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Project Lifecycle| Define

What is it… The Define Stage is the third stage in our Project Lifecycle. Here we may look at a pilot or feasibility study to review the options. Once an option is selected this option is then fully defined with detailed planning, approach and the necessary project material is updated – the business case, project brief, plan risks and issues etc.
The define stage allows us to set-up the project for success (as it lays the required foundations) ahead of the next all important Do- Stage.



The Define Stage is the third stage in our project lifecycle which is deliberate in its build up to getting on with implementation. This doesn’t mean were not cognisant or worse complacent with time, rather we do the right set-up to optimise our time later on. So resist the urge or potentially the pressure from senior management to press ahead with implementation. Our experience and numerous studies show that a well defined project is key to a projects success. Indeed benefits are also more likely to deliver more quickly as the right stakeholders are fully engaged.

What are the key steps… 

Step 1Mobilise the Team – The Mobilise the Team step differs from the previous stage as we are now mobilising the team for the delivery of this stage. That is to say we are mobilising the team to deliver against the plan created in the last phase with the purpose of being able to define the project in this stage.

Step 2Detailed Investigation – This step develops on from the initial investigation step in the Justify Stage. Here we undertake a more detailed investigation to select a preferred solution (if not already chosen), define it and assess its viability.

This maybe in the form of a feasibility study or pilot to ensure the correct approach is taken.

Step 3Detailed Planning and Approach – Now we have a preferred method for progressing we prepare with detailed plans for how we will implement. We have combined detailed planning with the approach as they are intrinsically linked. The approach needs to cover the same ground as what we plan and the approach can affect how we plan. There is a lot of ground to cover here so breaking it down into manageable steps is advisable. This step will cover off the following:

Lessons Learned

Before you get too involved review lessons learned, after all that is why they are produced:

  1. What can we take from other projects?
  2. Who has done this before what happened internally and where available externally
  3. Take guidance from more experienced colleagues
  4. If you have no lessons learned then do desktop and other forms of research available to you such as Webinars or thought papers on the subject

The role isn’t to have all the knowledge yourself but to seek out those that do.


In the define stage this is about refining and locking down the scope based on what you now know. On leaving the Define stage the scope should be clear and of course necessary to be able to define the plans and approach!

3 Key factors to support planning

When considering your planning be sure to consider the following (these apply to the delivery plan, governance and resources):

  • Constraints – These are the restrictions that are placed on you when conducting the planning (certain no-go dates say for peak sales periods or IT freeze periods). Though, these can be problematic to work around, considering them and making allowances where required will enhance the ‘do-ability’ of your project. Of course for now you can only factor in the known constraints.
  • Assumptions – By now following our Project Lifecycle we should be building a more robust and accurate picture of our project landscape. However, it is inevitable that some assumptions are still required to move forward with planning. The important thing to do is to make a record of all assumptions and have these assumptions tested. When an assumption can be confirmed or denied, then we need to update the plan.
  • Tolerances – The approved plan (which will be signed-off at the end of this stage) will incorporate tolerances. These will become important for effective management of the plan going forward giving those people with responsibility the power to push ahead and to escalate as and when required.

Delivery Planning

Activities for Delivery planning:

  1. The reason for approaching the project in this way – the benefits and associated risks
  2. The method for how the project scope will be delivered
  3. Development of the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) (approach for organising the scope of a project into individual elements which can then be assigned, managed and tracked as deliverables)
    1. The WBS is broken down into layers, with the first layer being all encompassing across the project and then the subsequent layers breaking down the layer above into more manageable chunks. As you transition through the layers of a WBS more detail is created. How low do you go? Well that effectively depends on the type of project you have. You go as low as necessary until all of the activities are at a stage where their progress can be measured on a frequent and objective basis.
    2. Ensure there are owners for each activity
    3. Follow the 100% rule – The 100% rule is a guiding principle which must apply across the WBS. So the scope of the project and the WBS being created must define 100% of the activities. So the totality of all the ‘child’ lower levels must equate to the same amount of work as the ‘parent’ level. Equally the rule states that any activity outside of the project should not be included within the WBS.
  4. Scheduling – How, when, where the projects outputs will be delivered and the associated costs. Here we determine:
    1. The best sequence of delivering our activities
    2. We identify the Critical Path Activities
    3. Estimate the duration for undertaking the activities
    4. Bring this all together in a Project Plan – project software can support here. This is of particular use with complex multi-faceted projects. Though software can also significantly save time on smaller projects. You want to build a plan so when something changes the plan can easily be updated – so keep the plan dynamic.
  5. Milestone plan – we create a high-level milestone plan to support the detailed planning we have just stepped out. This supports two objectives:
    1. Ensures we stay focused on the very critical items which deliver the benefits and ensure a successful project
    2. Support communication with stakeholders who need to know what is happening and when things will affect them but not the full in’s and out’s of the project
    3. Utilise a Gantt  chart or roadmap template to produce

Resource Planning

Here we will gain an understanding of the required resources; financial; people; process.

