The Importance of Project Definition

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In this episode of Project Management Paradise host; Johnny Beirne speaks with Mike Clayton on the importance of project definition.

This is Mike’s second appearance on the podcast after speaking about risk management back in episode 14. Mike comes from the online Pm training company Online PM Courses and is also an established writer in the field of project management. One of the 13 books released by Mike entitled “Risk Happens” provides an in-depth analysis of risk management within projects, which is the focal point of the interview.

Mike’s background is in project management, having worked for Deloitte consulting in London for ten years. After partaking in training a number of project managers through physical sessions, he realizes a niche for delivering the training online for those that couldn’t access it due to location and time constraints – leading to the setting up of Online PM Courses over a year ago. Mike provides Q&A access 24 hours a day on his courses where he responds to student’s requests.

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Mike was previously a guest on Episode 14, where he explained Risk Management. Listen back to or download that episode here.

Excerpts from Episode 60: “The Importance of Project Definition” with Mike Clayton

What is project definition?

“Project definition is quite simple” explains Clayton going on to explain that the purpose of project definition is figuring out what your project is and equally important – what it is not. Clayton states that for a strong building to survive under stress, it must have a solid foundation using the foundation as an analogy for a project definition. The project definition links with the business strategy, often being a focal point in deciding whether to invest in a project – or even in the planning stage of a project.

Clayton considers a checklist an extremely important part of a project definition station “once you have a checklist, you know you’re not forgetting important things”. What is included in a project definition? It starts off with the goal which should answer the question “what do we want?”. The objective should then put some specificity around how we want the project – primarily around time, cost, and quality. The third fundamental component of project definition is scope – what is the extent of the work that needs to be completed? what is included in the project and what are the exclusions?

“Stakeholders are the main players involved but they are going to segment, and as a project manager we are doing the project for someone,” says Clayton. The main stakeholder often depends on the scale of the project or whether it is corporate or private – however, a project sponsor is often the main person in a large-scale project. The sponsor’s views are going to inform the project manager’s choices around understanding what the definition is. Other stakeholders are also important such as the principal users and the senior officers within the organization who are responsible for those users.

Quality is driven by both health & safety and reputation. Who is going to judge success and the effect on reputation? These people are the main players – described by Clayton as “Apex Stakeholders” who will inform and influence other stakeholders.

Definition overlaps with commercial dimensions in the business case – the document the organization uses when deciding whether or not to pursue a project. As a project evolves through its life cycle, the business case evolves from a broad overview of costs and benefits to a tight budget, specification of benefits, and articulation of risks. The business case ties a project into the commercial dimension.

Project definition is a huge cause of project failure – projects often fail because they didn’t get the definition stage right. There are a number of reasons for project failure that link to definition including:

  • Lack of clarity (need to be clear about what is included and excluded in the scope)
  • Not doing homework (research what stakeholders need/want and the implications of these)
  • Unrealistic expectations (stakeholders will deem projects as a failure if it doesn’t meet their expectations)
  • Misalignment between project goals & overall strategy.

Clayton looks at how objectives can be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely). When considering these in terms of project objectives he feels that meaningful should replace measurable and agreed should replace achievable. Going into some further detail on SMART, Clayton explains how he wrote a book entitled “Smart to Wise” which looks at how to transform people. He states that to be wise, an individual must actively make a valuable contribution to the organization. Clayton feels that it is important to introduce an element of agile into all projects – not necessarily an agile methodology – but making sure they are in line with the constantly changing society, enabling them to shift in some way.

“The single hardest part of project management is nailing down a scope,” says Clayton; “every stakeholder will have a different expectation”. The project manager is negotiating with multiple people that have different needs/wants. To help with this, his top tip would be to get stakeholders in one room with a whiteboard, eyeballing each other and all conflicts will come out.

To go with this episode, Mike has kindly offered a discount on his online course, “Project Manager’s Project Definition Kit”. You can avail of the discount by CLICKING HERE

Mike is also offering an online course bundle of “Project Definition Kit” PLUS “How to Avoid Project Failure” at a discounted rate for you. You can avail of the discount by CLICKING HERE

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