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How to start a project: 5 steps for success


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The start of a project can seem complicated, overwhelming, and scary. We’re usually doing something we’re not familiar with, over a long period of time, and spending sums of money we’re not used to. Equally, projects are energising and exciting. We're embarking on a period of change to solve a problem, capitalise on an opportunity, make something bigger, better, or more efficient. 


Project jargon can be unfamiliar and confusing (What is a Gantt Chart? How do I prepare a risk register? Do I need a Project Execution Plan?) and actions unknown (Do I need planning permission? Do I need Building Control approval? How do I arrange Utilities connections?) 

We have simplified the process and drawn together the key steps, activities, and considerations necessary to get a project off the ground. 



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Five steps to a successful project start

 

Why? 

The first question for any project is Why? Why is the project necessary? 

During this very early stage, you should try and understand the reason for and the purpose of the project. Focus on the problem you are trying to solve, the change you are trying to make. Avoid jumping straight to a solution. 


For example, if your facility, restaurant, retail space or business is at capacity, there may be a tendency to jump to solution (I need more space!), when the problem may be solved through process efficiency - in other words, using what you already have in a better and more efficient way. 


A thorough assessment and understanding of what you need, why you need it, and what your objectives are, very early on in the project, will most likely result in a successful project delivery and outcome. Fully understanding what you are trying to achieve may also save a significant amount of time and money. 


The key to success here is to keep asking questions and be honest and matter of fact. The ‘5 whys’ is often believed to be the best way to go beyond the visible symptoms of an issue and discover the root cause. The same principal applies in this phase of a project. 



Airport Building Extension. Imaginary Futuristic Expansion for Enhanced Travel Experience


Scope 

Now that you’ve fully understood the purpose of the project and your objectives, it’s time to start thinking about the scope of the project. What are the broad parameters of the project? What are the constraints? What options are available to achieve the desired outcome? What are your priorities and non-negotiables? 


For example, in this phase, you may decide between extending an existing facility or moving to new, upgrading existing equipment or replacing with new. Scoping is an iterative, evolving process which will work together with the stages below. Scoping is also an innovative and creative activity, to establish and understand the ‘art of the possible’. 


Whilst trying not to limit the creative process during this stage, it’s also important to consider critical constraints and risks. This will allow options to be discounted or refined and allow constraints and risks to be avoided, managed, and mitigated. 


It’s in this very early stage that you define your ‘vision’ for the project – what you are trying to achieve and what the future might look like. A clear and well-defined vision will guide every decision throughout the project. 

 

Cost, Time, Quality 

Projects are often modelled by the Project Management Triangle which very simply shows three key variables (cost, time, and quality) and how they interact and compete on a project. An increase in quality will usually require an increase in cost. A reduction in time will generally result in a reduction in quality. Scope will also adjust if the cost, quality, and time elements are not adequately balanced. 


Diagram showing the relationship between cost, time, quality and scope

 

It's important to understand your tolerances and limits at this stage of the project, not least to avoid disappointment or mismatched expectations later in the process. What is your budget? What are your programme expectations? Is your product premium or low value? What tolerance do you have to change or budget overrun. Whilst it’s impossible to perfectly define these elements so early in the project, it is important to have a good understanding of cost, time, and quality expectation before moving forward. 

 

Alongside cost, time, quality and scope, Safety should be a top priority throughout the process, both in design and construction phases. A commitment to safety is not only the right thing to do, but also minimises the risk of accidents and delays and can frequently reduce cost. 

 

Concept and Feasibility 

A quick recap… by this stage by this stage, you should have a good understanding of: 


  • Why you are doing the project (requirements, purpose, objectives) 

  • What the project might look like (scope, priorities, non-negotiables) 

  • What obstacles may slow you down (constraints, risks) 

  • How much you are likely to spend (cost, budget) 

  • How long you think it might take (programme, time) 

  • What quality level you are targeting (premium, low value, mid-range) 

It’s now time to start looking at things in a bit more detail, focussing on one (or a few) of the preferred options and developing the concept. This may just be blocks on a blank piece of paper or it may involve third parties such as a designer or architect. Developing a concept will allow an option to be refined (or discounted) before moving forward to detailed design. 



Top view of a desk with hands working at a laptop. The words feasibility is written on the desk


High level feasibility work should also take place at this stage, developing the business case, exploring concerns, risks, and constraints in more detail. Thorough concept development and feasibility work will establish if the project is worth initiating and developing in full. Is the project viable? Will it provide the change (or return on investment) you are looking to achieve?

 

Next Steps 

The key to the very early stages of a project is to ask questions. Lots of questions. It won’t be possible to find all the answers during this stage. In fact, it’s important to take unanswered questions forward to the next stage of the project. 


  • Do I need planning permission? Consult with a planning consultant or architect during the design phase. 

  • Are there any ecological constraints? Complete ecology surveys during the pre-construction phase. 

  • Is my budget reasonable? Refine costings through design and pre-construction. 

  • Are my revenue expectations realistic? Complete market research in the preconstruction phase (etc). 

A comprehensive and thorough start to your project significantly increases the likelihood of achieving a successful project outcome – hitting your expectations and objectives, navigating the process in a controlled and reasonable manner. 



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Author


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Mike Weeks

Mike has over 15 years experience in the construction industry, delivering both single site projects and multi-site programmes of work. He has worked in the retail, aviation, commercial and real estate sectors, in both client and consultant organisations.


Mike particularly loves working closely with customers and stakeholders to ensure their brief has been fully understood.


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