November 14, 2022
General
14 minutes
Libby Marks

How to Improve a Project Intake Process

A project intake process ensures new projects are a good fit for your strategic and financial objectives. Here’s what you need to know.

Let’s be blunt. Without a formal project intake process, how do you know what you’re working on and whether it works for your business?

You could be sabotaging your strategy by accepting low-value, low-priority projects that don’t match your direction of travel.

Or you could be putting your profit margins and reputation at risk by taking on more work than you can actually deliver. That’s not a great foundation for your world domination plans. 

A standardized project intake process ensures you only take on best-fit projects that further your strategic goals. And that you can prioritize them effectively to deliver the best ROI for your business.

But how do you start creating a project intake process workflow? What should you include on a project intake form? And what business benefits can you expect to reap when you do? We’re glad you asked.

What is a project intake process? 

A project intake process is a standardized series of steps to request, assess, and then either accept, decline, or defer incoming projects. 

A typical project intake workflow starts with a project initiator completing a project intake request form. Then that form is used to review and assess the relative merits of the project being proposed. 

A project intake process provides a single entry point for projects into your business. It allows key information to be captured at an early stage so that the costs, benefits, and impact are fully understood before you commit to it.

It ensures that your decisions about which projects to take on and prioritize are based on agreed criteria and solid data, rather than well-informed guesswork and gut feeling. 

Most importantly, it ensures all projects are aligned to your strategic objectives and achievable within current resource capacity. This means you’re more likely to deliver work that delights your clients, boosts your bottom line, and gets you closer to your goals. 

The challenges that come with new project requests

There are lots of problems that pop up when you don’t have a project intake process.

Projects come at you from every angle - Without a centralized project request process, project ideas can come from anywhere. From clients and colleagues. Via email, DM, IM, collaboration tools, over the phone, in meetings… Instead of a front door for project requests, they come in through the back door, the side door, and even under the table. This puts you at risk of poor capacity and resource planning, over-commitment, and bad-fit projects that do nothing to further your strategic or financial objectives.

You don’t get the info to make a good decision - When people are free to freestyle project proposals, they don’t know what to include. So you don’t get the information you need to understand the pros and cons. You waste precious time playing email ping-pong trying to pin down the details. Or - even worse - you decide to onboard a project without full possession of the facts. You’re at the whim of well-meaning but ill-informed decision-making.

Ad hoc projects ambush you - You don’t need us to tell you, ad hoc projects can be a nightmare. A project request intake process means no more unexpected projects arriving unannounced and causing chaos. With a project intake process, you’re in more control of what comes your way. You assess projects against pre-defined criteria and have more scope to push back against anything out of the blue. 

You overcommit (and under-deliver) - Without a project intake workflow, you can approve more projects than you have resources for. Uncaptured, under-the-radar projects make your real capacity unknowable. So you might think you can deliver Projects A and B. But shadow projects C and D mean you don’t have the resources you expected. Overcommitting can undermine quality, reduce success rates, and torpedo your reputation - as well as put your people at risk of burnout.

Benefits of effective client and project intake processes

On the flip side of those challenges are the benefits of an effective client and project intake process. Below are some specific benefits. But bear in mind the endgame of each - successful projects that delight clients, and realise great revenue and ROI.

Strategic alignment of projects - This is the big one. A standardized project intake process lets you assess each incoming project against your strategic and financial objectives. To make sure every ounce of energy you invest in a project gets you closer to your goals. No more PITA projects eroding your capacity. Your project pipeline is all killer and no filler. 

Consistent information for effective assessment - With a standardized project intake form, you can collect the same information about every possible project. Cost. Budget. Resources. Timeframe. This lets you compare like for like and complete a thorough cost-benefit analysis of each scenario, so you optimize your pipeline with the best combination of projects. 

Enhances visibility - The ‘front door’ approach to project intake increases visibility within your business. It not only eliminates shadow work and disruptive ad hoc projects, it also supports transparent decision-making. Everyone understands how and why certain projects get priority. When teams are competing for the same resources, this can minimize conflict and friction by providing clarity into why certain projects’ needs take precedent.   

Improves cross-team collaboration - There’s nothing worse than a well-meaning sales team winning work you can’t complete. But it happens more often than you’d imagine. Because there’s no cross-team visibility into capacity or project criteria. A project intake process gets everyone on the same page and stops unviable projects in their tracks. 

Improves resource planning and utilization - Having a single point of entry for projects, you eliminate ad hoc and under-the-radar projects. This means you can plan, monitor, and manage resource utilization more effectively. You’ll know exactly how much capacity you have for current and pending projects, and for opportunities on the horizon. You’ll keep your team working at optimum capacity to deliver ROI and great client outcomes. And you’ll know when - and who - to recruit for future work.  

