You want to take a road trip. You know that eventually you need to nail down the details — your route, pitstops, accommodation, and all the other finer points of your upcoming trip.
But first, there are some bigger questions you need to answer. Where do you want to go? Why is that your ideal spot? Do you know roughly when you’ll go? And do you think you have enough time and money to make it there?
Eager to know more about what exactly the project initiation phase is and how you and your team can make the most of it? This guide shares everything you need to know about this crucial (yet often overlooked or underappreciated) part of the process.
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What is project initiation?
Like so many elements in project management, project initiation can mean different things to different organizations. The simplest and broadest way to think of it is like this: project initiation is everything that occurs before a project is approved and before detailed planning begins.
Typically, this phase is when a project sponsor (along with the project manager) clarifies three important things: the project’s objective, scope, and constraints. Then they use that information to prepare the project charter to be reviewed and, ideally, approved by the project’s stakeholders.
When that’s done, the project planning phase begins and timelines, budgets, and other points are laid out in greater detail.
Project initiation vs. project planning: What’s the difference?
That quick overview likely already gave you a taste of the difference between project initiation and project planning.
While initiation and planning are often confused and mistakenly used interchangeably, the Project Management Body of Knowledge clarifies that these are two distinct, chronological stages of project management. They’re the first two phases of a total of five, which include:
So, initiation comes before planning. It’s often focused on the broader reasoning for a project — think of it like the “pitch” before a project is approved. Once that happens, the planning phase is about nailing down all the finer details so that work can actually begin.
Sticking with our road trip example, the initiation phase of project management is focused on getting a general grasp on how much time and money you have, who’s coming along, and, most importantly, where you’re going to go. The planning phase is when you’ll map out your route, determine your pitstops, book your hotels, and more.
Why is the project initiation phase important?
When you’re eager to get your project rolling, it’s tempting to skip initiation and jump right in with planning and execution. However, dedicating some time to the initiation phase is important for several reasons. Here are a few of the main benefits of project initiation:
Prove the project’s value
When a project gets challenging, it’s not long before people begin groaning and lamenting, “What’s the point? Is this even worth it?”
During the initiation phase, your primary goal is to make a business case for the project — to clearly state not only what the project is, but why it matters. What will it ultimately help you achieve?
Getting clarity on the project’s value upfront rallies everyone around a shared objective, while also preventing people from writing it off as a pointless or trivial exercise when the going gets tough. They know it’s worth sticking with it.
Understand the project’s feasibility
There’s a big difference between a challenging project and an impossible project. As you iron out your scope and objectives during project initiation, you also need to identify and understand your constraints.
This isn’t meant to poke holes in your project and discourage you from ever getting started. Rather, its intention is to help you determine whether or not your project is actually realistic. Can you reasonably complete this project with the time, budget, and other resources you have available? Is the scope actually manageable within those constraints?
By asking yourself the hard questions during this very first phase, you can proactively minimize frustration down the line — and, perhaps more importantly, avoid setting your entire team up for failure and disappointment.
Align expectations early
Projects can often feel like big games of tug-of-war. Despite the fact that people, teams, and stakeholders are supposed to be working toward a shared goal, they often have different perceptions, expectations, and even motives that influence their contributions to the project.
That’s another major benefit of thorough project initiation: it ensures everybody is aligned on what the project is, what advantages it offers for the business, and who’s involved in making it happen.
While those might sound like obvious elements, stating them plainly (and including them directly in your project charter) confirms that everybody is on the same page — before they start a single task.
Get stakeholder buy-in upfront
You’ve probably been a part of a project where everything felt like an emergency. In the eleventh hour, somebody approached a department head to ask if they could dedicate hours or resources to this project — and if they could do so this week.
Not only does that lead to a frantic scramble, but it also breeds resentment and frustration. Those emotions can erode a sense of collaboration and teamwork, not only for this project but all future projects that you might need to complete together.
With thoughtful project initiation and a project charter, stakeholders need to be looped in from the outset, preventing all of those last-minute requests and irritated, “Why didn’t I know about this sooner?” accusations.
How to ace the project initiation phase: Five steps to follow
One of the biggest challenges of project initiation is that it’s far too tempting to overshoot initiation entirely and tiptoe right into project planning.
Keep in mind that the project initiation phase isn’t when you’ll sink your teeth into the nitty-gritty details of your project. If you find yourself creating timelines, identifying milestones, or assigning tasks, you’re going too far.
Think of initiation almost like a project proposal — a high-level overview of your project so that you can get approval before moving forward. With that lens in place, here are the steps to take to make your project initiation phase as impactful as possible.
1. Identify your project’s “why”
Your first step is to figure out why your project exists. Why is it worth doing in the first place? What’s the ultimate objective? To keep things simple and straightforward, try to answer these three questions:
- What are the goals of this project?
- Why now?
- What business benefits will this give us?
If this is a project that’s been done before (or is similar to one that’s been done before), you might’ve already developed a business case for the project — and you’re free to reuse and repurpose that.
However, if a business case doesn’t already exist, it’s time to create one. It will help clarify the reasoning behind the project, which is important context to have as you create your project charter and approach stakeholders for approval.
2. Create your project charter
One of the biggest pieces of the project initiation phase is the creation of your project charter. You might also hear this referred to as your project initiation document.
The project charter is a very brief document that outlines the key elements of your project, including objectives, scope, key stakeholders, and resources. It’s almost like your project’s sales tool or marketing document.
There’s some flexibility about what exactly you should include in your project charter. Regardless of the specifics, aim to keep it somewhat short — remember, this is your initial pitch or proposal and not your detailed project plan. It needs to give enough information for stakeholders to ask questions and issue approvals, but not be so detailed that you and your team work off of it like you would a comprehensive project plan.
