PROJECT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES – Project Initiation Lessons Learned (Part 3)

This Lessons Learned in Project Initiation post is the third in a series of discussions regarding current challenges being encountered in today’s project management world.  We have titled the series PROJECT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES, since we intend to focus heavily on the managerial aspects of program / project management.  This post addresses the starting point or initiation of the project.  This is a crucial challenge.

The study of lessons learned creates relevance and importance in (sometimes) abstract concepts.  It answers queries regarding the practical side of the issue.  There is a famous quote out there that talks about those that refuse to study history.  It is suggested that you avoid reliving the mistakes experienced by others.

Sources that are used in this post are:

The initiation process (getting started formally) requires two processes and deliverables/outputs (see PMBOK® and Kerzner):

  1. Project Charter
  2. Preliminary Project Scope Statement

Project CharterPMBOK® presents a description of purpose of the project charter as follows:

“The project charter is the document that formally authorizes a project.  The project charter provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.  A project manager is identified and assigned as early in the project as is feasible.  The project manager should always be assigned prior to the start of planning, and preferably while the project charter is being developed.”

Kerzner elaborates on the charter content, which he indicates should include (in no particular order):

  1. “Identification of the project manager and his/her authority to apply resources to the project”
  2. “The business purpose that the project was undertaken to address, including all assumptions and constraints”
  3. “Summary of the conditions defining the project”
  4. “Description of the project”
  5. “Objectives and constraints on the project”
  6. “Project scope (inclusions and exclusions)”
  7. “Key stakeholders and their roles”
  8. “Risks”
  9. “Involvement by certain stakeholders.”


That said and the generic structure outlined, we move to some of the challenges that practitioners cite as troublesome and/or problematic.

One source of identification of challenges is industry discussions.  LinkedIn [link to LinkedIn] hosts Groups with widespread and diverse interests.  One such Group is Project Management Link – (membership required for access).

As previously posted, within this Group, there has been a very active discussion regarding this topic.  The discussion was initiated by Trevor K. Nelson, PMP, IPMA-C, [link to profile] on January 15, 2010, and has 1,700+ comments.  Here is the discussion question:

“What is the Single Biggest Problem Facing Project Management?”

As stated earlier, we will use some of the 1,700+ comments as points of departure for comments and discussion in this series.

Business Model – The relationship between the project and the business model is an essential linkage and a necessary understanding.  This issue is captured by David Burrow

“[snip] A real PM must understand the strategy of the business model they work in and how to intelligently scale and blend models as needed.”

Project Manager Identification, Authority and Resources – All key stakeholders need this understanding.  This issue is highlighted by Raed Essale

“If I must shrink it down to one problem, then it is not being given the full authority to manage your project while being fully liable for all results!!!”

Further by Shane Kennett:

“The single biggest problem, in my opinion, is adequate corporate buy-in from either management or the team resources, and sometimes both. [Snip]”

And further by Patrick Loke

“The single problem, I’d say is the WISDOM of application.
The PMBOK approach is only a guide, certified PMP is only a “paper”, real knowhow comes from real experiences. This can only be learned thru doing it and under a good guidance of a mentor.

In most mega project implementation, the key to success is LEADERSHIP. The project leader inculcates an environment which builds on trust, empowerment, therefore people will take ownership for decisions that they make and move forward, every single day, and achieving progress.”

Project Conditions – This key definition of the environment under which the project must proceed is a crucial element in initiation.

A comment toward this issue is by Paul Merrill

“[Snip] What I am wondering is, what impact organization culture and configuration has on project success. My thought is that some organizations severely disadvantage projects from the start by virtue of their culture and the way they are structured. Perhaps if senior management fixes these problems, projects would be better off. (snip)”

A succinct comment is posted by Nick Nelson


In  a more extensive commentary, we have the results of a relevant study from Ross Garland:

“There was one overwhelming problem found in the international study undertaken by the QUT (Queensland University of Technology) study last year (snip) The single biggest problem they found? – Poor project governance. My experience has been that the fundamentals of project governance are not understood at all well. At a recent conference I offered the audience 5 simple questions relating to project governance and the response wasn’t overly comforting. I think that the first step for any organization in improving the delivery of its project portfolio is to address its project governance.”

