Real Project Start-Up

Most project managers I’ve met believe that the only way to give life to a new endeavour is to forcibly introduce stakeholders to Prince2 (or similar) methodology and then to undertake extended interviews with customer group representatives in order to detail to the comma and the second what will be built and when. Thus, full-day “communication” sessions are held with key directors to introduce such topics as the (worse than useless) “project triangle” concept of time, cash, and scope (so customer satisfaction doesn’t matter then?) and an in-depth treatise on tasks people are permitted to undertake during the project (roles and responsibilities). This is followed up by a few months of shadowing, where business analysts craft a stack of start-up documents as proof that the project has really started (Project Initiation Document, Project Approach, Project Brief, Detailed Requirements, Solution Design et al.)

The thing is, unless you’re building an ocean liner or introducing a worldwide ID system, nobody cares. They won’t care how well you can recite from the PMBOK (project management book of knowledge). They will resent being bamboozled with corrupted, self-serving project logic (or, as I like to call it, “projic”) such as “more documents equals more control” (no it doesn’t, it equals less time to actually do anything). And they certainly won’t want to sign up to onerous interviews or extended shadowing sessions slowing down their people (when they actually have real work to do) by creating documents that nobody will ever read. But there is an alternative: to my mind all of this activity can be distilled into a two-hour stakeholder session and one simple question:

“When is the end-of-project party?”

Aside from blindsiding the attendees and thus (at least momentarily) gaining their interest, to answer this question your stakeholders are actually going to have to cover a lot of relevant ground. Perhaps you will permit me to delve into the world of dialogue to demonstrate one possible outcome of such a discussion (this is how it plays out in my mind anyway; if only real people always behaved as expected!)


  • So, when is the end-of-project party going to be?
  • Is that particularly relevant?
  • Bear with me, there’s tea and biscuits on the way.
  • OK. Well I don’t think we can say yet.
  • Why is that?
  • To start with, we don’t know what’s in scope.
  • And what do we need to do to ascertain scope?
  • At the very least we’ll need a one-pager showing the critical areas of functionality and performance expected of the new system.
  • Can we create that now?
  • Well, I guess that we have the right people in the room so I don’t see why not….

30 minutes and one high-level requirements summary later:

  • OK, so that was pretty useful stuff but are we ready to set a party date yet?
  • No. Of course not.
  • Why do you think that?
  • It’s obvious you haven’t thought this through. We don’t know who will be involved, much less who to invite. We don’t know how long the project is going to take so we don’t know when it will happen. And we don’t understand the environment in which we’re trying to operate.
  • Fair comment. Let’s take these one at a time. Are we able to draw up a list of key people who absolutely have to be informed and involved for this project to be a success?
  • I suppose we could do that.
  • Could we do it now?
  • Yes. But only if you hurry up with that tea and biscuits…

20 minutes and one stakeholder analysis / project organisation later:

  • So we know generically what we want to achieve, and we have a pretty good idea with (and for) whom. But that still doesn’t give us any indication of when we’ll finish.
  • Well, is there a date when we need to be ready?
  • Obviously, since it’s a planning system, it has to be in place by September for the first budget cycle.
  • So that’s when we finish.
  • But what if we can’t do everything by then.
  • In that case, we won’t do everything by then.
  • No, no, no, that’s not going to work. We need everything we’ve been discussing today.
  • Then you’re not going to get anything.
  • Can’t we just throw more resource at this?
  • Do we have the resource available?
  • Nooo….
  • So I guess we can’t.
  • Well, what can we do? We’ve limited ourselves to a certain time and resource, and it looks like we have too much to do.
  • There’s only one viable option.
  • Which is?
  • Do less.
  • And who decides what’s important and what isn’t?
  • Why, you do!
  • OK, we should be able to do that, but we still won’t know how long things will take.
  • Actually, the development lead is here in the room; why not ask her?

30 minutes and one prioritised high-level requirements summary (including time estimates and ” helicopter plan“) later:

  • Look, this is all well and good, but about this party you’re banging on about. It’s all very well promising a date and distributing invites and so forth, but we just can’t guarantee that we’ll be ready.
  • Why not?
  • Things can go wrong!
  • Such as…?

20 minutes and one risk analysis later:

  • So to summarise, we have an overall sense of what is required, what we need to do, who will do it, who will receive the finished goods, what may derail us, and, most importantly, when the celebrations are going to take place. Is that enough to get us started?
  • I guess so.
  • Excellent. Then we’re done for today. Now on to the critical question: who’s actually paying for the party?
  • And another question: where are those biscuits that you promised…..?

The most important responsibility of the project manager is that of facilitator, and the best place to showcase this talent is at project kick-off. While a discussion such as the above may not always pan out as expected, it is still wise to plan what you expect to get out of each meeting and then to steer your people in that direction by stimulating targeted discussion with a view to achieving (hopefully) painless agreement. Lecture stakeholders on opaque project methodologies at your peril; you’re an overhead, so if you’re not continually adding value then you’re a liability. And project start-up is the first time you can demonstrate that value. As Lynne Cooper & Mariette Castellino note in the Five Minute Coach, “increasingly, people find a coaching style of influencing and leading much more effective than controlling and directing”. Perhaps you should take this advice on board when planning your next kick-off?

…Party on dudes!