The statistics are compelling: Keeping a project on track within the initiation stages is vital to successful benefits realisation.

Successful project initiation and mobilisation is critical to the success of project delivery, however, not all organisations give this phase of project management the attention it needs. The long term success – or failure – of a project is often dictated by what a project manager does or, rather, does not do, in the first six weeks.

The statistics are compelling: the rule of thumb is that if projects are off the rails within the first four to six weeks, then 80% will not go on to realise their full benefits.

It is a well-known statistic, so what are the barriers to mobilising a project properly and setting it up for success?

Getting the Executives’ Attention can be Hard

It is a truism that all project start out as green. Gravity dictates from this starting point you can only take the project in one direction.

The aim of the project manager should be to maintain the health of the project for the duration of the life cycle. However, the important point here is not that a green status is the be all and end all. In fact, a green status at the project initiation phase can be detrimental to the mobilisation effort.

You see, as long as a project is green, it is less visible to the senior executives who may be fighting fires on other fronts with projects in the amber and red status. This can mean the project does not get the early attention and crisp decision making it may need from the executive to be set up for success.

Escalate Early

Project managers should not delay escalation simply because it is early in the project and they feel they have ample time to correct anything that may be amiss at a later date. Some of the critical activities during project mobilisation if not done well (or not done in a timely manner) could have enormous impacts downstream.

If there are delays that require escalation to resolve then the project manager should take the opportunity to flag it early. Take the risk workshop as an example.

Identifying the possible risks and mitigations is a fundamental input into the overall planning phase of a project. A delay in running a risk workshop due the inability to get a quorum together may mean critical risks are missed and incorrect assumptions made that could impact the project significantly in the future.

Be Methodical

There are many different ways to deliver a project and not every step carries equal weight. With a hand on the risk, cost and time levers some activities can be truncated or possibly skipped altogether. However, during the project initiation phase there is an element of the unknown, for example:

  • Will the project sponsor be up to speed with his or hers role and responsibilities?
  • Does the PMO have fit-for-purpose templates?
  • How will the vendor work with the team?

During the project initiation, you will be bringing together a new team and possibly adopting new ways of working. Corners may be able to be prudently cut at a later date but not during the project initiation phase. Follow a robust process and over-manage, if anything, until you are confident the project is set up for success.

Select the Right Type of Project Manager

This is probably the most important point of all. While we don’t want to overly generalise there are two basic types of project managers:

  • Those that are very adept at mobilising greenfield projects and setting them up for success; and
  • The recovery project manager.

The former are good with adopting the early process, prudent planning and solid engagement to get a project started off on the right footing. Recovery project managers specialise, indeed even seek out, the projects that are already blood red. These project managers love a crisis and are at their best when a project already has the full attention of the executive, every day is critical and every decision can be the making or breaking of the project.

Both types of project managers have their place, just ensure you have selected your start-up project manager with their skill set and personality in mind.

Seek an Outsider’s Opinion

Finally, don’t be shy to seek a second opinion early in the piece to make sure you are on the right track. A good example is a quick set up for success review approximately four weeks into the initiation phase. This will not only identify what you as a team have done well but more importantly help identify any gaps.

Furthermore, this will play well with the executive in terms of being able to show that the work to date has been warranted by an independent set of eyes.

Successful project delivery is always a challenge. Setting a project up early for success goes a long way to ensuring a good outcome and meeting this challenge. This is why the project initiation phase should take on critical importance for all projects and hopefully the above provides food for thought when you’re next in the situation of kicking off a greenfields project.

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