Published here February 2007.


Musings Index

Project Start Date

The other day, my friend Tom Mochal posed the rhetorical question "When does a project really start?" Well, it seems it all depends on why you want to know. This leads to the idea that an active project does inevitably start at some point or other, but it's officially designated "Start Date" may vary considerably depending on the focus of the sponsoring organization's situation or requirements. On this basis, Tom then went on to answer his own question.[1]

When Does a Project Start?

We are told that one of the characteristics of a project is that there is a definite 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.

When the idea is generated: This takes the start date back a long way before the project is actually formalized and on the surface this definition may not make sense. However, remember that the definition you choose can depend on what the implication is. 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. The concern may be that there is too much time to implement good ideas. If your company wants to minimize this total time span between idea and fulfillment, you might go with an early project start date definition like this.

When a budget is approved: This definition is a little more concrete than the prior idea. In this definition, an idea has been generated and the idea has made it far enough that a cost/benefit statement has been prepared. The project has also made it through the prioritization process 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.

When 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. This is the general definition for project start date that is used in the TenStep process.

When the Project Definition is approved by the sponsor: In some organizations the project officially starts when the customer approves the Project Definition document. Some companies require an approved Project Definition and work plan before the project team can be allocated. They do this to ensure that the upfront agreement is in place before project work begins.

When the project kickoff meeting is held: Using this definition, the planning and definition work is considered to be pre-project work. All projects start with a formal kickoff meeting with the client and project team. By the time the kickoff meeting is held, the planning is completed, the client has approved starting the work and the project team has been allocated. The kickoff meeting is the time to tell everyone that the project is ready to begin. Because of this prior work, most organizations consider the kickoff meeting to be too late to use as the definition for the project start date.

In my view: The project should be recognized to start when Executive management assigns resources to prepare a Business Case and certainly no later than when Executive management approves the Business Case. The Business Case is the document that properly justifies and gives initial direction to the project in the first place. Certainly, if you don't do this already, this will make it look like your projects are taking a lot longer. But then, I believe in a strong dose of reality!

Why the Start Date is Important

To a certain extent, you might think that it doesn't really matter when the project starts. Having a somewhat undefined start date does not take away from the fact that the work is a project. It's obvious that the project started at some point, since there was a point when the work was not in progress and a point where the work was in progress. So, at some point the project did in fact start.

The reason it is 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 is 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 they are assigned. If the project clock starts before they are assigned it is possible that some decisions were made and some resources expended before he or she was assigned, and therefore he or she does not have total control. Likewise, if team members are held accountable for completing a project within budget and on schedule, it is hard to hold them accountable for work and decisions that take place before they are assigned. For that reason, perhaps the project should officially start when the project manager is assigned, while team members are accountable for what happens after the Project Definition and work plan are approved, or after the project kickoff meeting is held.

Process improvement: Many companies keep track of the total duration of projects and attempt to shorten the average project duration over time. It is important that everyone within the company use a common starting and ending point. Otherwise the project duration statistics will not be meaningful.

Financial or accounting purposes: Many projects have capital expenditures from an accounting standpoint (versus expense accounting). 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 versus other organizations or other companies, 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.

In my view: By taking the project start date from the time work on the Business Case is started, then the total duration includes:

  • How long it is taking to prepare Business Cases.
  • How long it is taking Executive management to make go/no go decisions and assign resources. This is important because long delays here often mean that conditions have changed by the time the project gets into the hands of the project manager.
  • As well as how long it takes to plan and execute the project work.

In short, the organization's entire span of its investment in project work.

1. Mochal, T., Project Management Tips, TenStep Inc. Weekly Email, October 11, 2006. TenStep is the home of the TenStep suite of methodologies for managing IT projects. For details, see
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