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  • Writer's pictureRhys

And so, What are we Going to do?

Updated: Jul 10

Where do you start with defining a project?

Sometimes this can be quite clear cut. There is a very apparent need or opportunity that can be addressed with clear outcomes.

But, this usually isn't the case.

The Initiation phase of a project always takes longer than you expect. We tend to be optimistic on how long it will take to gain consensus and to begin work on a project. Part of the issue is that everyone is busy and can find it difficult to make time to discuss or define what the project needs to address. After all, this is a project that may not gain approval to proceed - do we want to invest significant levels of time and energy in to something that may not happen when we have all this other work going on??

Gaining consensus can be very challenging. What will be included? When there are a number of views involved, which ones are more important? We can't include everything!

This can be a difficult stage to work through. There are competing views, and passions can be quite strong. As a project manager, what really helps is great communication skills! Being able to focus the discussions and anchor ideas is a great skill at this stage. Often, we can find ourselves repeatedly addressing the same concerns or concepts as we build up the project scope over time. How can we improve ourselves in this area? I'll come back to that further on in this article.

For my project, how did I come up with it? Well, one part that makes it significantly easier is that I'm the core party involved. Input from others is certainly important - this sort of project doesn't only involve 1 person!

There are always numerous people who feel that they should or just want to contribute to defining a project. It is certainly beneficial to source thoughts about the project from a range of people who may be involved with it or at least will be impacted by the outcomes. More often than not though, the input will be from a negative perspective.

"Why do we even need to do this?"

"I was involved with a project like this 10 years ago and it failed."

"This is only going to make things worse!"


For the undertaking of an ultra-marathon.....some of the comments were more of a surprise. Asking, have you done running before....?

Well, sort of. To the kitchen to stop something boiling over....

It is not quite that bad! I have done a couple of half marathons over the last 30 years and some shorter distances. But what has happened in the past shouldn't rule out what we should decide to do going forward.

Setting realistic expectations is the key to progress with projects.

For my project, I may not succeed in my end goal - is it certainly quite a stretch! For anyone who may not be familiar, an ultra-marathon is any distance of 50km or more. But, knowing what the current situation or environment is, and what the desired end goal is, you can then work out how to bridge the gap.

The initiation phase may consist of multiple steps. It may be kicked of with a Business Case which provides a handful of very high level options of how the final goal may be achieved. These are reviewed by the key decision maker(s) and the preferred option selected to progress with.

This will then be expanded on to define the project that will be undertaken, which leads us on to the Project Charter. This is the most important document as a part of a project. Without it, no one will know what they are aiming to complete, how long they have to complete it in and what is or isn't included. While you may not have a Project Charter for your project(s), at least having these aspects clearly defined, recorded and agreed to makes a big difference!

Coming back to managing expectations - this is the time to state quite clearly how risky is this project. This is in regards to what are the chances of us completing it within the expected budget and timeline with the desired level of quality.

The more complex a project is, the lower the chances are that it will be completed within these defined parameters.

What makes a project complex?

How familiar are we with the work that needs to be completed.

What is the scale of the project.

How many people are involved.

What is the capacity (and skillset) of the people involved.

Does it use existing or new technology.

How much change is involved.

Other aspects that can influence the complexity of a project but may not be as clear cut typically revolve around the governance structure. Who is responsible for making decisions, and which ones? Are there many layers of decision makers involved? Do policy documents exist to provide guidance?

And the project hasn't even really started....and yet there are challenges and complexity in just trying to reach the point of approving to do the project!!

One of the biggest challenges that we tend to face at this stage is that we are expected to come up with a rather accurate price and duration. This tends to be very difficult as this is the stage with the highest level of uncertainty. For some projects, such as construction related ones, this can be fairly straight forward as the outcomes required are clearly defined and we have knowledge to base our estimates on - previous projects, known current costs, etc.

Providing an indication of the level of confidence in the budget and duration can help to manage expectations, such as $x plus 40% and minus 10%. The alternative is to state an estimated cost for the project and include a contingency amount. This isn't an open additional bucket of money! There needs to be some statements of how and when it will be accessed such as associating it with some types of risks that may occur during the project.

For my current project, the budget is determined as the project progresses which in some cases, that is all that can be done. For some types of projects such as research, until the data is collected, we do not really know what will be required in the next stage. Until it is collected, we do not know what the quality of the data will be, how much there will be or how it can be analysed. When these unknowns exist, for these types of projects, budget and duration are approved on a stage by stage basis.

As far as time is concerned, for me, it is definitely a stage by stage assessment as I've ticked over the 50 mark and need to listen to my body!

Why do this?

Well, it is something that I have really liked the idea of doing for a number of years now, so the goal has been building for a while.

Also, for my children, I want to show them that it is never too late to set a big goal and work towards it while also being realistic that it may not be achieved. But, even succeeding in achieving part of that ultimate goal can still be considered a success.

But wait! What about the bit you mentioned about developing your communication skills to negotiate this stage effectively?

Clear communication and developing strong communication relationships is key. If you are interested in seeing what types of development options that are available that can work, you can consider how you structure your message or, consider how you can relate to other communication styles.

One more key aspect to consider!

When we propose a project, we usually provide a completion date. The Catch - this initiation stage takes longer than we expected. What typically happens, is that the project is approved later than expected but the completion date for the project doesn't shift accordingly!

Rather than including a completion date, consider stating something like "like project will be completed 5 months after it is approved to proceed."

Once it is approved and the start date of the project is confirmed (ie: when people are available, etc), then update the project completion date accordingly.

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