Project Management

Utilize a common definition for project start date

Here are some of the options for identifying a project start date.

One of the characteristics of a project is that there is a start and end date. This seems simple enough until you start to try to define exactly what these dates mean. There are no universally recommended standards for either date. In many respects, it depends on each organization and whether there are any implications for choosing one alternative over another. Here are some of the options for identifying the project start date.

  • The idea is generated. This takes the start date back a long way before the project is actually formalized. You may choose this definition if your company is trying to focus on the time it takes between when an idea is generated until the idea is fulfilled though a project.
  • A budget is approved. In this definition, an idea has been generated and the idea has made it far enough that a cost/benefit statement has been prepared, and an actual budget has been approved. Keep in mind that the budget may have been approved during the prior year business planning process. The actual work may not start until the following year. Therefore, this definition may also start the clock too early for many organizations.
  • A project manager is assigned. This one is more common. It may be hard to say that a project has started before a project manager is assigned. When the project manager is assigned, the project planning and definition begins and the meat of the project starts. 
  • The Project Charter is approved by the sponsor. In some organizations the project officially starts when the customer approves the Project Charter document. They do this to ensure that the upfront agreement is in place before project work begins.
  • The project kickoff meeting is held. Using this definition, the planning and definition work is considered to be "pre-project" work. The kickoff meeting is the time to tell everyone that the project is ready to begin.

Why the start date is important

You might think that it doesn't really matter when the project starts. Having a somewhat undefined start date doesn't take away from the fact that the work is a project. 

The reason it's important to know the start date is that there may be consequences and incentives based on how long it takes to complete a project. The following are examples of these consequences.

  • Project team accountability. It's hard to hold people accountable for things that are not within their control. For that reason, it makes sense that a project manager is held accountable for the project no earlier than when he is assigned.  
  • Process improvement. Many companies keep track of the total duration of projects and attempt to shorten the average project duration over time. Everyone within the company should use a common starting and ending point. Otherwise the project duration numbers will not be meaningful.
  • Financial/accounting. Many projects are considered capital expenditures. Precisely defining when a project starts has consequences in terms of the work that can be capitalized and the work that needs to be expensed.
  • Comparisons with other companies. If you compare how long it takes your organization to deliver projects, you want to make sure you have a common definition of start and end dates. If your company considers a project to start when a project manager is assigned and other companies start the clock at the kickoff meeting, it will appear that your company takes longer to deliver projects. 

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