  1. Financial requirements
    1. Defining the budget
      1. Start with the cost estimates for each activity and then build out the overall required budget
      2. Be sure to allow for contingencies
      3. Have all cost areas been considered? (sounds obvious but we see even on multi-million pound projects which reach board sign-off failing to include large sections of costs which then de-rail the project (not to mention the hit on pride having to go back the board with the omission))
  2. Controls, how are the costs for the project going to be managed? In some large organisations this may already be stepped out at a corporate level – but you may still decide to agree the approach as a project or wider team.
      1. How the costs will be overseen
      2. The tolerances you may wish to apply across the project for spend
      3. Gates for releasing additional funding
  3. Human resources – Refer to the above scheduling to estimate the resources which you require at each stage:
    1. Assume for planning purposes that people are only productive for 80% of the time – so 4 out of 5 days
    2. Those who will support other projects ramp this percentage down further. As they will loose time from switching from one project to the next (no matter how highly skilled they are)
  4. Process The support in place for the project


Be sure to consider all the requirements you have. It is best to be questioned for asking for too much resources than it is for being questioned why the project has failed and you didn’t ask for the resources you required to deliver.

Governance Approach

The Governance Approach is the responsibility of the project sponsor. It defines the expectations and provides the relevant power to proceed. Appropriate project governance assures the leadership that the project (s) is being managed in the right way. It also helps to avoid many of the common reasons for project failure (outlined in this article), such as no connection to business strategy or risks being poorly managed.

  1. What is the process for decision making?
    1. Roles and Responsibilities develop your RA(S)CI to ensure all know what they are responsible or accountable for and to
    2. The Governance Boards that will be in place i.e.
      1. SteerCo (Steering Committee)
      2. Workstream Boards etc
      3. CIO (IT) governance
      4. Change Control (board or as a minimum the review and approval process)
    3. The method of managing Escalations – to ensure we can meet our accountabilities when things go off-track
  2. The method of Reporting Progress to ensure the right people have the information they need to undertake their role:
    1. The frequency
    2. The audience
    3. The format (and style)
  3. Project Assurance – how this will be conducted to support the project sponsor
  4. Establishment of and control of baselines
  5. How the RAID (Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies) items will be identified, assessed and controlled
    1. Risk strategy – how we the project record, log, respond
  6. Quality Management Strategy
    1. How will the deliverables adhere to the quality standards set?
  7. Stakeholder engagement
  8. Communication plan (A recorded plan for engaging all stakeholders including how they will be engaged (method, frequency) throughout the project).


The Define stage covers nearly all of the common reasons why a project fails. So if it feels all encompassing it is, and for very good reasons. Stay with it and your project will have the foundations to support you through the delivery.

Step 4 – Update Project Collateral – Ensure that as you work through this stage to update all the project collateral. This can be missed off as you get into detailed difficult discussions but is essential for reference and ensuring there is a record of all the agreements laid out.

Step 5 – Approve the Project Stage – Ahead of the project stage being approved the plan for the Do Stage is developed and presented along with the business case and updated Project Brief. This ensures that the next stage has a ready set of actions and a direction from the offset (if approved).



The project  should not commence until stakeholder differences of opinion have been worked through. This isn’t to say everything has to be 100% harmonious (that is rarely achieved particularly as we are managing change) rather an agreed way forward has been signed up to, by all.

Key Deliverables of the Define Stage

  1. Detailed Plans
    1. Schedule
    2. Resources
  2. Detailed Approach including all Governance, Monitoring, Reporting
  3. Updated Project Collateral i.e. RAID logs, Communication Plans, Quality Plans
  4. Agreement to proceed to implementation

Project Lifecycle Define Stage FAQ’S

What is a Fesibility Study?
A Feasibility Study is an activity sometimes requested at the start of a project or before the start of certain activities to understand what the project may cost and the technical “feasibility” of the project.
What are the Benefits of Planning?

You may have heard  of the saying “fail to plan, plan to fail” and that is what is likely to happen if effective planning is not undertaken.

The following are Benefits of Project Planning:

  • Identify key deliverables
  • Identify resource requirements and provide a RACI
  • Identify major control points and milestones
  • Identify the critical path
  • Identify the required timescales and any key business drivers which impact timescales
  • Act as a baseline to gauge progress and delivery
  • Act as a baseline for change control – avoiding scope creep
  • As it is updated provide more accurate view of resources, costs and timescales
  • Help to think ahead to avoid the avoidable

It also worth mentioning ‘no plan has ever survived a battle’ so ensure the plan is reviewed and maintained throughout the project.

What is Critical Path Analysis?

Critical Path Analysis (CPA) is the longest connecting line of dependent activities within the network activity. Or more simply put those activites where if things did not go to plan would delay subsequent activities of the whole project

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