When Does A Project Begin?

PM Commentary, by Stacy Goff.
One of the greatest challenges in managing a project is managing its duration. And yet, inconsistent standards about when a project actually begins makes everything from duration metrics to Customer expectations inconsistent.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. The dates are arbitrary, just to show the progression of steps, and are related to the diagram you see below. Whenever we share this insight, it never fails to stir discussion.

January 2, Inspiration

Your best internal Customer, a Functional Manager, is riding or driving to work (there is lots of time to daydream in the morning journey). She gets an inspiration for a project that would significantly improve operations. Once in the office, events of the day cause the idea to be shoved aside.

March 2, Request

The Functional Manager runs into your Manager in the cafeteria, and explains the idea. Your Manager sends a team member to discuss the idea further, and record some specifics, including scope drivers and measures of business benefit.

May 2, Assign PM

The project gets prioritized, and sits in the queue, finally reaching the top. You are assigned Project Manager, and you tell your Manager who you need on the team, and at what percentage of their time; you also identify the time you need from the Functional Manager, and others in her organization.

Key timings in a project

July 2, 1st Team Meeting

It takes a while to assemble all the team members, then in the first team meeting, the Functional Manager identifies the potential benefits of this initiative. She points out why this project is important to her; Resource Managers reaffirm the priority of the project, and the team kicks off the project.

September 2, Project Complete

Given the project’s priority, the team works well together to complete the project quickly. On the day of Project Closure, the Functional Manager praises the team’s efforts, and repeats earlier commitments to realize the business benefits.

November 2, Benefits Realized

Not shown on the chart above, the Functional Manager documents that the initial Benefits Realization period has already met your organization’s standard 3:1 minimum target, and the benefits will continue to compound for the next several years. The Functional Manager holds a pizza party that includes the team and her organization, to celebrate the accomplishment.

Our Questions

1. What was the duration of this project from the Functional Manager’s point of view?

2. From your Manager’s?

3. From the Team’s?

4. If this project indeed produced significant benefits, what is the best way to accelerate them?
Option A: Put a tight Deadline on the project (period D to E).
Option B: Reduce the latency from Inspiration to 1st Team Meeting (A-D).

5. Who has the greatest impact on project duration, and when do we have the opportunity to improve it?

6. Who has the greatest impact on Benefit Realization, and how can we improve it?


As we have said elsewhere (see our article, What Is A PM Methodology), most PM Methods start too late and end too early. They fail to cover the first 10% of the project that is often 90% responsible for success or failure. They tend to end when the team escapes, rather than at Benefits Realization (or solution retirement).

We always use Step D, the First face-to-face (or electronic) Team Meeting as the consistent event for project start; that way, our duration metrics are consistent in a wide range of application areas. The exception is Contract engagements, where buyer and seller have different perceptions of project start.

We have variously called the steps from Steps A-D Portfolio Prioritization, Phase 0 or the Prologue. We have called the period from Project Close-Out to Benefits Realization either Phase N or Epilogue. It matters not as much what you call it, but that you plan and staff those periods as well as you do so on Steps D-E.

If a project is important enough to begin, it is important enough to begin earlier; if it is important enough to complete, it must be staffed with the right Talent, at the right amount of availability. And with this example, you can see that Competent Customers and Managers have just as much influence on success as do our Competent Project and Program Managers.

What do you think? Comments?