Top 5 Challenges in a Successful Project Start-up

Top 5 Challenges in a Successful Project Start-up


Congratulations, you are a project manager! You have the best job in the world, and one of the hardest. Whether this is a new contract and you are the first project manager, or it is existing work and you must conduct a transition, an effective start-up strategy will lay the foundation for success over the entire project life. Why not take advantage of the experience of other project managers? At XPRT we have managed dozens of projects/programs for U.S. federal government, state governments, commercial, and international customers, and for development and services projects.  Our domain knowledge includes such diverse projects as: manufacturing weapon systems; remediating nuclear waste sites; developing, maintaining, and modernizing IT systems; and integrating multiple operations following mergers and acquisitions.  Our experience has led us to a common set of five challenges that all project start-ups share:

  • Documenting a complete and accurate project baseline

  • Assigning the right people, with the right expertise

  • Establishing good customer relationships

  • Setting up efficient internal program processes

  • Executing a timely and effective transition

This paper outlines “lessons learned” and practical guidance on how best to meet these challenges.

Documenting a complete and accurate project baseline

  • Make the understanding of the contract requirements and deliverables your first priority.

  • Understand the type of contract awarded and whether or not the same contract type will flow across to teaming partners and down to your subcontractors.

  • Lock down your baseline Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) and Contract Line Items (CLINs) with the Statement of Work (SOW)/Performance Work Statement (PWS) and product/service specification requirements, negotiated cost/price, project schedule/milestones, deliverables, staffing plan, subcontract agreements, risk management plan, and risk/opportunity register. Ensure that these are communicated and available to the customer as specified in your contract.

  • Document project requirements in a requirements database. Determine when and how your team will meet each requirement, how each requirement will be tested/verified, and how your customer will sign off that each requirement was met. Ensure that you and your customer understand and agree upon any acceptance criteria.

  • Update the plans you submitted as part of the proposal, including project milestones and schedules, the project critical path, and security plans and procedures.

  • Reaffirm what was in the proposal versus what was awarded in your contract and determine if any variations or changes exist.

  • Revisit all proposal assumptions and commitments.

  • Understand the elements of your cost and schedule baseline and the underlying assumptions, and perform due diligence to define existing conditions before starting transition.

Assigning the right people, with the right expertise

  • Know your contract’s key personnel, security, and training requirements.

  • If you bid key and non-key named people, understand the requirements governing these staff members (and their replacements, if needed).

  • Determine where people are coming from and the processes and timelines needed to get them on board. This applies to subcontractors as well as employees, and to foreign persons as well as U.S. citizens.

  • Ensure that you have the best person with the requisite knowledge and experience in each role, especially if requirements have changed or people who were bid in the proposal have taken other assignments.

  • Get to know your team: their strengths, skills, limitations, personalities, and prior experience.

  • For large and/or complex projects, assign a good second-in-command who can assist you in project management matters.

  • Know your business support staff from Finance, Contracts, Subcontracts, and Human Resources.

  • If you have Small Business subcontracting goals, make sure you understand what they are and how you will meet them.

  • Conduct an internal kickoff to bring everyone up to speed (not later than 1-2 weeks after contract award). Invite your company’s functional representatives as well as teaming partners and subcontractor team members.  Review the project objectives, organization, schedule, deliverables, and risks.  Identify and assign short-term actions with completion dates.  All project team members should be on the same page by the end of this meeting.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities, including reporting relationships.

  • Ensure that key people understand the contract requirements baseline and their responsibilities (including any deliverables).

  • Conduct training, including required security, HR, process, site-specific, customer-required, and safety training.

  • If applicable, transfer clearances and establish your clearance pipeline.

  • Document the project organization, lines of authority, and problem escalation path.


Establishing good customer relationships

  • Hold a contract kickoff meeting, even if not required by your contract, to immediately set the stage for positive customer relationships.

  • Know your customer's organizational structure and who is likely to drive technical, contract, and financial decisions.

  • Know who the end customer/user is and what they may expect; their expectations may be different from those of the contracting office/buyer.

  • Know every aspect of your formal contract.

  • Set the expectations of your Contracting Officer (CO)/buyer and Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR)/technical liaison and (if appropriate) end users and other stakeholders— but remember that the CO is the only person who is authorized to change your contract.

  • Establish clear lines of authority and paths of communication between your team and the contracting customer counterparts.

  • Establish ongoing liaisons with the customer community.

  • Identify and establish communications with outside stakeholders who may impact your project or your customer (e.g., neighborhood groups, labor unions, and governmental or regulatory agencies).

  • Establish rapport through timely, open, and appropriate formal (reports, briefings, meetings) and informal (emails, texts, one-on-one chats) communications.

