Defining a project is perhaps one of the most important steps in project management. The project definition sets the tone for the whole project and lays the foundation for successful completion. Project managers, stakeholders, and developers all need to have a clear understanding of what the project entails, its objectives, what the project deliverables are, budgets and resources, and the timelines.
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In this project management tutorial, we highlight ten steps project managers can follow to define a project in a software development environment, alongside best practices for each. These steps include:
- Identify Project Goals and Objectives
- Define Project Scope
- Define Project Deliverables
- Develop a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
- Decide on the Project Schedule
- Resource Allocation
- Identify Risks and Create Risk Mitigation Strategies
- Set Project Budget
- Create the Project Plan
- Project Approval
Identify Project Goals and Objectives
Before a project begins, project managers need to identify project goals and objectives. This beginning step creates the foundation for the project and ensures the team stays focused on project completion. Project goals are best described as the expected outcomes of the project from a broad perspective. The project objectives, meanwhile, are specific, measurable, and time-bound actions the team will need to take to achieve the project goals.
Project managers can identify project goals and objectives by consulting with stakeholders, developers, and other team members. Project managers should also review relevant documentation, which can include project charters and strategic plans. Project goals and objectives should be what is known as SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Making objects SMART provides clarity and ensures teammates are aligned with the project’s overall purpose.
Involving stakeholders and programmers during the goal-setting process ensures their buy-in, understanding, and commitment to the project goals. Using the SMART criteria to create goals and objectives that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound, aligning goals and objectives with strategic priorities and the company’s overall mission, and limiting the number of goals and objects to keep them manageable are all best practices for defining a project.
Define Project Scope
Project scope defines what is included and not included in the project. The project scope specifies any work needed to achieve the project goals and objectives. Defining the project scope is a crucial step that helps project managers to prevent scope creep, which occurs when the project grows beyond its original limits and objectives. We have a great tutorial that details How to Avoid Scope Creep.
To define project scope, project managers can list all deliverables, features, functions, and constraints of the project or product. They should also identify any issues or risks that might impact the project scope. Project scopes are documented in a scope statement, which need to be reviewed and approved by key stakeholders.
Some best practices for defining project scope include:
- Involve stakeholders and team members when defining project scope
- Prepare a scope statement and share it will all stakeholders
- Identify risks and roadblocks
- Regularly review and update the project scope as needed
We have more Tips for Defining Project Scope to help you with this step of the project definition phase.
Define Project Deliverables
Project deliverables are items that need to be created as part of the project. Deliverables can include software, products, services, documents, reports, patches, upgrades, or any other output that helps complete the project. Defining the project deliverables is an important step because it helps project managers break down the project scope into smaller, more manageable tasks and subtasks, which provides clarity and helps avoid confusion.
In order to define project deliverables, project managers can break the project scope into smaller tasks. They can consult with developers and stakeholders to make sure all deliverables are captured and nothing is overlooked. Deliverables should be documented in the deliverables list or in what is known as a product breakdown structure (PBS).
Best practices for defining project deliverables include:
- Involving stakeholders and developers when defining the deliverables definition so all team members understand what needs to be produced to complete the project.
- Create a deliverables list or a product breakdown structure
- Define project deliverables with clear details
- Make all deliverable measurable and verifiable
Develop a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)
The work breakdown structure (WBS) is a hierarchical breakdown of project deliverables into smaller tasks and subtasks, making them more manageable. This structure helps project managers organize, track, and report on project activities and resources. The WBS is best when it is created in collaboration with the developers, team members, and stakeholders.
Project managers can create a WBS by listing the highest level of deliverables and then breaking them down into smaller tasks or lists of what needs to occur to achieve them. The WBS needs to be structured in a logical and hierarchical way and each level should represent a better defined breakdown of the previous level. The WBS are typically documented in a WBS dictionary, which describes every task and its associated deliverables, resources, and projected timelines.
Best practices for developing a WBS include:
- Involve stakeholders and developers
- Use a hierarchical structure for better organization
- The WBS should align with project goals and objectives, as well as the the project scope
- The WBS should be documented within a WBS diction that contains detailed descriptions of each task and their related deliverables, resources, and anticipated timelines.
Decide on the Project Schedule
Project schedules outline a timeline of the project activities and milestones, as well as the sequence of tasks, how long each task will take, and any task dependencies. Creating a project schedule is crucial for project managers because it helps them identify the critical path, which is a sequence of tasks that determine the project’s duration.
To create a project schedule, project managers can use the WBS from our previous step as a starting point, from which they can identify the tasks required to create each deliverable. They should also estimate the duration of each task and identify dependencies between every task and subtask. Finally, the project schedule can be documented in a Gantt chart, which helps project managers visualize project timelines and dependencies. We have a great list of The Best Gantt Chart Tools and Software for Developers.
