Stages of Project/Relationship Initiation: Definition

This is the sixth in a series of twelve blogs that provide insight and tips on managing client relationships.  In this blog, we’ll discuss issues and solutions associated with the second stage of project/relationship initiation – The Definition Stage.


Have you ever entered a theatrical performance after the beginning of the Second Act?  It can be challenging to ‘catch up’ with the story line and get involved with the characters and plot.

This is often the case with projects.  Clients tend to engage the services of project specialists once a problem or opportunity needs immediate attention and the First Act (Diagnosis) is over.

Some common reasons leading to your entrance at the Definition stage are:

  1. The client has done a rudimentary diagnosis, but is not committed to the information or intends to use it in the definition of the solution.
  2. Time or budget constraints have forced the client to jump right to the Definition stage with no investment in diagnosing the situation.
  3. Untested assumptions about their background/history lead the client to believe they know the cause and therefore they skip diagnosis.

All of these scenarios are less than ideal, and you will have to probe and sift to compose the clearest possible definition of the need, problem, or opportunity.  At a minimum, you should solicit answers to the diagnostic questions, at least informally.

Even if your research falls short of giving you adequate information for a good diagnosis, it will help you establish relationships with key stakeholders and get the project off on the right foot.

If, however, the client resists spending any time on diagnosis, you may need to abort any attempts to explore the past, and rely on your judgment and intuition to get the most from the information you have.  It is usually unwise, however, to put the project at risk in this way before it actually begins.

No matter where you become engaged in the Definition stage, there is one key point to remember.  The more accurate your understanding of the solution (and its evolution), the more likely the project outcomes will exceed the client’s expectations.

Most clients will request that you document or package your proposed solution.  This can be formal or informal.

Formal proposals usually require:

  • A format specified by the client
  • Submission requirements (number of copies, media, attachments, etc.)
  • A specific process for submitting changes or revisions

Informal proposals can be:

  • Written: letter, memo, or e-mail
  • Prepared presentation
  • Verbal ‘contract’ in person or by phone (often followed by written summary notes)

The opportunity to submit a proposal is also an opportunity to develop the client relationship.  Do your homework and find out as much as you can regarding the client’s preferences in the items above, and prepare your proposal as close to those specifications as you can.  This will demonstrate to the client that you are focused on their needs and committed to outstanding service performance.

Regardless of the depth or complexity of the proposal, it should include information gathered from the Diagnosis stage, particularly as it relates to identifying the root cause of the problem.  In fact, your proposal may actually help the client to rectify the root cause before implementing a solution.

Understanding and managing stakeholder needs is a significant part of relationship management.  The Definition stage is where relationship needs are interwoven with technical needs to craft a solution that can be embraced by the client.

Defining a solution requires answers to a few questions:

  1. Who are the stakeholders?  (Include those identified in Diagnosis, and others as required due to the additional clarity of the definition.  Remember, stakeholders can be decision makers, implementers, influencers, and those who are not involved but are affected by the project.)
  2. What are the needs of the stakeholders for involvement and information?
  3. Who will benefit from the need, opportunity or problem being addressed successfully?
  4. What would be an ideal outcome?  (Where and when would it be realized?)
  5. What would be delivered to whom and when as a result of this outcome being achieved?
  6. Who will receive/use each deliverable?
  7. Who would evaluate the success of this effort (i.e., which stakeholders)?
  8. What will the evaluation criteria be?  (What measurement tools or systems are currently in place?)
  9. What boundaries/constraints must be respected during this effort?
  10. What assumptions are being made about this situation and solution?

Comprehensive, clear answers to these questions will greatly improve your chances of exceeding your client’s expectations.

In summary, the successful solution will be a composite of the input from the stakeholders, project clients, team members, and lessons learned (history).  The more represented these players are in the solution, the more likely the approval process will proceed unencumbered.  Managing relationships among key players will facilitate participation in the project and ownership of the outcomes.


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