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Tuesday, 29 September 2015 18:30

There Are a Number of Options for Defining When a Project Actually Starts

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One of the characteristics of a project is that there are definite start and end dates. This seems simple enough until you start to define exactly what these dates mean. There is no universally recommended standard for either date. In many respects, it depends on the implication of the decision. You must consider some of the possible options for the start and end dates and see what you think makes most sense. The following options can be considered when determining the project start date:
  • When the Idea is Generated. Some companies seriously consider this option. Some companies try to focus on the time between when an idea is generated and when the idea is fulfilled though a project. Their concern is that it takes too much time to implement good ideas. Tracking a project from the time the original idea was surfaced provides visibility on the total length of time to implement. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to track exactly when an idea surfaced, and there are many variables that might cause projects to be delayed while still in the idea stage.
  • When a Budget is Approved. This definition is a little more concrete than the previous idea. In this definition, an idea has been generated and has made it far enough along that a cost/benefit statement has been prepared. The project has also made it through the prioritization process and an actual budget has been approved. Keep in mind that the budget may have been approved during the prior year’s business planning process. The actual work may not start until the following year. Therefore, this definition again can seem to start the clock too early.
  • When a Project Manager is Assigned. This one is more common. It is hard to say that a project has started before a project manager is assigned. When the project manager is assigned, the project planning and definition begins and the major work of the project starts.
  • When the Project Charter is Approved by the Customer. In some organizations, the project officially starts when the customer approves the Project Charter document. Some companies require an approved Project Charter and Schedule before the project team can be allocated. They do this to ensure that the upfront agreement is in place before project work begins.  
  • When the Project Kickoff Meeting is Held. Using this definition, the planning and definition work is considered to be “pre-project” work. All projects start with a formal kickoff meeting between the client and project team. When the kickoff meeting is held, the planning has been completed, the client has approved the work, and the project team has been allocated. The kickoff meeting is the time to tell everyone that the project is ready to begin.
Why is the Start Date Important?

To a certain extent, you might think that it doesn’t really matter when the project starts. Having a somewhat undefined start date does not take away from the fact that the work is a project. It’s obvious that the project started at some point, since there was a point when the work was not in progress and a point where the work is in progress. So, at some point the project did in fact “start.”

The reason it is important to know the start date is that there may be consequences and incentives based on how long it takes to complete a project. The following are examples of these consequences:
  • Project team accountability. It is hard to hold people accountable for things that are not within their control. For that reason, it makes sense that a project manager is held accountable for the project no earlier than when he is assigned. If the project clock starts before he is assigned, it is possible that some decisions were made and some resources expended before he was assigned to the project. Likewise, if team members are held accountable for completing a project within budget and on schedule, it is hard to hold them accountable for work and decisions that take place before they are assigned. For that reason, perhaps the project should officially start when the Project Charter and Schedule are approved, or after the project kickoff meeting is held.
  • Process improvement. Many companies keep track of the total duration of projects and attempt to shorten the average project duration over time. It is important that everyone within the company use a common starting and ending point, or the project duration numbers will not be meaningful.
  • Financial / accounting. Many projects are considered capital expenditures. Precisely defining when a project starts has consequences in terms of the work that can be capitalized and the work that needs to be expensed.
  • Comparisons with other companies. If you compare how long it takes your organization to deliver projects, you want to make sure you have a common definition of start and end dates. If your company considers a project to start when a project manager is assigned and other companies start the clock at the kickoff meeting, it will appear that your company takes longer to deliver projects.

All projects have a start date. But knowing exactly when a project starts is something that companies can define differently. There are a number of events that would be candidates for the start date. Some dates are very early in the business planning process. Other companies place the start date closer to when the work is ready to begin. If your company does not capture metrics and does not provide incentives based on completing a project on time and within budget, then it doesn’t really matter. However, if there are consequences based on the defined start date, then a company must be careful to make sure that the defined start date drives the behavior they are trying to achieve.

At TenStep we are dedicated to helping organizations achieve their goals and strategies through the successful execution of critical business projects. We provide training, consulting and products for organizations to help them set up an environment where projects are successful. This includes help with strategic planning, portfolio management, program / project management, Project Management Offices (PMOs) and project lifecycles. For more information, visit or contact us at
Read 4253 times Last modified on Tuesday, 29 September 2015 18:34
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