Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Project Management for Professionals - Conceiving and Defining the Project

The hard part in any project is getting underway. There is something basically daunting in a blank sheet of paper or computer screen.

The key thing to remember is that any project begins with study, analysis and discussion. Do not aim for perfection in the first instance. The key is to get some initial ideas down that can then be used as a base for discussion and refinement.

We can now turn to look in more detail at the various stages in the project life cycle beginning with stage one, conceiving and defining the project.

Projects vary greatly in complexity and hence in degree of planning difficulty. However, even with simple projects good results depend upon the adoption of a structured approach. In fact, much later project failure can be traced back to failure to follow a properly structured approach during this first stage.

One of the hardest things to get across to people is that time spent in conceiving and defining the project is rarely wasted. Many people just want to get on with it. This leads to a project cycle that runs do, plan, fix.

Overview of Steps Involved

Even if you alone are to be responsible for the project, it can still be helpful to involve others in the project definition stage in order to test and extend your ideas.

Brain-storming is a useful process during this early stage. It taps into the creative potential of a group throughassociation of ideas. It also begins the establishment of the group view that is generally necessary if the project is to be a success.

The key steps in this first phase of the project life cycle involves:

a. identifying the people who should be involved, at least in the early stages

b. defining the need the project is to meet, including any essential outcomes

c. defining and then collecting the information necessary to write the project definition or specification

d. setting the end results objective. A clear distinction must be made between what the proposal is expected to generate (the deliverable or output) and the use to which those results are to be put (the outcome)

e. listing imperatives and desirables

f. generating alternative strategies

g. evaluating alternative strategies

h. choosing a course of action

In practice, these steps are likely to be worked through in an iterative fashion. The degree of detail needed will vary depending upon project complexity.

For much of our work, the client will already have conceived and defined the project and expressed this in the consultant's brief. We then use the proposal preparation phase to test and refine that brief.

Implementing the Steps

Learning curve is a common term in complex systems development environments such as aerospace. It refers to the way in which knowledge and skills are acquired. Initial progress is slow, but then grows at an exponential rate before flattening out.

Learning curve issues are particularly important in projects since teams are bought together to meet a particular need and then dissolve. The project manager has to recognise and find the best way of managing these issues

In all cases, action begins with study, discussion and analysis in order to:

a. define the need to project is to meet, including any essential outcomes

b. Identify the people who should be involved, at least in the early stages.

c. define and then collect the information necessary to write the project definition or specification.

These three steps will normally be done together.

In general, it is desirable that all those who will be involved in the project, as well as those who will use the outcome or be affected by the project, should have some measure of involvement from early in this initial phase.

This allows problems to be more easily identified, gathers project support and reduces learning curve difficulties in that those who will be involved start to develop shared objectives and build project knowledge. It also makes it easier to define and collect required information.

Having got this far, the next step is to write the project definition. This involves:

a. setting end-results objectives. The need to be met has already been defined. The project outcome must now be properly defined and related to the defined need. Just what should the project deliver? How will this meet needs?

b. listing imperatives and desirables. Most projects involve multiple outputs. However, a major problem in project definition is that projects can be overladen with just too many requirements. So it is important to be clear as to those things that the project must deliver as compared to those that would simply be desirable.

c. generating alternative strategies. Just how might the project objectives be achieved? Answers here are usually not clear cut. The critical need at this stage is to identify as many alternative paths as possible without bogging down in detailed evaluation.

d. evaluating alternative strategies. The identified strategies should be analysed and ranked.

e. choosing a course of action. The best course of action can now be chosen and expressed in a project brief.

The length of the project brief will vary depending on the size and complexity of the project. It may also vary depending upon whether the job is to be done in house or via external contractors.

Whatever the job and approach, there are two major problems that must be avoided during the process.

Problem one is that of over-specification in terms of the approach to be followed. At this stage in the process, it is simply not possible to be too prescriptive since the approach will, or more precisely should, vary during the next stage in the project process, planning the project.

Problem two is ensuring that all the required project sign-offs are in place.

Previous Posts in this Series

Note on Copyright

Material in this series is drawn from the Ndarala Group Short Guide to Project Management. The material is copyright Ndarala but may be reproduced and quoted with due acknowledgment.

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