Project initiation: An easy guide to help kick-start any project

Symbols and icons that represent what goes into the project initiation phase

The saying goes that you can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. Sure, it might look good at first glance, with its fresh paint and shiny new facade. But as soon as there’s a slight tremble or a particularly strong gust of wind, everything can come crashing down. 

The same goes for projects. You need a strong foundation that can face any twist or turn that’s thrown your way.

If your project isn’t built on a solid foundation at the initial phase of a project it’s far more likely to run into much larger problems further down the line.

Let’s take a closer look at the initiation phase of a project life cycle, so that you can make sure your project can stand the test of time (and wind, should that be a factor).

Project initiation definition 

To help us define project initiation, we’ll break it into two quick parts:

1. What is the project initiation phase?

To put it simply, in a project life cycle, the initiation phase is the very first step of starting a new project. 

This is where you lay the groundwork for everything that will follow throughout the rest of the project life cycle phases, which include:

  • Project initiation (why we’re here today)
  • Project planning
  • Project execution 
  • Project monitoring and control
  • Project closure 

So now you might ask yourself, how does project initiation differ from project planning? Don’t you do planning in both phases? Well, kind of (but not really).

Project initiation vs project planning

During the project initiation phase, you outline the project needs and criteria and define the value for the business. Once you have stakeholder buy-in and have assessed the project’s feasibility, you can move on to the planning phase. This is when you iron out the details including more specific objectives, deliverables, and a project roadmap.

Project planning builds on what was defined during the project initiation phase. Without the project initiation phase, you can’t move on to planning.

2. What is initiation in project management, specifically?

Only about 35% of projects are successful. Now, you don’t need to be a math whiz to be able to tell that that’s not a great number.

So why do so many projects fail? While the reason for so many projects failing can be many, breezing through things like the project scope and the initiation phase of project management won’t do you any good.

This is when you define the business value the project will deliver, get buy-in from stakeholders, and align on expectations.

In other words: it’s essential to project success. Let’s talk more about that.

Why the project initiation phase is so important 

Project initiation is the most critical part of a project’s life cycle. 

Defining the project, its goals, and aligning with key stakeholders on what project success looks like is essential—it sets the tone for the entire project. 

If you don’t do this, as Dr. Al Zeitoun will tell you, you might end up with a completely different idea of what success looks like.

“This was my first big ‘aha moment’ about the delta between outputs and outcomes. Although I had experienced that a few times in my career, it wasn’t until this meeting that I was forced to question my view of what success looked like.”

He shares his experience from a career-changing meeting in our latest eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager—Download your free copy today.

With Al’s cautionary tale in mind, let’s take a look at what should happen during the project initiation phase, so that you can set yourself and your team up for success from the get-go.

Download the eBook, Confessions of a Project Manager

So, what happens in the project initiation phase?

During the project’s initiation phase, the project manager or project team lead will lay the groundwork to establish every aspect of the work that’s part of the project.

At a high level, this includes things such as:

  • What the project will consist of
  • Why you’re doing the project
  • What the aims of the project are
  • What constitutes failure or success 
  • What business value the project will aim to deliver

This information is then used for a number of different purposes such as:

  • Sharing with other business units
  • Getting buy-in from key stakeholders
  • Securing funding from investors

Now that we have a good idea of what happens during the project initiation phase, let’s take a closer look at typical project initiation activities.

What are the project initiation activities and deliverables?

The project initiation deliverables and activities are based on making sure the groundwork is laid properly.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Setting project goals: Every project needs objectives. These goals allow you to benchmark progress and measure success, so it’s important to start by defining what you’re setting out to achieve. 
  • Producing a project vision statement: This is a statement that lays out your strategic vision. This helps to align your team with your approach, as well as make sure your vision and goals are cohesive. 
  • Identifying project parameters: An essential part of your project initiation process, your project parameters lay out exactly what you need not only for the project to be a success, but also to actually get everything started. 
  • Setting out team roles and responsibilities: It’s important to highlight who is doing what at the start of the project. Of course, those roles will most likely change throughout the project (and that’s absolutely fine), but it’s good to start with everyone knowing what’s expected of them.
  • Carrying out a risk assessment: No project initiation phase is complete without a risk assessment, because the importance of risk management in projects can’t be underestimated. A risk assessment is a document that considers all of the potential risks involved with your project—including everything from financial worries to general health and safety.
  • Considering your success criteria: Now that you’ve laid out the stages of your project, you’ll need to define what success looks like at each stage. This allows you to measure how well your project is going and reward the hard work that it has taken to get there. 

All of these deliverables should be put together in proper project initiation documents. After all, it’s project management we’re talking about, and we love our documents! So what documents are created in the project initiation phase?

Let’s take a look. 

Project initiation documents  

There are a number of project initiation documents that can be used during the early stages of a project.

However, the two most commonly used documents are:

  • A project initiation document (PID)
  • A project charter

But what are they, and what exactly is their purpose?

What is a project initiation document?

Your PID is your main planning document that is shared with all of the stakeholders that are involved in the project. 

Throughout the rest of the project, this document will act as your roadmap to success, and be referred to by everyone from your internal team to your external investors. 

