Project Problems Are Defined in the Initialization Phase – NASA Rule #15


Approximately 70% of all projects end well above the defined budget or deadline or do not deliver the originally defined features or functions. What is known about failed projects is often only the tip of the iceberg. An important point that is responsible for this: little attention is paid to the initialization phase of the project and too little time is inverted for this. This article shows you what you should pay special attention to during this phase—and what happens if you fail to do so. Interested? Then read on quickly.

100 Rules for NASA Project Managers

There are many reasons why projects fail. However, the foundation for these problems is usually laid at the beginning of the project.

Jerry Madden from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has summarized his experience in projects and project management over many years in 100 rules.

100 rules for NASA project managers

One of the most important and valuable planning rules is NASA Rule #15.

The seeds of problems are laid down early. Initial planning is the most vital part of a project. The review of most failed projects or problems indicate the disasters were well planned to happen from the start.

Fixing Project Problems in Later Project Phases is Expensive

Fixing Project Defects
Don’t let this happen to you!

Various studies show: The cost of correcting a problem during project implementation increases 10-fold with each later phase of the project. For example, if it costs 10’000 Dollars to solve a problem during the initialization/planning phase, it costs 100’000 Dollars during the concept/design phase and 1’000’000 Dollars during the implementation phase.

The lesson is that insufficient time invested in the initialization/planning phase will be avenged in later project phases. This behavior is also partly culture related. Especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, but also in Germany, the aim is to produce results as quickly as possible. In contrast to projects in Japan, which spend much more time on planning. Nevertheless, their large automotive projects, for example, are usually one year shorter than those of their American competitors.

Inadequately invested time in the initialization/planning phase will be avenged in later project phases.

A special example of a long planning phase is the new Gotthard Railway Base Tunnel in Switzerland

  • 1947 First vision outlined
  • 1963 Various rail tunnel variants evaluated
  • 1992 Swiss people say yes to the “new Alpine transversal”
  • 1993 First exploration boreholes
  • 1999 Starting tunnel drilling
  • 2010 Main breakthrough
  • 2016 Gotthard Base Tunnel opened

Planning time more than 52 years, execution time 17 years, costs 12 billion Swiss francs (approx. $12b), completed 1 year earlier than planned.

Pay Attention to These Points During the Initialization Phase:

  • Integrate the project team into initialization and planning tasks at an early stage and make use of collective knowledge.
  • Take the time to study the initial situation and requirements of the project and possibly question them.
  • Deal with framework conditions and restrictions and question them.
  • Identify and contact your stakeholders and ask them for advice and their experience and expectations of the project.
  • Deal with project risks at an early stage.
  • Study contracts carefully (especially with external contractors) and call in contract management specialists for large contracts.
  • How were similar projects handled in your company in the past and what problems did they encounter? Ask the project manager at the time.
  • Create a detailed project charter and have it signed by the project sponsor

These are just a few points that come to mind spontaneously. But as you can see, these are tasks you should do before you and your team even think about detailed solutions or their implementation.

I have already worked in many companies and have repeatedly noticed how project managers have been annoyed by the comprehensive “over-bureaucratic” project application forms. But these are justified, because the initialization phase of a project is there to lay a solid foundation for further action and project planning. It is therefore more than understandable for me that many companies only release projects definitively after the initialization phase.

What experience have you had with project problems and what strategy do you recommend?

I am looking forward to your comment on this article. Do you know anyone who might be interested in this article? Then simply forward or share it. Thank you!

Posted in Project Control, Project Planning, Risk Management.

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