Establishing a firm foundation for a project is critical to its success. If you don’t, then it’s a bit like building a house without bothering to lay proper footings. Things might look OK for a while (although if you look closely you can probably see the cracks already appearing). Inevitably though, the whole edifice will come tumbling down, bringing pain, distress and abject misery to all involved.

Our experience shows us that managers don’t lay adequate foundations for their project assignments. Instead they work on assumptions or what they intuitively feel to be the case. This is a very risky thing to do! Studies show that problems in establishing the assignment properly at the outset are a major cause of projects going off the rails.

So when you begin your next project make sure you have the answers to these ten questions. They will ensure that your project begins on a sound footing.

1. What’s wrong with the current situation? It’s important to define the problem, issue or opportunity that the assignment will address.

2. How will things be different when we’ve finished? What are the benefits that this assignment will bring to the organisation? There has to be a clear business case for the assignment.

3. What are the performance criteria? What does this “thing” that we will be creating have to do? How well will it need to perform? Here we are defining the business requirements for the deliverable, not the actual deliverable itself.

4. What’s the scope of the assignment? What is in and what is out? This will help to prevent the onset of the dreaded “scope creep” and provides the basis for change control.

5. What are the cost constraints? How much can the organisation commit to the assignment? Note that this is not the same thing as a detailed project budget!

6. What are the time constraints? Again, this is not the same thing as a detailed project schedule. Questions 5 & 6 refer to constraints, not estimates.

7 What project specific constraints exist?.  These could be people, equipment – whatever will constrain the project team’s ability to deliver the work.

8. Who is the project sponsor? It’s astounding how often this vital role is not clearly defined, resulting in confusion and delay due to slow (or no) decision making. Essentially the sponsor is the person who makes the decisions, on behalf of the organisation, about the assignment. They also hold the purse strings!

9. Who is the project manager? The person responsible for making it happen.

10. What authority is being delegated? Project managers need to know the limits of their authority, so that if one of those limits is reached it triggers a conversation with their sponsor. It’s important for project managers (especially for their sanity) that they have sufficient authority to make the day-by-day decisions necessary to deliver the work.

Of course, laying a firm foundation is only the first step to creating the project deliverable and many potential pitfalls remain for the unwary project manager. But without clear answers to these ten questions it is highly likely that the project will encounter significant problems later.

This article is written by my colleague Paul Stacey a lead facilitator for the Project Management Breakthroughs programme.

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