While the above deliverables are some of the key items that may be included in this document, there’s actually no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a PID—so the contents will vary from project to project. 

What is a project charter?

Some projects may require you to create what’s known as a project charter. This can either be used to supplement the PID, or created instead of the PID. 

PIDs and project charters are often mixed up. And to be fair to those who do get confused, it’s an easy mistake to make as these documents are very similar in nature. Essentially, a project charter is a more informal, less detailed version of a PID. 

The project initiation process: 5 key steps to successfully get a project started

Step 1: Select and create your project documentation 

The first key step to getting your project initiation off the ground is creating the necessary project initiation phase documents. 

As we mentioned above, the two most common documents to use are either a PID or a project charter (or both used in conjunction).

However, you will have to tailor your sign-off process depending on which document you use. 

So for example, project charters can be approved by the project sponsor. Whereas a PID has to be formally approved by all of the sponsors, as well as the other key stakeholders. 

The main benefit of creating a project charter instead of a PID is that it is a lot less detailed, and can therefore be made quickly and signed off quickly—allowing the work to get underway much faster. This might be a good avenue to take for short, simple projects. 

One benefit of using a fuller project initiation document is that it gives you the opportunity to include additional details and get these signed off by everyone upfront. Even though it may require more time and work in the initiation phase, this could prevent issues later down the line, and could be better for longer, more complex projects. 

Step 2: Run a feasibility study

So you’ve got your plan, now you just need to make sure what you’re trying to do is actually achievable. 

The best way to do this is to run what’s known as a feasibility study. This is a process that allows you to evaluate whether or not your project can be successful with the resources you have available, as well as whether or not it would be a worthwhile venture. 

If the answer to both of these points is yes, then you can easily back yourself up when it comes to your pitch meeting. But if you think you’re going to struggle to get the necessary work done with what you’ve been given, or the return on investment is looking a bit low, then you may need to rethink the project.

Step 3: Put together an elite team

Your project team is a vital part of running a successful project. 

That means that it’s absolutely essential to source the right people for the job with the necessary skills and experience. But it’s also important that you pick a team that can work cohesively together. 

You could have the best-made cogs in the world, but if they don’t fit together—then they’ll never start spinning.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to go into huge depth at this stage. There will be more to come in the project planning stage.

Step 4: Assemble your project initiation tools

A key part of the process is making sure you have the tools in place to tick off all the activities within the initiation phase. You also need to make sure your team has all of the necessary tools required to successfully complete their tasks throughout the rest of the project life cycle. 

Resource management software like Resource Guru can help get your resource allocation just right, schedule the right people on your projects, and even your project scheduling once you get there

Step 5: Pitch your project and get approval 

Now all that’s left to do is pitch your project for approval. 

If you’re working internally within a company, you’ll likely have a pretty good idea of who you need to get the nod of approval from. But if you’re working in an agency or as a freelance project manager, you may want to identify the key stakeholders who will have a say in the various stages of your project. 

Most pitches don’t end with a simple yes or no. You often need to take on feedback and then tweak your project so that it falls in line with your stakeholders’ visions. 

The most important thing you must do is make sure you have the go-ahead from everybody involved. The last thing you want is to get started on the deliverables only to find out you were missing a key stakeholder’s green light. 

Once you’ve got everyone in agreement and you’ve got the necessary signatures, then you’re ready to move on to the next stage of the project life cycle—project planning. 

What are the project manager’s roles and responsibilities during the project initiation phase?

A project manager can make or break a project—so the part they play and the tactics they use are absolutely key.

The main role of a project manager over the course of a project is straightforward. It’s to make sure everything runs smoothly, and ultimately get the project over the line. 

But specifically in the initiation phase of project management, you can boil down the manager’s roles and responsibilities to: 

  • Knowing what the project aims to deliver
  • Starting to put together a project team
  • Setting out the criteria for success
  • Figuring out the budget for the project
  • Setting project deadlines
  • Knowing the roles and responsibilities of the project team 
  • Liaising with clients and stakeholders

Your project initiation checklist

To make sure you’ve ticked all of the boxes for your project initiation tasks, here’s a project initiation phase checklist to summarize what we’ve covered:

  • Figure out your project initiation phase activities and deliverables:
    • Set your project goals
    • Create a project vision statement
    • Work out your project parameters
    • Assign roles and responsibilities
    • Create a risk assessment
    • Figure out your success criteria
  • Create your initiation document(s):
    • Project initiation document (PID)
    • Project charter
  • Run a feasibility study
  • Figure out what resources you need
  • Put together your team
  • Assemble your project initiation tools
  • Pitch your project and get sign-off from all your key stakeholders 
  • Know your roles and responsibilities as a project manager

All set for the planning phase

Now that you’ve laid the foundation for your project, it’s time to move on to the planning phase. This is when you’ll create a project plan, define your budget, and do your full resource planning

Without proper resource management, regardless of how solid your foundation is, you won’t be able to meet the project goals. But with proper project scheduling in place, you’ll be able to deliver on deadlines and keep stakeholders happy throughout the project life cycle.

Now, let’s move on to resource planning.

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