Best practices for creating a project schedule include:
- Use the WBS to identify the tasks required to produce each deliverable
- Estimate the time each task will take and identify any dependencies between tasks
- Use a Gantt chart tool to visualize the project timeline and task dependencies
- Update the project schedule on a regular basis to reflect changes in project scope, available resources, and timelines
Resource allocation is the process of identifying the personnel, equipment, tools, software, training, systems, and other resources required to complete the project. Resource allocation is an important step as it helps project managers ensure that the project is adequately staffed and that the staff has all the resources they need. It also helps ensure the project stays within budget.
In order to allocate resources, project managers can review the project schedule and identify the resources need for each task. Consider the skills of the project team members, as well as any external resources required, such as hosting, subscriptions, and software. The resource allocation is then documented in a resource plan, which outlines what resources are needed and their availability.
Best practices for resource allocation include:
- Reviewing the project schedule to identify what resources the team will need to complete the tasks and project as a whole
- Evaluate the skills of the project team members and any tools they will need
- Document the resource allocation in a resource plan
- Update the resource plan as needed to account for project changes
Create the Project Budget
Creating the project budget involves estimating the costs associated with each task needed to complete the project. Project budgets need to include both direct and indirect costs, including labor, equipment, software, tools, architecture, subscriptions, and overhead costs. Developing a budget is vital as it helps project managers ensure that the project is financially viable and that the project delivers value for the investment. It also provides leadership with clear cost expectations.
To create a project budget, project managers can review the project scope, schedule, and resource plan to estimate the costs associated with each task. Consider any indirect costs, including overhead or contingency funds. Project budgets typically get documented in a cost baseline, which outlines all project costs and funding sources.
Best practices for creating a project budget include:
- Reviewing the project scope, schedule, and resource plan to estimate task costs
- Estimate indirect costs, including overheads or emergency funds
- Document the budget and funding sources in a cost baseline
- Review and update the project budget and weigh it against the project value to ensure the investment remains financially viable to help control costs
Identify Risks and Create Risk Mitigation Strategies
Project risks are things that might negatively impact project objectives or outcomes. Identifying and managing these project risks is important as it helps project managers minimize or mitigate potential risks.
In order to define project risks, project managers can review the project scope, schedule, resource plan, and budget to find any potential risks or roadblocks. Project managers can consider any external factors as well, such as changing market conditions, regulatory requirements, or even environmental factors, all of which can negatively impact project outcomes.
Project risks are documented in a risk register, which is used to highlight the probability and impact of each risk and the actions required to mitigate or manage those risks.
Best practices for identifying and mitigating risks in a project include:
- Review the project scope, schedule, resource plan, and budget to identify possible risks
- Look for external factors and include those as well
- Document risks – and steps to mitigate those risks
Review and update the risk register as the project evolves to account for any new potential risks or roadblock
Create the Project Communication Plan
Project management communication plans are designed to help ensure information about the project, the status of tasks, and so forth is relayed back and forth between the project manager, developers, stakeholders, and leadership.
Project managers can create a communication plan by identifying project stakeholders, their communication needs and preferences, and any collaboration tools the team will need. Also consider project objectives, deliverables, and timelines when creating your communication strategy to make sure it does interfere with work and that it meets the needs of all stakeholders involved.
Communication plans usually define the communication channels that will be used, the frequency and timing of those communications, and the agenda items that will be discussed.
Best practices for creating a project management communication and collaboration plan include:
- Identify project stakeholders and any communication needs
- Take into consideration work schedules and deliverable timelines
- Keep track of communication channels (conference calls, video calls, messaging), meeting frequency, and meeting agenda items
- Don’t be afraid to change the communication plan as the project progresses to add or reduce meetings and reporting as needed
Obtain Project Approval from Leadership
The final step is to obtain project approval from key stakeholders, leadership, and any sponsors for the project plan. Project approval is necessary for project managers to be granted approval to work on the project and be provided the resources to begin and, ultimately, finish the project.
Project managers will need to present the project plan to stakeholders, leadership, and sponsors. You will want to highlight project objectives, deliverables, timelines, resources needed, and any risks associated with the project. Allow for time to address any concerns or questions raised by stakeholders and project approvers.
After the project plan is approved, project managers can then communicate the approval to all project stakeholders and begin executing the project plan.
Final Thoughts on Defining a Project
In this project management tutorial, we looked at the steps involved when defining a project in a software development environment, from the perspective of a project manager. These steps include identifying project goals, scope, deliverables, timelines, required resources, risks, and strategies to mitigate risks. Project managers also need to create a plan to execute the project. The ten steps outlined in this tutorial act as a framework for project managers who want to learn how to define a project.
Effectively defining a project requires collaboration and engagement with stakeholders and developers, as well as a strong understanding of the project objectives, tasks involved, associated risks, and constraints. By following the best practices outlined for each step, project managers can better ensure that projects are aligned to the company’s strategic objectives, ultimately, the project delivers the anticipated value upon completion.