Here are a few of the nuts and bolts you should make sure to list on your document:
- Basic information: This includes the project’s name, a quick description of the project, the project sponsor and manager, the start date, and a space for the project sponsor to sign when the charter is officially approved.
- Deliverables: These are the work products, delivered on a specified date and in a state that has been agreed upon by stakeholders.
- Business need: This is where the step of identifying your “why” comes into play. The business case defines the benefits of the project, which is helpful for both uniting the team and justifying the project’s cost.
- Stakeholders: This is where you clarify who’s involved in the project. These aren’t just the people involved in doing the actual project work, but anyone who will be impacted by the completion of this project in some meaningful way — and, as a result, deserves to have some sort of say in the process.
- Scope: This is where you outline exactly what is and isn’t included in the project. Keep in mind that this might be discussed and negotiated by stakeholders before you get final approval.
- Constraints: These are the limitations of your project — they’re the parameters you need to work within. These could include cost, human resources, time limits, quality, or even potential return on investment.
- Risks: These can easily be confused with constraints. However, these aren’t boundaries you need to be aware of. Rather, they’re unexpected events or threats that could affect the people, processes, technology, and resources involved in a project. These have the potential of delaying a project’s completion or even derailing it entirely.
It feels like a lot to cover, but each of these only needs a sentence or a couple of bullet points. Since you create your project charter before you even have official approval to start the project, you don’t want to spend tons of time on a detailed and thorough document that’s still subject to so much change.
Save yourself some stress and time by keeping the initial charter brief. Then you can move forward with a more comprehensive project plan once you know the project is ready to go.
3. Understand your major stakeholders
Many projects begin with a fuzzy idea of who constitutes a main stakeholder, leading to the frustrating eleventh-hour scramble for input and approvals.
While the full list of those impacted by or involved in the project can come later, the initiation phase is when you should define and agree upon the major stakeholders — the people whose decisions will greatly impact the project over its life cycle. This might include the business process owners and key executive managers, as well as any other big decision-makers.
You don’t just want to jot all of your stakeholders in a running list in your project charter, though. There’s always some sort of hierarchy to be aware of, so try to use a framework to bring some order to the chaos. RACI and DACI are two popular frameworks to categorize stakeholders and team members.
A Responsibility Assignment Matrix (often referred to as a RACI chart) details who is:
- Responsible: The people actually doing the work
- Accountable: The person ensuring the work is done
- Consulted: The people whose input is needed to complete the work
- Informed: The people who receive status updates on the work
The DACI framework is super-similar and lists who is the:
- Driver: The person who is steering the project — typically the project owner or project manager
- Approver: The person who has the final say on the details of the project
- Contributor: The people who do the project work and provide skills, input, and experience
- Informed: The people who are kept in the loop on the project, even if they aren’t playing an active role
Getting this level of clarity on your stakeholders during the project initiation phase can help save time, stress, and confusion. Everybody has a shared understanding of who’s responsible for what, so they don’t waste time and energy tracking down people for approvals or input when it’s unnecessary.
4. Analyze your resources
One of the big benefits of the project initiation phase is confirming a project’s feasibility — and most of that hinges on your resources. Is this project even possible as you currently envision it with the resources you have available?
For example, if you estimate a project will cost $25,000 but you only have $8,000 left in your budget for the year, you know you need to adjust the scope, push your timeline, or secure more budget elsewhere. Similarly, if you’re planning to complete the project in Q1 but the IT team, who you need onboard, is booked out until Q3, then you know more tweaks need to happen.
Again, you don’t need to move forward with detailed resource planning quite yet. Rather, your goal here is to identify the major resources you’ll need to complete the project so that you and your stakeholders have a starting point as you move through the reviews, negotiations, and ultimate approval of the project charter.
5. Pitch your project and (hopefully) get approval
You have your completed charter in hand and are almost all the way through the project initiation phase. But before you move into planning, you need one more thing: approval.
If you already categorized your stakeholders using the frameworks mentioned above, then you likely have a solid idea of who needs to ultimately put their stamp of approval on the project charter — in most cases, the approver is the project sponsor.
However, it can be worth pulling together other stakeholders to review the charter, even if they aren’t the ones who need to provide sign-off. This approval process isn’t always cut and dried, and having the input of numerous stakeholders gives you a chance to solicit feedback and make strategic adjustments — before anybody rolls up their sleeves and starts making progress on the actual project deliverables.
Again, it’s another step of the process that might seem groan-worthy or even unnecessary in the heat of the moment. But it can save a lot of hassles and miscommunications down the line.
Once all stakeholders are in agreement and your project charter is approved, your project sponsor will sign and date the charter. Then you’re ready to move into the next steps of the process: planning and executing your project, all while adhering to your original charter.
Wrike is here for every project phase
When most people think of a project, they think of the actual work it takes to produce the deliverables. But you know there’s so much more to it than that — there’s all of the effort and elbow grease you need to put into strategizing, planning, and galvanizing your team before you ever touch a single project task.
Fortunately, Wrike can support you and your team through every single project phase — all the way from project initiation to project closing — with features such as:
- Dynamic project intake forms to streamline your project requests
- Templates for everything from creative briefs to sprint planning and even project charters
- Centralized communication and collaboration to reduce miscommunications
- Customizable reports to quickly gather the data you need for your projects
- Resource management capabilities to help you effectively plan and allocate your resources
When it comes to projects, most people focus on a solid ending. But that doesn’t happen without a thoughtful beginning. By investing in the project initiation phase (and every phase that comes after it), you make it easier for all of your project team members and stakeholders to work together throughout the entire project life cycle.
After all, any road trip is far more rewarding and enjoyable when you all agree on where you want to go.
Ready to lay the groundwork for your next successful project? Start your free trial of Wrike today.