Best Practices for Your Project Management Initiation Phase

Every project is unique in its objectives, as well as its challenges. So to improve the way projects are managed, we break them up into phases, also known as the phases of project management. This makes it easier for teams to evaluate and, if necessary, correct the course on the scope of a project — sometimes even pivoting away from the original plan.

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge officially recognizes five project management phases or process groups. These are: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Controlling, and Closing. And together they make up the entire project management life cycle.

For this article, we tackle the best practices for the first step in the lifecycle: the project management initiation phase.

What is the Project Management Initiation Phase?

Because the initiation phase can mean different things to different organizations, a simple way to separate it from the rest of the project lifecycle is this: it's everything that occurs before a project is approved, and before detailed planning begins.

Typically the initiation phase is where a project sponsor, in tandem with a project manager, clarifies three main things: the project's objectives, scope, constraints. Then, they prepare the project charter. Before the complete project planning phase begins, stakeholders approve this charter, and then timelines and budgets are laid out in more detail.

Best Practices for the Project Management Initiation Phase

Know Why The Project Exists

This may sound philosophical, but it's basic info that must be clear before any work is done. You must be able to answer these three questions:

  • What are the goals of this project?
  • Why now?
  • What business benefits will this give us?

Depending on whether the project is something that's been done before, you may or may not already have a developed business case for the project. This is the time to create one if it doesn't already exist. The business case will help clarify the reasoning behind the project and should answer the three questions above.

Define Major Stakeholders Early

Many projects begin with a fuzzy idea of who constitutes as main stakeholders. The full list of those impacted by the project can come later, but at the initiation phase it is crucial to define and agree upon the major stakeholders; they're the people whose decisions will greatly impact the project over its lifecycle. Include the business process owners and key executive managers, as well as your other big decision-makers.

A great tool to use for this process is a RASCI chart (a.k.a. Responsibility Assignment Matrix), which details who is Responsible (those doing the work), Accountable (the one person who ensures the work is done), Sign-Offs (those who will approve the work), Consulted (those whose input is needed to complete the work), and Informed (those who receive status updates on the work).

Document Stakeholder Commitments

Ask any project manager and they'll probably say stakeholder engagement is always a challenge. This is why you need to document and get them to sign off on all their commitments. Think of it as a contract that defines the stakeholders' roles in the project. These commitments are formally included in the project charter which they will sign at the end of the phase.

Some commitments may typically include how many stakeholders are needed to make a decision or form a quorum, and how long they can deliberate before a decision must be reached.

Complete The Project Management Initiation Phase Checklist

Create your project charter

Many simply look at the project charter (or project plan) as the step where you're filling up a template with basic project information — but it's much more than that. The project charter lays out the initial vision that a project sponsor and a project manager have for a project. It will guide the work throughout the project management life cycle and any changes to it will need to go through a thorough approval process. Therefore it is crucial that the charter is crafted carefully with as much clarity and detail as possible.

Include project scope

Probably the most important section of the project charter will be the project scope  — this is where precise boundaries around what the project is and isn't are made clear. During the initiation phase, the scope will be discussed and its points negotiated until all major stakeholders see their objectives being met. The final scope is then documented within the project charter and signed off by the major stakeholders.

Other items that the project charter should cover:  

  • Deliverables: These are the work products, delivered on a specified date, and in a state that has been agreed upon by stakeholders.
  • Business Need: The business case defines the high level benefits of the project as well as its costs.
  • Constraints: These are the limitations of your project, including: cost, human resources, time limits, quality, and potential ROI.
  • Assumptions: A belief of what you predict will be true in the future.
  • Risks: These are unexpected events that may affect the people, processes, technology, and resources involved in a project. These have the potential of derailing or delaying a project from its completion.

How You Begin Determines How You End

The point of all this is: how you begin your project will very often determine the success or failure of your project. Checking off everything in the project management initiation checklist allows you to present the vision of the project to those who will approve the work, and clarifies the scope of the work that is to come. Quite simply, the initiation phase — and especially the project charter — paves the way for the success of your project. Don't begin a project without one.

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