The Perils of Project Initiation

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at

For many of us, as we return to the reality of life without egg nog and face the start of a new year and a new project, a question keeps resonating in our heads: "Just what were they thinking when they were defining this project?"

A simple question, but all too often a disturbingly familiar one. Disturbing because it comes with a pile of baggage the size of a freight car. If "they" were thinking of the project, chances are very good that "we" weren't. This means that we had little to no input into what the project should be, how big it is, what its outcomes are or how we should get there from here. It got handed to us--objective, budget, deadline and all. Our job is simply to manage it.

Unfortunately, what I have defined here characterizes how most projects get initiated in most companies. Equally unfortunate, what passes for project definition tends to be a management team sitting in a conference room at budget time with a wish list of projects, assigning budgets to them because they're being presented to senior management tomorrow for approval. The extent of understanding of the project is often no more than its name. The quality of the budget number is often based upon an order-of-magnitude comparison to some other project that happened a couple of years ago, that feels sort of like this one. The deadline for the project will be sometime before the end of the next …

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You can say any foolish thing to a dog, and the dog will give you a look that says, "My God, you're right! I never would've thought of that!

- Dave Barry



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