Accelerates project planning - Because your project intake workflow captures key information about projects - and can even involve tentatively planning resources - you’ve got a head start when the project is approved. The effort invested at the intake stage shortens subsequent processes and improves the accuracy of your project plan, which is based on a robust project proposal rather than best guesstimates and assumptions. You may even be able to use digital project intake forms as the basis of some automated processes.

What are the steps in the project intake process?

The steps in your project intake process workflow will depend on your organization. In a smaller business, you may only need a fairly straightforward intake process to centralize how you handle incoming project requests - a simple way to assess strategic fit and value to your business.

In a larger organization, the volume of potential projects may require a more prescriptive approach. This may involve additional stages and resources to manage the process in itself. This is especially true of organizations using a Project Management Office for governance and oversight.

Example of a basic project intake process 

  1. Project initiator completes project intake request form
  2. Project intake request form is reviewed  
  3. Project is approved, deferred, or declined (see below for more detail) 

Example of an advanced project intake workflow

  1. Project initiator approaches PMO and receives guidance on completing project intake form
  2. Project intake form is triaged by PMO
  3. To ensure it has been completed correctly
  4. For PMO perform initial assessment of desirability, viability, and feasibility
  5. Project intake form is approved to pass to the next stage - or returned to initiator for further work
  6. Once past triage, project form/proposal passes for formal review
  7. Project is approved, deferred, or declined (see below for more detail)
  8. If approved, project priority is determined and it is placed in pipeline
  9. Kick-off meeting is called
  10. Project manager uses information from process intake form and kickoff meeting to complete project plan
  11. Project manager firmly assigns resources and tasks
  12. Project commences

How do you decide whether a project should be approved, deferred, or declined?

The ultimate point of a project intake review process is to determine which projects to approve or decline - to control what enters your project pipeline and ensure the best returns to your business. 

During the review process, you may decide to approve, decline, or defer a project to a later date. But how exactly do you make that decision? 

Desirability 

The first step is to establish if this is a desirable project for your business. You need set criteria against which you assess the merits of each project. These will be unique to your organization and its strategic objectives. But may center on the type or value of a project you want to work on.  For example, a minimum project threshold of $5,000. Or a project that furthers your aim to enter a new market. 

Viability 

Next you need to consider whether it makes sense commercially. Can you make a good profit margin on this project? Or are there other - non-financial - benefits? For example, strengthening a relationship with an existing client.

Feasibility 

If you decide a project is both desirable and viable, you need to establish whether it is feasible. That means working out whether you can deliver the project satisfactorily within current resources and constraints. There’s no point taking on a project if it’s doomed to failure - for example, because you don’t have the right resources available or skill set in-house. That would be counterproductive, delivering minimal ROI and potentially damaging your reputation. See more below.

How to establish feasibility in the project intake process

There are several techniques to establish project feasibility, including scenario planning and resource capacity planning. 

Armed with the knowledge from these assessments, you can make a confident, data-informed decision about which projects to approve and onboard. 

Or, if after completing these assessments you discover that an otherwise desirable project isn’t currently feasible, you may choose to defer it to a later date. 

Scenario planning

In larger businesses, there are a lot of spinning plates. Different projects at different stages of completion make it hard to understand your capacity for new work. 

Scenario planning takes the guesswork out of feasibility assessments by clearly modeling different combinations of projects, so you can choose the optimum way forward for your business. 

It’s about planning for the ‘what ifs’ in project management and understanding the impact of those decisions.  

  • ‘What if we take on Project A and B? Can we still do Project C with the resources available?’
  • ‘What if we do Project A and C now, and schedule Project B for later in the year?’
  • ‘What if we don’t do Project A and replace it with Project D instead - better ROI?’

Scenario planning used to be a lengthy process that needed a data analyst to crunch the numbers. Luckily, resource planning software like Runn makes it much easier. Simply toggle on Tentative projects and build out a basic project plan to assess the impact it has. 

[Psst! Learn more about What-if  scenario planning in Runn

Resource capacity planning

Resource capacity planning is about assessing what resources are available for proposed projects and how much capacity they realistically have. (It’s slightly different from capacity planning, which looks at your capacity as an organization overall and informs both project intake and recruitment decisions).

When assessing the feasibility of a project, resource capacity planning examines whether you’ll have the right people in the right place at the right time to deliver a project well. It considers key resource metrics - their capacity (how much time they have to fill overall), availability (how much time they have in a particular period), and utilization rate (whether they’re at risk of being over-used and burnt out).

