When does (project) life begin?

With less scientific and spiritual considerations than the debate on when human life begins, a lively discussion sometimes takes place in organizations that have instituted some consistent project initiation practices – when should we start tracking the costs or effort spent on a project.

In organizations where projects are sold to customers, the answer can be simple – the work that goes into winning a deal could be considered business development or pre-sales activities, and “real” project effort begins once the contract is signed.  However, the waters get a lot murkier for internal projects where there may not be charge-back requirements tied to effort spent.

If you treat the new initiative as a project too early in the concept phase, the following questions emerge:

  • This may create a heavy workload on whoever administers your actuals time tracking system as they will need to setup project codes frequently and will likely be quite busy retiring a reasonable percentage of these a short time later once your governance committees decide not to proceed.
  • It increases the effort required to understand what percentage of resource capacity is spent on early project initiation activities, as well as understanding whether the effort spent on bringing initiatives to the point where a go/no-go decision is taken is right-sized or not.
  • If one major benefit of measuring is managing, what exactly are we managing against?  Since there is no plan, there can be no baseline.  At best, you’ll have a rough idea of how much effort is spent on project initiation but given that is the stage when project uncertainty is the greatest, I wouldn’t expect that this would be a very accurate estimate.
  • There is likely to be a lot of fairly high-level, but usually not time-bound activities to synthesize high-level project knowledge and many times, these activities may not directly end up benefiting the project but might result in other projects getting spun off.

On the other hand, if you push out the time-frame for tracking time against a project  too late, you may encounter these challenges:

  • In some cases, team members who participated in concept or definition activities may no longer be required for detailed planning and execution – should we ignore their efforts?
  • One trend in some environments is for decision-supporting artifacts such as charters or high-level plans to “bloat” over time based on the desire of sponsors & stakeholders to feel very comfortable with project parameters before approvals are granted coupled with the natural tendency of most project managers to want to nail down as many uncertainties as possible up front.  Unfortunately, this could mean that the amount of effort spent in developing and refining the tool to drive a go/no-go decision also increases, and not tracking this effort means that project actuals will mostly reflect time spent on project execution.
  • Stakeholders and sponsors might be getting concerned about the lack of actuals tracking or communication.

While there is “no one size fits all” answer, one approach is to tie it to the first formal governance gate if your methodology requires development and submission of a lightweight project idea, brief or charter.  If this artifact vests a project manager with the authority to form a team to conduct detailed planning, an additional activity at this time could be the commencement of time tracking.


Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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