Sometimes the project manager places too high an expectation
on the amount of foresight and vision that clients have. Some project managers
figure that the client is requesting the work, so they must have a very good
idea of what needs to be done. They go to the client looking for complete
answers and find instead partial, vague, and sometimes conflicting information.

In fact, this situation occurs fairly frequently and it does
not mean that the client is stupid. In many cases, especially for large
projects, the client has a vision of what the results will be, but cannot yet
articulate this vision into concrete objectives and deliverables. They may also
not know enough to help the project manager define scope, risks, project
organization, etc. 

It would be a bad idea to actually start a project with a
high degree of uncertainty about what it is actually trying to do. Instead,
once you understand what you know and what you don’t know, you need to work
with your client to determine how best to fill in the remainder of the puzzle.
There are a number of reasons why you might be having trouble getting the
project properly defined. Once you understand the cause, you can put in place a
remedy to move the planning process to a successful conclusion. 

In some cases, the project details are probably available,
but you’re having a hard time getting the major stakeholders to focus because
of other commitments. In this case, you will need to escalate the problem to
the sponsor. The sponsor needs to help you by requiring the major stakeholders
to allocate the time needed.

In some cases, the major stakeholders may be giving you the
time you need, but the information you’re receiving is inconsistent or
conflicting. There are two ways to move forward. The first is to see if the
sponsor will make the final decisions using the stakeholder feedback as input.
The second is to set up a facilitated session with all of the major
stakeholders. If you can get the key people in a room together, they should be
able to come to a consensus on project objectives, scope, risks, etc.

In some cases, it’s not a matter of focus or consensus, but
simply a lack of knowledge. For instance, the sponsor may have a vision for
what needs to be done, but the entire initiative may be new. You may find that
neither the sponsor nor the major stakeholders understand enough about the
details to provide all the guidance that you need. In this case, a good
technique would be to only define an initial project to gather the detailed
requirements. At the end of this initial project, the solution should be
defined in enough detail that the remainder of the work can be defined and
planned as a second, follow-on project.

One of the main reasons for project failures is that the
project was never properly defined and planned. Don’t fall into the trap of
pushing toward project execution with incomplete or conflicting information.
This is recipe for failure. In fact, projects that are hard to define will
benefit most from the extra time invested in the project definition