How do I know what exactly my new project is supposed to create and deliver?

I've just been given a new project. How do I know what the project is supposed to deliver—what the results and tangible outputs of the project should be?
Determining what the deliverables of a project are is one of the activities in the Planning phase of a project, where the project charter or vision is expanded to define the scope, specific deliverables to create, and a detailed plan for the project. What's critical is to get alignment with the project sponsors first on the project's objectives, then identify what deliverables would have to be created to meet those objectives.

At the initiation of the project, you might have received a high-level definition of project deliverables, such as specific new features and functionality to be added to an existing product, or a list of things to be created. But remember the following:

  • Any list of "things to create" should always be examined in light of the stated goals of the project. Goals and objectives come first, then the deliverables to meet those goals.
  • Any lists of deliverables provided at initiation typically will not (and really should not) get into the level of detail actually required to go create that deliverable during the project. It's the team's job to take the objectives the executives want to meet, along with any early information on what deliverables are needed, and flesh out the requirements for those deliverables. The project manager leads the team in doing that during the planning stage.

Note also that there is another critical kind of deliverable on projects, not just the main item a project creates for its customers. Think about a project to create a new piece of software. That's the main deliverable. But there are also user manuals, training programs, orientation presentations, and more that surround the main output of the project. If a project is aimed at designing and executing a new marketing campaign, perhaps the promotional materials are considered the main deliverable. But there will also be reports for tracking results, instructions for what to do when the offer is accepted, etc.

As you lead the project, you must be clear on results desired, which is the focus of the Initiation stage early in your project. Then you must identify with the team the main deliverables to be created to meet those goals—and all the other deliverables needed as well—which happens as the team investigates ways to meet the project goals, and then defines the project scope and detailed requirements in the Planning stage.

One last note on why this is all so important to tackle early on. Changes after significant work has begun are known to be major causes of project failure. Late changes can cause rework, mistakes, budget increases, and schedule delays, not to mention extreme team frustration. A common understanding of a project's major deliverables will provide a sound scope and clear boundaries for the project team's work from the beginning.

See our related information that directly addresses this topic, Project Scope Definition: Deliverables.

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