Getting project inception right - the case for a dedicated inception lead

The international development sector has a big challenge. It's forgotten that every successful project takes time to set the scene, build consensus, and launch the project with a clear understanding of what will be achieved. The rush to get into the middle of the project leads to poor results and reduces the project's impact.

Every project has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I've always found it fascinating that we focus on the middle and end rather than the beginning. Project inception, the other phrase for the start of a project, is frequently overlooked. Even though most project management methodologies emphasise the importance of getting this stage right and slowing down to ensure a clear agreement on the deliverable and a shared understanding of the desired end state, this is still the case.

Despite knowing how important this stage is, almost every project I've worked on has been under pressure to get into the story's core, the middle before it has set the scene. When the inception phase is longer, more complicated questions about the costs of setting up the project and the emphasis on management versus delivery arise.

A major failure in project delivery is a lack of focus and recognition of the importance of inception. It's natural to want to jump right into project implementation, the "bread and butter" of what the project is all about, but rushing through inception misses the opportunity to align the team, align with the client, and, most importantly, ensure a robust platform for delivery is in place. Professional coaches frequently refer to 'contracting' or 'partnering' as a critical stage in determining the shared objectives for a specific engagement. The goal of contracting is to agree on what will happen, what is in scope, what is not in scope, and shared expectations.

Unfortunately, the space for an effective partnering conversation and discussion on the project's objectives and common ways of working has shrunk, at least in the UK international development sector. It wasn't uncommon five years ago for project inception phases to last six months to a year before the project moved to implementation. Most inception phases today, regardless of project size, are three months long; you're lucky to get six. This is insufficient to be an effective partner, develop a shared understanding with your key counterparts in the government or business community with whom you engage, or develop a common understanding with the FCDO colleagues with whom you must collaborate. In a three-month start-up, it's unavoidable that the emphasis will be on producing reports, drafting key documents, identifying the theory of change, and assembling the team. To assume, as I believe the FCDO's commercial people do, that this should all be in place before the contract is a farce, not least because the procurement process is so lengthy that the project's scope has frequently changed when the project implementer starts work.

What can we do to address this misalignment? The terms of a contract are unlikely to change in the current environment, but there are other opportunities to rethink how a project is launched. It all starts with putting the concept of partnering at the forefront of how a project team will collaborate with their counterparts. This entails being explicit about the inception phase's resourcing and being willing to resource it differently than the implementation phase by injecting resources to deliver key reporting while strengthening the team dynamic and implementing an effective partnering strategy. Finally, it requires focusing, declining requests to deliver activity during the inception phase. Because the FCDO has frequently used the existing business case to contract activities before the project start, contractors are often under pressure to start delivering before they have completed inception; it is critical to say no to this (as far as possible).

Putting partnering first means focusing on relationship building and clarifying key engagement and deliverables. It may necessitate a concentrated effort from individuals with very different skills than the delivery team. In fact, the emphasis here is on developing a mutual understanding of what the project should do, crafting a common narrative around what the project does, and raising awareness within the project team of how to achieve this. This includes developing a teachable point of view for the project to be regularly used with the team, contract holder, and other stakeholders to keep the project on track. In practice, this could mean using the theory of change drafting process more purposefully to develop a shared understanding of the project. It entails regular and frequent interactions with the FCDO and the project team and a greater inward focus on identifying key expectations and ways of working rather than looking outward to build all of the external relationships.

Appropriate resourcing entails deploying sufficient resources to meet the inception timeframe. Being open about the resources required and bringing in a special manager for the inception phase, or having the programme director take on a more active role, with the team leader focusing on partnering with and understanding key stakeholders. With the help of others, the programme director should concentrate on getting the reporting in place, facilitating team development, and ensuring that the processes are fit for purpose. It may be preferable to contract an external lead on inception, someone who is not tied to the project long term but whose objective is to build an effective platform, working to broker key ways of working and a common perspective on the project's objective.

Finally, focus. This has been the most difficult challenge in every project I've worked on. Once the project begins, there is a strong desire to get things moving, and it is the job of the programme director and inception lead, to slow this down. Encourage a focus on what needs to be done rather than all of the requests from counterparts. Contract managers may demand additional inputs or seek other work, making this extremely difficult.

Starting with a clear partnering approach and clarity on how the process will work will help in most cases, but in reality, it also requires a firm commitment to say no. If these three objectives can be achieved, projects have a real opportunity to deliver something different and to be more effective/successful.