In theory projects are initiated by the creation and formal approval of a Project Charter. The Charter details the projects objectives, outlines the scope of the project and establishes the authority for the Project Manager to proceed. In practice few of the organizations I visit use a formal Project Charter and instead a hotchpotch of different methods is used.
Theses informal methods of initiating a project often turn into a long drawn out activity. From the sea of ideas, options and possibilities, the emergence of a defined project can take significant amounts of time. In addition the processes by which ideas coalesce into projects are often poorly understood within the organization. I call this period of time the fuzzy-front-end and although many people don’t recognise this period as a part of the overall planning processes, in most practical situations critical planning decisions are in fact made during that period.
Unfortunately during the fuzzy-front-end the level of uncertainty and ambiguity is at its highest and the lack of prominence given to the planning that is conducted during the fuzzy-front-end often results in flawed decisions being made. Those flawed decisions ultimately undermine the complete project and the root causes of many of the project failures I review can be traced back to flawed planning decisions made even before the project was formally initiated.
The critical planning decisions made in the fuzzy-front-end often provide the bearings for the remainder of the project. Commonly covering important issues such as the project’s objectives, how those objectives link into the overall business objectives, what should go into the project’s initial statement of work, how the project is to be broken down into phases, build versus buy decisions and technology choice decisions, the critical decisions made during the fuzzy-front-end are equally (if in fact not more so) planning decisions than the more detailed planning that generally happens after the project is formally initiated.
I call the process of making these critical planning decisions, “structural & strategic planning”. Structural and strategic planning is the planning that shapes the project and gives the projects its bearings. While later detailed planning provides the basis for coordinating the effort used to deliver the project, the structural and strategic planning process is the source for many of the critical decisions that determine the path down which the project team will be sent.
The lack of visibility afforded projects in the fuzzy-front-end and the lack of formality in making critical planning decisions is a significant gap in the governance structures of many organizations. Given that subsequent detailed planning decisions are made within the context of the structural and strategic planning decisions made in the fuzzy-front-end, errors in the structural and strategic decision making process represents an extreme risk to organizations and their project investments.
The good news is that the disciplines of Portfolio and Program Management are now treating this fuzzy-front-end with the attention that it deserves. Unfortunately many organizations are too small to warrant the use of Portfolio or Program Management and as a result many organizations are still not giving structural and strategic planning the due consideration needed. If your organization does not use Portfolio or Program Management practices, structural and strategic planning should be viewed as a distinct step in the project planning process rather than being left to chance in the fuzzy-front-end.
See also: Project Kick-Off Canvas – a tool to help focus discussion during the foggy front end.