex, technical system that may require adjustments to working processes and intensive training. However, particularly in software projects, communication between developers and end users is often problematic since the experts use technical terms that the users do not understand. In return, the users find it difficult to express their requirements, concerns and problems clearly.

Formation of the project team and rules for project teamwork

In many projects, the project manager has little authority when it comes to selecting team members. Often, in matrix organisations, he has to work with employees who are allocated by line managers.

In the start-up phase, you need particularly to demonstrate your leadership. You must start the team-building process and ensure that

  • a positive project culture is created,
  • latent conflicts are brought out into the open and discussed,
  • team members can identify with the project and
  • they are familiar with and accept the project objectives.

In the start-up phase every single project group member needs to be especially creative - particularly in defining the project objectives. During this, you as the project manager are best advised to employ a cooperative management style. In other words, the team members should have the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and participate in decisions.

During this phase, you are responsible for establishing communication channels with line managers and with the customer to enable proactive stakeholder management. It is especially important to provide regular information via the formal reporting system and in status meetings. You also have to create the basis for effective informal communication, where possible. For example, this can happen if people's workplaces are close to each other or through joint activities.

Clarification of key parameters

Some of the most important parameters are the human and financial resources involved in the project. It is necessary to clarify whether

  • the necessary funding for the project is available and whether
  • qualified staff can be provided.

The first task requires at least a rough estimate of costs and the second one a rough staff deployment plan for the project. This plan must take into account, that there are other running projects and work unrelated to the project.

Establishment of project management structures

Many companies have mandatory guidelines for establishing the project management structures. For example, in a matrix organisation, job descriptions generally exist for you, the team members, the project controller and the steering committees. These descriptions specify the responsibilities, tasks and powers associated with each position. In such cases, the project manager has little scope for influencing the structure. This restricts the options available for designing the project-specific organisational structures suggested in some of the literature. Despite this, he should ascertain whether some modifications for the purposes of the project are necessary - even if he is not authorised to implement them by himself. In any event he can, however, allocate roles to team members. He can, for instance, assign a team member to take minutes at project status meetings or to act as a facilitator in a project group.

Whatever happens, it is recommended that the following points are documented in written form at the project outset:

  • Duties of the project sponsor (e.g. to release a member of staff from regular duties to work on the project)
  • Delivery of the necessary data
  • Review of milestone results

Creation of the initial project plans

The most important planning documents that the team has to prepare include

  • an initial work breakdown structure,
  • a milestone plan containing deadlines and interim results and
  • a detailed plan of activities and timelines, at least for the next phase of the project.

If the organisation has a suitable standard procedural model, it should be used and, if necessary, adapted to the project.

Project start-up workshop

It is recommended that the start-up workshop should last from one to three days, depending on the project size. This is realistic. However, it is unlikely that all tasks can be completed at a single meeting. Often, it is difficult to arrange for all participants to attend meetings held on several different days. This is why the project team should prepare the workshops in such a way, so that their results only have to be presented, approved or modified there. Standard work breakdown structures and process models simplify these preparations considerably.

Participants

In addition to you and your team, the project start-up workshop should be attended by representatives from the customer's or project sponsor's organisation. It is also necessary to invite other key stakeholders if they have been identified. In restructuring projects, these consist of the works or staff council and representatives of the affected organisational units. The first step towards gaining acceptance for the project is taken when key project stakeholders are involved in and are able to contribute to the definition of objectives. The following agenda has proven to be useful:

A good structured project start-up meeting inlcudes the introduction of the participants and their expectations, a collection of information, identification of stakeholders, risks and the project's objectives. Furthermore a first draft of a WBS and an estimation would be reasonalbe.

How the story ends…

"Alright, thank you for the explanation. I've heard the term "kick-off meeting" sometimes. Is this the same as a project start-up workshop?" "Many people use these terms synonymously. However, it has proven advantageous to differentiate between the two types of meeting. Kick-off meetings are used for providing stakeholders with information about the project. They therefore mainly involve one-way communication. In project start-up meetings, the participants establish the basis for subsequent project phases."