While preparing the project brief, I recommend adopting the “let´s see how we can do it!” attitude. It aims to figure out how to convert the mandate – even if it raises eybrows – into a viable project.
Before starting to prepare the project brief, the project manager will need to discuss and agree with the executive the project brief viewpoint.
Does the mandate provide for a viable and worthwhile project? The purpose of the starting up a project process is to answer this question. Its main output is the project brief.
To prepare the project brief, the project manager will develop the outline business case, outline project product description, project approach and the project management team organisation chart. It may sound like a lot…
But in many cases the whole project brief will be a one-pager. And the project manager will have all of a half-day to prepare it. Its main purpose is to give the executive the justification (or sometimes the excuse) to authorize project initiation. And in most cases, the executive will feel perfectly well satisfied with the bare bones. The executive will get an opportunity to express their doubts about the mandate a bit later on. In the initiation stage, preparation of the detailed business case as part of project initiation documentation requires a deeper analysis of the project´s desirability, viability and achievability.
To my mind, challenging the project mandate requires quite a bit of thought.
Aborting preparations for project initiation on the strength of the project brief makes for an imprudent move. The project brief is too flimsy for offering a critical judgement regarding the will (or as it may be, whim) of the corporate, programme management or the customer. It is not always the best career advancement move to stick your head out and tell your bosses that the precious product of their strategic thinking belongs in the bin.
Imagine Blackbeard the pirate summon his first mate, Israel Hands. And tell him to set up a naval blockade of Charles Town. In two weeks´ time.
Now, that would require quite some preparation alone in terms of herding together and sobering up the crew. Then they´ll need to run a check-up of Queen Anne´s Revenge hull and sails. Stock up on salted meat, gunpowder and, well, rum. To say nothing of the whole idea of single-handedly cordoning off Charles Town..?
But despite all of the above, would Hands hesitate to find the project as such viable and worthwhile? I bet he wouldn’t. In no time at all, an underling of his would slap together some kind of a highly laudatory project brief. And on the strength of its bla dee bla, Hands would authorise project initiation without as little as a hint of a doubt. That´s the sheer power of the “let´s do it!” attitude.
But come the initiation stage, Hands might start getting a bit wary regarding how to ensure business justification.
Cost would hardly be an issue. Quality, scope and benefits could also be figured out. Though fulfilling the customer expectation of running a blockade with only one ship might prove to be a bit of a stretch. Risk exposure, on the other hand, was duck soup; there was no way the Virginians´ could ever scrape up enough courage to overcome their fear of the dreaded Captain Blackbeard.
Among performance targets, only time would then stand in the way of the project’s success and Hands´s matching reward. And hard as one might try, time didn’t bend or stretch. There was simply no way how the blockade could start in bare two weeks. A wet-finger-in-the-air estimate suggested it was more likely that lining everything up would take at least a month. And that with every single pair of skilled hands in the Blackbeard´s crew working flat out twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week until then.
Israel Hands´s intital dilemma could then look something like this.
Hands could say an emotional “no” to Blackbeard straightaway. And risk cutting short both his promising career and his life. Or he could knock together the project brief taking the “let´s do it!” attitude and authorise project initiation. And in the initiating a project process the executive will have a stronger hand for building a case against the mandate. If that´s what they feel like. The executive could then round up support from the senior user, senior suppliers and the project assurance. Arguably, that might offer a better (and less risky) chance of convincing Blackbeard that some changes to the mandate were necessary to provide for a viable business case.
I have to admit that I´ve never faced this dilemma in such a, well, specific organisational environment. True, I rarely hesitated to cross swords with the upper management without as much as giving a thought to the career risks it might entail. But one reason I was kind of fearless was because in terms of punishing powers, my opponents were but the bleakest shadow of Blackbeard. And staff treatment ethic in most organisations that employed my services had but the vaguest of semblances to that prevailing on board the Queen Anne´s Revenge.
The point I´m trying to make is this. The project brief is not about trying to find flaws in the project mandate. It´s about saying, right, let´s figure out how it can be done.
In the dark Middle Ages, sovereigns across Europe issued mandates to build cathedrals of what appeared to be unbelievable size and architectural complexity. At the time, nobody had the slightest clue about how to do these. But despite that circumstance, no one doubted the viability of these projects. For one thing, questioning your monarch’s decision was the surest way to lose you head. Literally. But for another, people had faith in their rulers’ wisdom and foresight.
And know what? Cathedrals were built. Sometimes it took a few centuries to complete them. And twice- or thrice-removed successors of the original project board members accepted the project product. But they were completed anyway. Which proves true the adage to be expressed by one Muhammad Ali half a millennium later – impossible is not a fact, just an opinion.