How to Define a Project: Understanding the definition process

This series will cover the definition process for a project. This post will cover what a definition document is and how best to structure it.

Purpose of a Project Definition Document

The best way to summarize the effect of a proper definition document is to highlight the questions the artifact answers. This includes:

  • Why are we doing this project?
  • How many people are required and what types of skill will they need?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What are the deliverables?
  • When will we complete it?
  • How will we do it?

What Is a Project Definition Document

Different organizations use different names for their definition documents. Some of the more common names are:

  • Business Plan– Often used to gain support and approval for internal company projects
  • Proposal– Used between two separate firms, such as a manufacturer and a consulting company, to sell a project to a company
  • Statement of Work (SOW) – The formal attachment or appendix to the standard terms and conditions of a contract that describes the detailed approach for performing the project; sometimes part of a proposal
  • Scope of Work– Another term used for a Statement of Work
  • Project Charter– Many wonder what’s a project definition document vs. project charter; a project charter is, in fact, a type of definition document; like a business plan, it is often used to gain support and approval for internal company projects

The Anatomy of a Definition Document

“The most important and difficult part of the project is its beginning….  If done carefully, the project has a chance of success.  If done carelessly, or not at all, the project is doomed to failure. ”

Wysocki, Beck and Crane

In order to properly define the project, the project manager must meet with the key sponsor and stakeholders to get consensus on what the definition is.  You would ideally complete this step before setting the budget and schedule, but it may be necessary to redefine some terms post-approval. To answer the questions above, the document will usually consist of the following sections:

  • Executive Summary– A brief summary of the entire document
  • Objectives– Clear, measurable statements defining the purpose of the project
  • Assumptions– Documented answers to open key unknowns
  • Approach– A plan of action for building the deliverables
  • Deliverables guidelines– Outline of the project deliverables list
  • Business investment – Estimated project cost
  • Estimated schedule – Summary of the project work plan
  • Completion criteria– How you’ll know when each major phase and the overall project are done

Our next post covers how to define completion criteria and what to do when the schedule is defined before a project manager is involved.

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