  • If there is a Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) contractor, they are stakeholders too. Set their expectations and establish ongoing liaisons with the SETA contractor.

  • Know the limits of your authority imposed by your company’s internal policies and procedures (do not promise anything you cannot deliver because of company policies, restrictions, or politics).

Setting up efficient internal program processes

  • Keep a project manager’s log/journal documenting significant events, decisions, and lessons learned.

  • Set up and document processes for:

    • Writing, editing, and formatting standards (determine how your organization’s branding requirements and your customer’s identity rules align)

    • Document production and publication for all deliverables

    • Status reporting and deliverable turnover to your customer, including online dashboards or document repositories

    • Internal team meetings, plan of the day meetings, and operations/shifts stand-ups

    • Financial and schedule reporting against the budget

    • Accounting/billing/invoicing: understand your customer’s invoicing requirements and ensure that invoices are complete and correct from the start

    • Records retention as required by your contract and for internal reporting

    • Quality Assurance (QA) and Configuration Management (CM) processes, which may include a Configuration Control Board (CCB) and change process for larger projects

    • Risk identification and risk mitigation processes, which may  include a Risk Review Board for larger projects

    • Metrics collection

    • Ongoing training, both as required by contract and as needed with changing personnel

    • Project Review Authority (PRA) and internal status reporting

    • Time reporting for employees and subcontractors

    • Expense reporting for employees and subcontractors

    • Facilities management and onsite/offsite work spaces

    • IT provisioning and help desk

  • Establish/implement security procedures for physical security (access control, site security, security of equipment and tools), personnel security (clearances, badging, and identification), system security (IT controls and infrastructure access), and site emergency response. Often these procedures will be defined and mandated by your company's security office or the customer's security organization.

Executing a timely and effective transition

The transition period encompasses the set of initial tasks required to get the work of the project running and stable. Your contract may specify a transition, especially if you are taking over from an existing contractor, or if the program is migrating to a new environment (physical location, new processes, new IT environment, or new technology). Even if not required by your contract, the steps below represent smart ways to help ensure a successful transition.

  • Start early. Use pre-contract or pre-award investment if possible; you can never start too early.

  • Consider assigning a dedicated transition manager if the project size/scope/complexity warrants this level of effort.

  • Prepare the people, systems, and processes for the initial deliverables, which may include a project kickoff meeting, project management plan (PMP), quality assurance plan (QAP), and security plans.

  • Develop operating plans for project operations (a concept of operations [CONOPS]), even if not required by the contract. Use the people who will manage and perform operations in the development of their plans. Share the plans with your team. Establish a schedule (bi-weekly/monthly/quarterly) to review these plans as the project evolves.

  • Develop site documentation, including regulatory plans, permits and authorizations, mobilization/demobilization plans, sampling plans, transportation plans, material safety data sheets (MSDS), and disaster recovery plans.

  • Obtain needed resources such as facilities, equipment, tools, IT resources and assets, and supplies and consumables.

  • Develop a readiness review checklist and obtain customer approval. Use the checklist for internal testing prior to each readiness review.

  • Conduct a readiness review if a system or operational cutover is required.

  • Take the entire operation through a dry run that tests and proves emergency procedures.

  • Include in the schedule a transition completion milestone that is signed off on by your customer.


A successful project start-up lays the foundation for good project management, positive working relationships (external and internal), and excellent project performance. XPRT can help you plan and prepare for a successful start-up no matter your customer, domain, or contract type. Our seasoned project and program managers can help you manage the process or review your plans and processes and provide expert ideas and solutions.



Shaun Garner is a senior manager with 28 years of proposal and project management experience on federal, state, commercial, and international projects of all sizes. He has been involved with contracts for 8(a) companies, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs), and small and large businesses. His project management and technical background is in environmental engineering and remediation, focused on the cleanup of hazardous and radiologically contaminated media and D&D activities in the U.S. and international markets. Contact him at

Kim Haynes, CP APMP, is a senior proposal manager with more than 35 years of experience managing programs and proposals for federal, state/local, and commercial customers. Leading winning proposal teams makes her happy. Contact her at to share the joy.

Christopher Holley is a 40-year veteran of the aerospace business environment and serves as senior proposal manager for XPRT. His background includes aerospace and IT systems, program management, business development, and corporate-sponsored research and development. Contact him at

Heather Teed, Vice President, XPRT, LLC, has more than 25 years of experience in management consulting, cost/price, proposal development, and business analysis/market intelligence. She assisted businesses in more than $10B in contract awards in commercial, government, and international cost/price proposals over the past 10 years. Contact her at

For a free XPRT consultation to assess what your business needs to grow, or for more information, contact XPRT at (844) 332-9778.


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