One of the problems I see most frequently on projects is that the initiation phase was done badly. Or not at all. This causes all manner of issues later from unclear roles and responsibilities to lack of buy in at senior levels, unapproved spending and poorly defined requirements.

Have you worked on a project that hasn’t had a defined start? Where you’ve suddenly inherited a piece of work and are asked to get on with it, but it isn’t totally clear what you are supposed to be doing?

Some projects do have unclear objectives. You can manage a program of work with a defined goal but an unclear journey. That’s normal, and quite likely in a world where there are high levels of innovation and plenty of uncertainty in the market place.

What I’m talking about is where the project isn’t kicked off appropriately so you don’t have an approved mandate or clear objective in the first place.

The Project Contract

Marlet Hesslelink and her colleagues in The Netherlands have done a lot of thinking about this problem and have come up with the idea of the project contract, which they describe in their book, Project Driven Creation.

The project contract is simply a document that sets out what the overall objective is, how you will get there and how the project will be managed from beginning to end.

This might sound a lot like a project charter or a project initiation document, and I think there are some similarities. What is different though, is that the people who will be involved in the project commit to take part on an equal basis. There is a good reason for this: the project owner/sponsor, project manager and the team all have to accept each other as equal partners so that they consciously work together to create the output demanded by the project.

“Such a process does not arise from a feeling of obligation,” Hesslelink et al write in their book, “it arises from the will and the desire to achieve something and from the conscious choices that stem from this.”

In other words, using the term ‘contract’ and making it a binding agreement of equal parties creates a shared sense of joint ownership that sets the project off on a good footing.

The Contents of the Contract

The project contract should include all the things you would normally expect in a project kick off document and a few more:

·A clear objective and success criteria

·A list of roles and responsibilities and who is going to take these on

·Details of what resources are required

·The project scope and constraints

·Work Breakdown Structure (which coves all the activities that you need to do in order to complete the project successfully)

·Risk analysis of identified risks and a plan for managing them

·Agreements about projected timescales, the budget, what levels of quality will be required

·A communications plan    

The main difference I see here to other project kick off paperwork is that there is a lot more detail. At the point of writing a project charter on many projects I wouldn’t be in a position to have the complete WBS. I couldn’t put it together without the team, and the project charter gives me the mandate to get the team.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t have both: a short charter authorizing the work, and then a longer, detailed contract to which the project sponsor and all relevant parties sign up, at the point where initiation is almost over and you are about to start committing serious resources to delivering the project.

Contracts Avoid Problems

Whatever you want to call it, a detailed description, documented and approved by everyone on the team and the senior managers, is essential to avoid problems with the project at a later date.

As well as preventing misunderstandings about scope, time, cost and quality, it also means that there is a culture that means the project manager doesn’t just get work dumped on them with no expectations of an analysis phase or further work. You won’t have senior managers expecting you to start building code the next day because they understand the value of documenting what needs to happen and gaining agreement on the work.

You also avoid the problem of the absent sponsor. It can be very lonely when you can’t get hold of the sponsor for making scheduling decisions or helping you shape the project when things get tough. A project manager without a supportive sponsor is unlikely to get anything moving any time soon.

Finally, a contract sets expectations for the team as well. They are able to clearly see what is expected of them and, more importantly, why. Clear objectives help them set their own tasks in the context of the overall business imperative, which in turn makes it easier to get on board with doing the work. You’ll also get agreement from their line managers as part of the contract sign off process, which should present fewer headaches when people are trying to balance their project work with other responsibilities. If they know that they are committed to project work, then their line manager can make alternative plans for their other tasks.

Overall, I feel that this kind of detailed project contract should be an important part of project initiation. I like the idea that everyone signs as equals and that everyone signs at all, to be honest. The more we can do to create clear beginnings for projects, the more chance we have as project managers to deliver clear and successful conclusions.