In 1962 the British Museum began thinking about moving its vast books and documents to a new, dedicated building in central London. It took well over thirty years for that building to emerge as the British Library, next door to St Pancras station. A big part of that time was taken up in a series of definition exercises. These tested the feasibility of various options for the site and the design. How did this definition work lead the library project away from a fashionable location next door to the British Museum to the site of a former railway goods depot. And how – in spite of many compromises – did it ultimately deliver the largest library in the world?
Definition is the process of taking a project idea, developing it into a proposal or project brief, and testing whether that proposal is sufficiently feasible, viable and robust that it justifies making the much more considerable investment in planning the project in detail. It considers the output and also the work to create that output. It drafts the business case, project plans and types of contracts likely to be required, based on information available at an early stage. These three sets of documents (typically electronic these days) represent the exact definition of the project all the way through and must always reflect the status of each other. For example, a change to the project plan may require an amendment to the contracts and must not destroy the business case.
The definition phase will pay particular attention to external challenges, which can be analysed using the PESTEL model. This stands for political, economic, societal, technical, environmental and legal.
The definition phase needs to pay a lot of attention to stakeholders, whose potential impact on the project (positive or negative) must be assessed. A big part of the definition process involves collecting requirements for the output and the project to produce it. The definition phase also considers the risks the project could face, and aims to eliminate or mitigate them as far as possible before production work begins. There also needs to be a first pass view of what kind of organisational structure the project should have – roles and responsibilities at the more senior levels. And also a basic scheme for how project governance will work. Definition is about coming up with proposals and solutions, but it is also about selling them to decision makers – who may ignore good advice if it contradicts their own agendas.
The Definition phase is the first part of a two step decision process that will try to get the project included in the organisation’s project portfolio. At the end of Definition the project promoters will seek approval to scale up their efforts to create a full business case, project plan and contracts. At the end of Planning, approval will be sought to begin the Production phase and create the output.
Wilson, C. (1998). The design and construction of the British Library. London: The British Library.
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