Project initiation: The first step to successful project management

Caeleigh MacNeil contributor headshotCaeleigh MacNeilOctober 6th, 20216 min read
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Summary

Project initiation ensures that you lay a strong foundation for a new project. It’s the first of five project management phases, when you outline why you’re doing the project and what business value it will deliver. Then, you can use that information to secure buy-in from key stakeholders. In this article, we describe why project initiation matters and outline four key steps to start your project off on the right foot.

“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” 

We may not be singing do-re-mi against a backdrop of the Austrian Alps, but Julie Andrews’ sage advice applies just as well to project management as it does to music. A good beginning lays a necessary foundation for successful project management. And with project initiation, you can make sure you’re checking all the right boxes before your project kicks off.   

What is project initiation?

Project initiation is the first step in starting a new project. During the project initiation phase, you establish why you’re doing the project and what business value it will deliver—then use that information to secure buy-in from key stakeholders. 

The term “project initiation” comes from a five-phase model created by the Project Management Institute (PMI). PMI outlines this model in their Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, also known as the PMBOK® Guide. The model divides a project’s lifecycle into these five stages: 

  • Project initiation: Broadly define your project and secure buy-in.

  • Project planning: Create detailed goals and a project roadmap.

  • Project execution: Launch your project using information from the first two steps. 

  • Project performance: Measure effectiveness using key performance indicators (KPIs)

  • Project closure: Debrief with stakeholders. 

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Project initiation vs. project planning

During the project initiation phase, you define your project at a high level in order to demonstrate its business value. Once you secure buy-in from key stakeholders and prove that your project is feasible, you then move on to the project planning phase. That’s when you define your specific objectives, deliverables, and project roadmap in more detail. Think of it this way—you want to provide enough information to secure approval during the initiation phase, then spend time ironing out project planning details after you get the green light. 

Why does the project initiation phase matter? 

Starting a new project is exciting, but it’s important to make sure your initiative will actually add value before jumping into the planning phase. That’s where project initiation comes in—it offers a structured approach to demonstrate your project’s business case and prove that the work you’ll do is feasible. Project initiation also ensures that you loop in stakeholders early on, so you can secure essential resources, gain visibility for your project, and prevent costly roadblocks down the road. 

Read: What causes project failure? 7 common culprits and their solutions

The project initiation process: 4 steps to get started

So you’ve come up with an enticing new project idea—now what? Here’s how to approach this first phase of project management and lay a solid foundation for your new project.

1. Create a project charter or business case

In this first step, you demonstrate why your project is necessary and what benefit it will bring. You can do this with either a project charter or a business case. These two documents follow the same fundamental idea, since they’re both used to outline key project details and pitch your initiative to stakeholders. The main difference between them is scope—you can use a project charter for smaller initiatives, and a business case for larger projects that require significant resources. For example, you might create a project charter for a redesign of your company homepage, and a business case for a company-wide rebrand. 

Regardless of whether you use a project charter or a business case, this is your chance to demonstrate how your project will add business value and why you need specific resources like budget, equipment, or team members. Here’s a rough template of what these two documents typically include: 

Project charter

A project charter demonstrates why your project is important, what it will entail, and who will work on it—all through the following elements: 

  • Why: The project’s goals and purpose

  • What: The scope of the project, including an outline of your project budget

  • Who: Key stakeholders, project sponsors, and project team members

Read: 3 elements every project charter needs

Business case

A business case includes all the components of a project charter, along with these additional elements: 

  • A comprehensive financial analysis, including an estimate of the return on investment (ROI) your project will bring 

  • An analysis of project risks and a risk management plan

  • An action plan that includes how decisions will be made (such as a RACI chart), a communication plan, and next steps you’ll take if your business case is approved 

Read: The beginner’s guide to writing an effective business case

2. Identify key stakeholders and pitch your project

Next up, determine who needs to sign off on your project charter or business case. This includes key stakeholders who have a say in the outcome of your project—for example, executive leaders, project sponsors, or cross-functional teams that you’re requesting budget or resources from. If you’re not sure who your key stakeholders are, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Who needs to approve my project? 

  • Who will provide resources for my project? 

  • Who can influence my project? 

You can also create a project stakeholder analysis to ensure you’re not overlooking any important players. This methodology involves dividing stakeholders into four main groups: those with high influence and high interest, high influence and low interest, low influence and high interest, and low influence and low interest. Anyone in the first bucket (high influence and high interest) is likely a key stakeholder that should approve your project during the initiation phase. 

Read: What is a project stakeholder analysis and why is it important?

Aside from key stakeholders, now is also a good time to identify other individuals who may be impacted by or interested in your project. While these people don’t need to officially approve your initiative, it might be helpful to give them an early heads-up, especially if this project will impact their work. They may also be able to provide additional support in the form of insight or resources.  

Getting stakeholder buy-in during the initiation phase not only helps you secure approval, support, and resources—it also increases project visibility and prevents costly roadblocks later on in the project life cycle. 

3. Run a feasibility study

At this point you’ve pitched your project, demonstrating that it adds value and fits with your company’s overall strategic plan. Now, it’s time to run a feasibility study to confirm your project is possible with the resources you have at your disposal. 

Simply put, a feasibility study evaluates whether your project could be successful. It answers the following questions: 

  1. Does my team have the required resources to complete this project?

  2. Will there be enough return on investment (ROI) to make this project worth pursuing? 

If you can answer yes to both questions, you have a solid rationale to move forward with your project. If your feasibility study concludes that you don’t have enough budget or resources, you’ve created a strong case to go back to stakeholders and request more. And if your project’s ROI isn’t up to snuff, you can use that data to tweak your project plan—or pursue a different opportunity entirely. 

Read: How to use a feasibility study in project management

Does every project need a feasibility study? 

Feasibility studies are typically used for larger projects that require significant company resources. You might not need to run a feasibility study for smaller projects with minimal long-term impact. You can also skip this step if you’ve managed a similar project in the past, your competitors are already succeeding with a similar initiative, or you’ve run a similar feasibility study within the past three years. Keep in mind that a feasibility study takes time and resources to complete, so make sure it’s really necessary before you dive in. 

4. Assemble your team and tools

Now that your project is approved and its feasibility proven, you can finally start to assemble your team, workspace, and tools. Here are some pointers to get you started: 

  • A good team can go a long way in making your project a success, and it can take time to find people with the right experiences and skills. It’s a good idea to start this process as soon as possible once your project is confirmed—especially if you need to hire new employees or onboard contractors. And depending on your company’s procedures, you may need to file a request in advance to reassign existing employees to your project. 

  • Consider how you want to organize your team structure. For example, do you want a simple hierarchical structure with team members reporting into single team leads—or does it make more sense to divide your team by geographical region?

  • Where you work can influence how you work. If you’re planning to manage your project remotely, make sure you have the right infrastructure set up to manage a virtual team. And if your team will work onsite, keep in mind that you may need to request office space well in advance of your project kick-off meeting

  • Choose the right tools. Consider how your team will work together on daily tasks—for example, will you use email, Google docs, or more robust project management software? You may want to consider a tool like Asana, which allows you to centralize team communication in one place, assign tasks with clear owners and due dates, and easily organize projects in a way that's tailor-made for your team.

Read: How to choose project management software for your team

Next up: Project planning

The project initiation phase empowers you to lay a strong foundation for your project. It ensures that you prove the business need for your project, secure necessary approvals, confirm the feasibility of your work, and start to assemble your team. 

With that done, you’re free to finalize the details of your project plan and determine your specific objectives, deliverables, milestones, and project roadmap. So happy planning, and here’s to many great project beginnings (and project successes) to come.

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