Project Management Book

"A badly defined project will take three times longer than expected, a well defined project only twice as long as expected."

Chapter 4 - Project Definition

How long does it take to define a project? How long is a piece of string.

It could literally take five minutes to define a mini project. It could take a year or more to define a very large project.

Good project definition is key to project success. It is the foundation upon which the project will be built. If the foundations aren't solid the project will collapse.

Project Definition


User Functions

IT Technical

Build and


How do we get from a bright idea or business need to a properly defined and planned project with an approved business case? We will describe the process under these 7 headings:

  1. Definition stage plan and agreement: produce the plan for the project definition stage.
  2. Evaluate the business need: is there a need for a project at all?
  3. Find the best solution: don't just run with the first idea you thought of.
  4. Investigate costs and benefits: build the financial business case.
  5. Now define the project: roles, risks, resources, etc.
  6. Estimate and plan the first stage: plan the first project stage in detail, later stages in outline.
  7. Decide: go or no go.

We will describe these 7 steps as discrete and sequential - it will be obvious that in practice there will be a degree of overlap and iteration. To give some scale, we will discuss the definition for quite a large project - the project definition stage will take 10 weeks. At the end of this chapter we will see how everything scales down for smaller projects, but may of course be much more complicated for much larger projects. Remember that these seven steps are all within the Project Definition stage.

1. Definition stage plan and agreement

One morning you are driving to work and you have a fantastic idea. If your company had a system that could do x, y and z the company would make a fortune! What would you do when you arrived at the office? (No, not resign, the idea wasn't quite that good.)

You mention it to a few colleagues. They think it's a great idea. You work up a presentation and take it to a Director - someone you think would make an ideal project sponsor. He says: "This is a great idea I've just had, but I'd like you to research it fully: would it really make us money, what would it cost, could we do it...?" You have just been asked to do a full project definition.

It dawns on you that to research the need, devise a solution, build a business case, get a project planned out, etc would need the involvement of 25 people. You realise that project definition is actually going to be a project in its own right.

Being a natural project manager what do you do next? Little word beginning with "p": plan.

Planning is nothing to be frightened of. It simply means understanding what must be delivered and then working out who needs to do what and when to get those things delivered and signed off.

What must the project definition stage deliver? Three main things:

So we work out who will need to do what to get us from where we are today - with just a rather vague idea - to having those things delivered and signed off and conclude it'll take about 10 weeks. As it happens, the 25 people who will be involved in doing the project definition are owned by 6 different line managers. From one manager you will need a person full time for the whole ten weeks, from another manager you will need two people for a week to build the financial business case, and so on. You negotiate with these six line managers for the bodies you need (aided by the sponsor if necessary) and invite them to confirm their agreement in writing (via a Stage Agreement which we will cover later).

And of course, if you were smart, you would have already had discussions with the line managers before you approached your prospective sponsor so that when he said "go get this potential project defined" you already knew there was a fighting chance you would be able to.

Having planned out the 10 week long project definition maybe you get the team together for a short meeting and have the sponsor say how excited he is about this idea and how he thinks it could be very beneficial to the company and to the futures of everyone in the company. The team think: 'wow, this is important'.

2. Evaluate business need

It's quite worrying how often this step is skipped altogether. People sometimes have great ideas about attractive solutions and nobody ever bothers to ask whether there is a problem that needs solving, whether there really is a business opportunity.

(In one case a project manager took over a large, troubled project half way through. After months of toil that was leading nowhere he was asked one day: "why is this project being done?" The project manager realised he didn't really know, so investigated. It transpired that eighteen months earlier someone had highlighted what they thought was going to be a problem with the ordering systems when new products were launched. A solution was devised that grew and grew and grew until it became a sizeable project, which then kept on growing when it was in progress. On investigation, the original problem turned out to be minor, to have a simple solution and the project was cancelled. Ironically, with hindsight, one of the reasons the project had grown was that there was no need for it: had there been a need there would have been a date by which it was needed and a self-defining scope. Neither existed so the project had become "strategic". Several million dollars wasted. An interesting learning experience for all concerned.)

Do be sure you, as project manager, understand why the project is being done and that there is a real need for it. For some projects this means establishing not only what the problem is but also is it worth fixing it - what would it cost if we didn't fix it? What if we do nothing? For other projects, for example to develop a system to market a new product on the web: how many do we think we'll sell? For admin savings type projects, how many transactions would go through this new system and how much admin effort would that save? Will the project make us a fortune, save us a fortune or perhaps must it be done - for example for legal compliance? Techniques such as market research, high level business modelling, competitive analysis may be relevant. There are a thousand flavours of the question, but they all boil down to: does it look as though the project is worth pursuing.

If you're thinking: 'shouldn't the business have done all of this before the project starts?' it may be because you work in IT or a similar organisation and are used to the idea that projects start when they come to you ready defined (or more often than not when they are supposedly defined). We are following the project lifecycle right from the project's inception, from when it's just a gleam in the sponsor's eye. Even if you never get involved in project definition if you know what should be done during the project definition stage you can better judge whether the project you're being given has been properly defined or not.

Let us say that for our project we conclude the business opportunity is real.

Project Management Book
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