Like scenario planning, this used to be very time-consuming. But businesses that use resource management software can easily complete this process by dragging-and-dropping resources into a tentative project - then using at-a-glance charts to see the impact on individual and team capacity. 

How to create a project intake process workflow 

  1. Establish ownership - The first step is to work out who will own this process. Who will be responsible for overseeing the project intake process, workflow, and documentation? Who will be involved in assessment? Who makes the final ‘no or go’ decisions? In a smaller business, managing the process could be added to the responsibilities of an administrator. For a larger organization, you may need to establish a team to manage it or assign it to your PMO. 
  2. Ideate the process - Using the information in this article, think about how a project intake process could work in your business. Draft a project intake workflow and sense-check it with colleagues. Would it work? Can they spot any potential problems? 
  3. Document and standardize - Once your project intake workflow is agreed, you need to create standardized documentation to support it. The key document will be the project intake form people complete when they want to propose a project. But you may also want to provide guidance documentation too.  
  4. Centralize and digitize - To ensure people can access your documentation, consider digitizing and centralizing them. For example, providing an online form and document hub. 
  5. Cascade and communicate - Next, communicate the new process to your colleagues. In a larger organization, you may need a top-down communication plan and project champion to help cascade things from management. In a smaller team, you just need to mention it in your next huddle!

What should be on a project intake form?

A project intake form should have fields to capture the information you need to assess the desirability, viability, feasibility, and priority of a proposed project. As such, it will differ from business to business.

However, here are some fields you’ll find in a project intake form template. 

  • Initiator name - Who is proposing the project?
  • Sponsor name - Who is supporting this proposal?
  • Type of project - New product development, product update, product patch 
  • Client - Who is the project for? Internal or external?
  • Opportunity - Why this and why now?
  • Goal - What will it achieve?
  • Budget - How much is this expected to cost / what is the client expecting to pay?
  • Pricing model - eg Fixed price, time and materials, retainer?
  • Schedule - When is this needed by and why? Is there any flexibility?
  • Risks - What could go wrong?
  • Cost-benefit analysis - Total cost vs total potential reward
  • Stakeholders - Who’s involved and how? 
  • Resources - If known, what type and quantity of resources are needed?

Project intake process best practices

Now you know how to establish a project intake process and what to include in a project intake form, you’re good to go. But hang on - you’ve read this far - let’s make sure you absolutely ACE it with these project intake best practices.

Standardize but flex - If your organization routinely onboards a range of different project types - and you need different information to be able to assess them - consider having more than one intake form. But don’t go over the top for every possible option or people will struggle to know which form to use. 

Digitize the process - Make it easier for everyone with online resources and forms. Imagine you receive a project request by email. You can reply with a link to the relevant form and resources. The initiator can then easily complete their form online. You may even be able to sync the form data with your project management tools to auto-populate other documents. Always think automation!

Observe and implement - Make sure people observe the process and that it is implemented consistently and transparently across the organization. Whether a project comes from a sales team member or the CEO, make sure it goes via your project intake workflow. Don’t let any back-door projects undermine confidence in the process.

Prioritize your pipeline - In an organization with lots of incoming work, it isn’t enough to just onboard new projects, you need to prioritize them too. Strategically schedule projects in your pipeline to align them to objectives. For example, you may prioritize a high-value, short-term project that can quickly realize revenue for your business. Or push forward a project that’s lower value but helps you enter a desirable new market. Use your project criteria to proactively manage your portfolio and create higher value for your business. 

Review regularly - Regularly review your project intake process to ensure it’s still fit for purpose. Look for clues that it might not be working - for example, are people skipping fields or making mistakes in your form? Are you getting lots of queries when it should be easy to self-serve? Are people reverting to old methods? 

Accelerate assessment - Scenario and resource planning are essential techniques when assessing project intake proposals. But they can be time-consuming if you don’t have the data at your fingertips. Don’t skip this essential step. Speed it up by using the right capacity planning and resource management tools - like Runn.

If you follow the steps and best practices outlined above, you’ll be able to pack your pipeline with perfectly aligned projects - confident that you have the capacity to deliver and delight your clients.

You’re going to find the whole process much easier with the right tools, so here’s a little pitch for Runn while you’re here.

Runn is resource planning software that’ll help you quickly make confident decisions about all sorts of stuff. Like

  • What projects to accept, decline, or defer
  • Which resources to assign to each project for maximum ROI
  • Who to recruit for future projects and opportunities
  • And lots more

In the context of project intake processes, our tentative project tool is going to be your go-to. It lets you model different project scenarios and easily understand the impact on current projects, capacity, resource utilization, revenue, and more.

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