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Project Management - Defining the project

By Lasa Information Systems Team

Start as you mean to go on. Defining your project well at the outset (of failing to) can make (or break) your project's chances at success.

Projects that go wrong tend to do so right at the beginning.

All project management methodologies emphasise the importance of the successful initiation of a project through the use of a Project Definition or, in PRINCE2 jargon, a Project Initiation Document (PID).

The production of these documents ensures that the project is defined accurately and that key issues like the overall purpose of the project and its key objectives are clear. The Project Definition will also specify the key deliverables of the project – the things it will produce, and will timetable the work of the project, broken down into a series of tasks.

The Project Definition provides the foundation of the project, the baseline against which progress can be measured and controlled. This doesn’t mean that the project is set in concrete. As it proceeds there will be a need for changes, but these can be made in a considered way, against the background of the definition, rather than being incorporated piecemeal into the project. The process of defining and presenting the project accurately helps ensure its accountability. The Project Definition provides a clear statement of what the project entails and can be used to make sure that everyone understands what it will do. The Project Definition is a great vehicle for communication and should be used to avoid misunderstandings of what the project is about, and to build consensus around its objectives. It is better to have the debate about what the project will do at an early stage of the project rather than let different points of view cause problems at a later date.

Writing a project definition is hard

Writing a Project Definition is a demanding process. It involves thinking ahead, clearly and logically to structure the project into its different elements. Projects are complicated and it doesn’t help that many of the concepts we need to use like objectives and outcomes are abstract and ill defined.

See the Definition Soup section for more clarity on outcomes and objectives.

It may be hard, but the effort you put in here will be repaid as the project proceeds. You are building the foundation for the project, setting the framework for its development and constructing a vehicle for communication.

Someone has to write the Project Definition but it shouldn’t be a lonely task. You won’t be an expert in every element of the project so you’ll find it hard to confidently estimate the duration of tasks and the resources you’ll require. Nobody has a crystal ball and if you don’t know the details of what’s involved in a particular process, don’t guess. It’s much better to talk to those who do have the knowledge and experience.

This is particularly true if the project takes you into an area of specialist expertise like the Internet or computer technology. Don’t guess how long it will take to develop a database or set up a website but get an estimate from those who do this work all the time.

The same applies to uncertainties like the needs of project users and the benefits that the project will deliver. Don’t struggle to define these on your own but involve those within the organisations who deal in these issues. This may mean leading a discussion, but it is better to resolve these issues with all those involved than to struggle to resolve them on your own.

In the full PRINCE2 methodology a simple Project Brief is produced as a first step: this is then developed into a Project Initiation Document. The template for a Project Brief can be used very successfully as the agenda for an initial brainstorming meeting.

Project Managers have two different roles to play. One is the concentrated work of developing a logical structure to the project. The other is to facilitate communication between the different staff involved. These are distinct and very different skills.

Some Project Managers feel more comfortable with the detailed work of planning, but the communication element is the key to the production of an effective Project Definition and a successful project.

Next Section: Planning the project or Download the full Project Management Guide (PDF, 676Kb)

About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT


Database, Internet, PDF, Website

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Published: 29th October 2003 Reviewed: 14th May 2006

Copyright © 2003 Lasa Information Systems Team

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