Projects don’t materialize from thin air. And while spontaneous creation might sound convenient, the reality is that well-executed initiatives stem from meticulous planning and structured methodologies. The first step? A critical cornerstone of the process called project initiation.

In project management, each new undertaking is anchored in this strategic initiation phase. The initial step is where ideas transform into actionable plans, laying the foundation for well-defined project goals and a successful execution.

What’s project initiation?

Project initiation is the critical first phase in the lifecycle of any project. It marks the point where the idea evolves into a tangible initiative, moving from conceptualization to concrete planning.

The goal of this phase is to formalize the purpose, objectives, scope, and stakeholders of a new project. Who will be involved, and who will benefit from it? What will you need in order to get the job done?

To justify the initiative and its resources, the project manager must conduct preliminary assessments to determine the project's feasibility, evaluating its potential benefits, risks, and alignment with the organization's goals. This process involves confirming some of the finer details, including setting the project’s scope and deliverables and estimating a budget. With this information in hand, you can make a case to your higher-ups or the client.

While project initiation is the first phase of a project, it's not necessarily the simplest or quickest. Often, it involves a significant amount of paperwork, approvals, and justifications. Still, it’s an exhilarating time and an opportunity to get team members and stakeholders invested in your vision.

Why is the initiation phase of a project important?

Projects can typically be broken down into five phases:

  • Initiation
  • Planning
  • Execution
  • Monitoring
  • Closing

Without a strong initiation, the following four phases lack a solid foundation. It would be like building a house on unsteady ground: Without bedrock, all your efforts are likely going to go to waste. It’s a recipe for squandered resources and unhappy stakeholders.

Plus, one of the most exciting moments in the life cycle of your project is assembling your team. These are the people who will be responsible for guiding the initiative from inception to completion, and putting together the right knowledge, attitudes, and skill sets is an intricate puzzle. Your team will help you complete the initiation phase and sell the project to stakeholders.

Of course, this isn't just conference room cheerleading — you need solid documentation with evidence that, yes, this project needs to happen. Without a carefully planned initiative, projects are either flat-out denied or on track to fail from the get-go.

Project initiation versus project planning

Project initiation and project planning might sound like redundant phases in a project's life cycle, but they each play a unique and crucial role. Initiation sets the stage by providing a high-level overview of a project's potential feasibility, while project planning takes this initial vision and expands upon it.

Project planning is where you dive into the nitty-gritty of an initiative, creating a detailed work breakdown structure (WBS) and defining specific tasks, milestones, and deliverables. Treating initiation and planning as the same step will lead to you losing sight of the project's original purpose and missing vital planning steps integral to a successful execution.

What are the key components of project initiation?

Every component that goes into this phase is a critical piece of project initiation documentation that proves your project is worth investing the time and resources. You should include as much research and justification as you think is needed, though there are four standard documents just about every initiation phase should include:

Business case

This is the most important document you will create in your project's lifecycle. The business case breaks down how a project will use resources to meet current or future business needs. It must include the project scope, a rough order of magnitude (budget estimate), and the relevant justifications for every cost.

Project charter

Every project requires a bit of structure, and that's where the project charter comes in. This document outlines the vision, objectives, and deliverables in detail and attaches responsibilities and roles to team members and stakeholders. Your project charter should also include a list of deliverables and define the scope.

Team charter

A team charter is in the project binder to provide detail on the roles and responsibilities of the project team. This document connects all the lines within cross-functional teams and helps members understand how they will work together.

Project initiation document (PID)

When a project requires stakeholder approval on the business case and scope, you need a PID. This document summarizes everything you plan and learn in the initiation phase: the budget, resources, objectives, deliverables, timeline, and feasibility study (more on that below). It should provide all the relevant details at a glance for stakeholders and higher-ups.

The 5-step project initiation process

Project initiation is no simple feat, but the effort is well worth it when you get to see your idea flourish and grow into something real. Let’s explore how to start a project off right:

1. Pull together the details

First things first: Who are you working on this project with? Even if you’re the project manager, you shouldn’t take on all this work alone. Gather the key collaborators you already know you’ll include in the initiative (such as department heads or team leads) and have them lend you a helping hand.

After drawing up your business case and project charter, there are a few more elements to amend to the documents: a complete financial analysis and a risk management plan. These details help stakeholders make informed decisions and provide a level of detail that may even answer questions before they pop up. Also, including a detailed communication pipeline and team charter (outlining roles, not specific personnel) proves the project is well-organized before it even begins.

2. Conduct a feasibility study

To really find out if this project is good for business, you need to conduct a feasibility study. A feasibility study addresses two main concerns: resources and a positive return on investment (ROI). Does your organization have what it takes to accomplish the work, and will the project’s benefits outweigh the costs? You may have to adjust your business case to account for any shortcomings you discover during this process.

Conducting a feasibility study involves several key steps:

  1. Define the project scope and outline deliverables.
  2. Collect data about requirements, potential risks, market demand, resource availability, and legal and regulatory considerations.
  3. Identify alternatives to achieving the project's goals.
  4. Evaluate feasibility considering the company’s technical, financial, operational, and organizational bandwidths.
  5. Perform a risk analysis and evaluate external factors such as market trends and competition.
  6. Summarize your findings into a comprehensive report outlining the project's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.
  7. Make a recommendation for whether to proceed or not.

3. Sell your project to key stakeholders

It's time for the hard sell. Identify your key stakeholders — anyone who has a say in the creation of your project or is affected by its success. You can also loop in anyone who may feel the impact of your project, like other team leaders or departments.

Once you've gathered the right people, present your business case and project charter, explaining how this project will positively impact the business. Hopefully, they give you the green light. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board.

4. Assemble your team

Once your project receives a stamp of approval, it's time to assemble the team charter. This is more than just throwing together a rag-tag bunch of coworkers — it's about studying your project needs and ensuring each one is paired with the most capable and knowledgeable person.

Additionally, you'll want to construct a team structure that fits within your project scope. Common choices include a hierarchical structure (with one leader) or multiple team leads based on location or project sections (such as a programming lead or a California lead). With this in mind, carefully add to your project charter and assign responsibilities. And don’t forget to make sure you have the infrastructure to support the group, including a designated shared workspace or digital communication tools.

5. Review and discuss

Finally, run everything through a final review to shore up any loose ends. Go through your project checklist, examining any areas of your business case, feasibility study, and deliverables that might be missing something. Don’t forget to include other members of the team in this process — a few heads are better than one. Review your documents with your team and stakeholders, then prepare to move on to the next phase of your project.

Project management made easier with Roadmunk by Tempo

The project initiation phase is the first step in your project’s lifecycle, making it the perfect opportunity to create strong organization from the jump. Roadmunk by Tempo can help you prioritize and track every aspect of project management, from ideas to deliverables. Craft visually engaging roadmaps that clearly showcase goals, milestones, and timelines for the whole team to see. Plus, Timesheets by Tempo can help you manage your resources and stay on budget with streamlined time-tracking capabilities.