A final comment on this subject comes from Saj Khan

“I think the biggest challenge for Project Management/Professionals is the lack of understanding of the enterprise environmental factors and the politics prevailing at the time in the host organization. There should be more help and support on how to best incorporate enterprise environmental factors and tackle the political side of the things more professionally.”

Objectives and Constraints – This area that begs for clarity and completeness is cited (very succinctly) by Shari Compton

“It is critical to set REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS in the beginning.”

Constraints often extend to the skill-set need by the project manager.  This comment by Sheila Chiappetta cites on such skill:

“Lack of recognition that “Soft Skills” married with Project management framework (PMP, Prince etc) are both of equal importance for PMs. I have seen many Project Managers over the years obtain their PMP and forget about how to apply those learning every day by growing soft skills. By soft skills, I mean negotiation, dispute resolution, verbal/ written communications, leadership, time management skills. A belief and applying practical approach to lifelong continued education and application of those learning is a key for success in this industry.”

Key Stakeholder Identification and Roles – Likely one of the most vulnerable areas, this area is crucial to project success.  This issue is highlighted by David Hatch:

“(Snip) I believe because of the effort I make to ensure that everyone knows the importance and relevance of their role in the project.”

“(Snip) You may consider this [responsibility matrix] to be a normal part of Project Initiation, as do I, but I can assure you that in nearly twenty years of experience I have rarely seen it used. Most PID’s I get given upon my first arrival contain little more than a business case, project plan, budget and goal statements, and most of those are usually speculative and out of date.”

“Likewise, most stakeholders and project sponsors I meet have no idea what their role in a project should be. Many seem convinced that their only contribution is to sit on the sidelines and observe the action. Often the first shock the Project Sponsor (Project Executive) gets is when I ask them how often they intend to schedule project board meetings, and who they have decided to invite.”

The subject of key stakeholders and their roles is addressed further by Karen Spencer

“[Snip] “

“I think one of the real issues is defining the roles & responsibilities (aka boundaries & authority) (snip). Almost need a basic glossary that defines PROJECT MANAGEMENT, PRODUCT MANAGEMENT and SOFTWARE MANAGEMENT so that they fit together closely, with only the overlap required to function smoothly. “

And even more on stakeholders and roles by David Hatch

“[Snip Whilst I don’t believe that training stakeholders in project management is a very practical idea. I do believe that they need to be aware of how the project is being managed and what their role in the process is.”

“[Snip] What I usually do is produce a Role and Responsibilities document which describes their role in this specific project process, and a Project Control and Management document which gives an overview of how I propose to manage this specific project and how the key project control processes work.”

“These documents have to be approved by the Project Board as part of project initiation and then become key reference documents for anyone involved in it. (Including the stakeholders.) I find that this achieves the same result as Naazir seems to be looking for in that the stakeholders are able to understand how the project is being managed and what their role in the process should be.”

The recent experience of McLaughlin and McLaughlin includes the initiation of several large and complex projects.  Within these projects, M&M has found that time and patience applied during the project initiation (Project Charter and Preliminary Project Scope Statement processes and documentation) is essential and invaluable relevant to project success potential.  Further, M&M experience is that lack of robust Project Initiation can seriously degrade the project success potential.  In this regard, the old saying about building your house on a solid foundation applies.

Having stated the above, this does not mean to imply that the project manager is given a broad license and extensive authority.  It simply means that these and other matters are defined and agreed between the sponsor, key stakeholders and project manager.  Then, this understanding is part of the basis for planning, the subsequent process group.

Good luck and let us all attempt to approach the practice or managerial challenge of project management with all knowledge, tools and lessons learned that are available.  Setting a solid foundation in the issues as well as the process is essential and has long term (project duration) benefits.  Happy reading and good luck in your project management challenges and endeavors…


It is important to note that McLaughlin and McLaughlin [M&M] is not a law firm and is not intending to provide legal advice. M&M is a consulting firm providing (among other services) non-legal expertise in dispute resolution and litigation support.  The Resource Center is for the convenience of blog visitors and M&M does not offer this for commercial purposes.  For further information on M&M services, please see