By Stanley E. Portny

Sometimes a terrific idea for a project just pops into your head. However, though you always want to allow for unplanned, spontaneous creativity, most successful organizations choose to pursue a more carefully thought-out process for investigating those information sources that’ll most likely highlight projects that will be of greatest value to them.

Looking at information sources for potential projects

Organizational leaders initiate projects in response to one of the following four categories of factors that influence their organization:

  • Regulatory, legal, or social requirements
  • Stakeholder requests or needs
  • Implementing or changing business or technological strategies
  • Creating, fixing, or improving products, processes, or services

Important sources of information regarding possible projects and their potential value to the organization are the annual plans and budgets of the overall organization and its individual operating units. These documents typically include

  • The organization’s (or unit’s) mission, goals, and strategies
  • Desired changes to be made in the organization’s operations
  • Changes occurring in the organization’s market, customers, and competition
  • The organization’s key performance indicators

Other important sources of information include descriptions of the structure, components, problems, and issues related to the organization’s major operating systems and processes.

Proposing a project in a business case

The initial information describing a proposed project is often presented in a business case, which may contain but isn’t limited to the following:

  • High-level statement of the business needs
    • Reason action is needed
    • Statement of business problem or opportunity the proposed project will address (including the value to the organization)
    • Stakeholders affected
    • Scope of proposed project
  • Analysis of situation
    • Statement of organizational goals, strategies, and objectives
    • Statement of the root causes behind the problem or factors helping to create the opportunity
    • Discussion of the organization’s current performance in this area compared with the desired performance
    • Identification of known risks for the project
    • Identification of critical success factors for the project
    • Identification of the decision criteria for choosing among the different possible options for addressing the situation
  • Discussion of the recommended course of action to pursue in the project

If needed, a formal needs assessment may be conducted to clarify the business needs to which this project relates. A needs assessment (also called a gap analysis) is a formal study to determine the actions an organization must take to move from the currently existing situation to what’s desired in the future. This study consists of the following components:

  1. Defining the aspect of organizational operations you want to address and the measures you’ll use to describe performance in this area
  2. Determining the current values of the measures you selected in the first step (this defines the current situation)
  3. Defining the values of the measures you would like to have exist in the future
  4. Identifying the gaps that exist and need to be filled between “what is” and “what is desired in the future”
  5. Proposing actions that will help the organization move toward the desired future situation

The organization’s goal is to fund those projects that, when successfully completed, would provide the greatest benefits to the organization and have the greatest chances of being completed successfully. Therefore, the business case should do the following:

  • Clearly describe the project’s intended outcomes
  • Identify the organization’s mission, goals, and operating objectives that’ll be affected by the project’s results
  • Identify other projects addressing the same or similar issues that have been completed, are underway, are being planned, or are being proposed and clearly explain why this project will provide greater benefit when completed and has a greater likelihood of being successfully completed

The business case should be prepared by a person who is external to the project, such as a senior manager of the unit on which the project will focus. The project initiator or sponsor should be at a level where he can procure funding and commit resources to the project.

When you’re thinking about submitting a possible project for consideration, be sure to check for existing organization processes or procedures to which your submission must conform. In particular, look for information about the following items:

  • Dates by which your submission must be received
  • Topics that must be addressed and/or formats in which your submission should be prepared
  • Criteria (and relative weightings) that’ll be used to evaluate your submission