Turn your idea into a project concept brief

Turn your idea into a project concept brief

A project concept brief is how you can turn your great idea into a project with budget and resources. To create a project concept all you need is a good idea and some initiative.

A project concept brief comes first

In the project management frameworks of PRINCE2 and PMBOK, a project begins with a business case, project agreement or project initiation document. Formally this is true, but informally there is a stage before, the project concept brief. The development of a project concept describes the process of formulating an idea into something one which people can act. It is the way to attract the support of people who wield the power of project initiation. This document is one of the first steps along the Journey of Business Transformation.

Project initiation documents can take upward of a month in time and in excess of AU$10,000 when fully costed for employee time and resources.  As a public service employee, getting your hands on the kind of time and money that is needed to develop these documents is pretty hard. This is the purpose of the project concept. It is the business case for developing a business case.

The fact is, that project begin with an idea. It is through the a project concept that you can turn your own idea into a project. You need not be the CFO, CIO, CEO or Minister of O’s. Everyone has the opportunity to create and present their own project concept. All you need is an idea and some initiative.

What is a project concept brief?

A project concept is a description of the purpose, client or user, and benefit of your idea. You can consider it the first few pages of the business case. It should be no longer than two pages or about 1000 words.

A project concept proposal can be created with bugger all resources. You don’t even need a computer! What you really must have, is a bit of initiative. The will to get it done because you think it should be done.

To create a project concept brief, you do not need your boss’ permission. If you ever get in trouble for creating a project concept off your own back, I recommend the following:

  1. Do it anyway and ignore your boss because he or she is an arsehole; or
  2. Start looking for a new job. Any organisation that punishes people for displaying such initiative is a shit place to work. No amount of faux discipline will stop them from stuffing things up and wasting government resources. It is best you are not around to cop the inevitable flogging that is coming your way.

Creating a project concept or brief

People who create ideas also create change. There is no point in sitting on your idea and having it go nowhere. Developing a project concept or brief is one of the most effective and simple ways to turn your idea into a project. To do so, follow these five simple steps.

Step 1: Have an idea

Every project always begins with an idea. Ideas can come from anywhere. Including you. All you need to do is identify a problem that you think should, could or would be solved. You don’t need a solution at first, that’s what the project is for.  A project concept precisely defines the problem. Projects always start with problems. Although the problems are all too often, not well defined.

When developing a project concept, be careful not to fall into the solution trap. Most people it seems (not verified) tend to jump to describing their ideas not in terms of the problem, but the solution. You need to resist this temptation. You must describe not the solution but the problem. A solution without a problem is very likely to be a stuff up.

To many public service projects fail to deliver their intended benefit because people storm ahead in creating solutions to which they discover at the end, nobody wants to use. Please don’t do that. Please stop wasting public money on your pet projects. It’s all very unprofessional.

In developing the project concept, you need to be self-skeptical and you should invite criticism. Ask youself:

  • Is this a real problem for others or only you?
  • Can you image a real user or are you being too vague as to who this is for?
  • Could you describe your problem to someone who has no idea who you are or what you do?

Step 2: Verbalise and socialise your project idea

Now it is time to share your idea because keeping it to yourself isn’t going to help anyone. Find your confidence and share your idea with others you trust such as work mates, family and friends. If you are a bit worried about what others might say, try this approach: “Hi, my boss asked me the other day to come up with a solution to this problem. What do you think of this idea….”.

At this early stage, you want to validate and confirm your idea with at least seven people that you know and trust. This is the very important process of validation. You need to establish that others share this problem and that it is not just something you have going on in your own head. In seeking out feedback, be attentive, listen and accept the feedback you receive. Just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean it’s a good one.  Don’t be an arrogant and don’t try to justify or defend your idea. Just listen and say ‘thank you for your feedback’. You can reflect and access in private.

Now integrate the feedback you have received into your original idea.  You now have the first draft of your project concept!

Step 3: Identify the who is who of your idea

To create a concept proposal from your idea, you must take the time out to describe the problem in terms of who or what benefits from the problem being solved. This is usually a person, but not always. One of the cool things about the public service is that you do have the opportunity to serve the interests broader than individuals, groups or organisations. The natural environment, community welfare, buildings and infrastructure, future generations all come to mind.

This step is all about articulating who your project will serve and why. Is the beneficiary of this project you or your team?  Your clients, customers or someone or something defined by a charter of legislation?  The more specific you are the better. Can you picture the person who you seek to help?

The ‘general public’ isn’t a user.  That’s just bullshit bureaucratic gobbledygook. A project benefits and/or impacts someone, somewhere. Describe that person and their circumstances. Being a generalist in this is your ticket to failure. Be specific as possible in describing who benefits from the problem being solved. This is key to being success in getting your project up and equally for project delivery.

Now, write the description of your person into the first draft of your project concept proposal.


Top job. You now have written the second draft of your project concept.


Step 4: Describe the project benefit

They say that customers do not purchase your solution, they purchase your benefit.  Therefore, the next step is to take some time to think about how by solving the problem (step 2), your user (step 3) will benefit (step 4).

  • What are the desirable consequences that result from your project?
  • How may your project save time, money, resources, etc?

The benefits describe the why of your idea. Objectives describe the how.  Objectives come later. There are no secrets to describing benefits. They are just short statements that describe why the project is important and may add value to whoever or whatever is your intended user.

Just like there is no such thing as ‘the general public’, there is no such thing as a ‘public benefit’. That’s just more lazy gobbledygook. What we mean when we say public benefit is that the outcomes of your project will not be directly received by those who pay for it. This is very common in public service projects but just as often, the description of benefit is poorly described and understood.

The secret to writing great benefit statements is to be concise and precise.

Add your benefits descriptions to your project concept. Third draft.


Step 5: Sell your project concept brief

A document that describes a problem, those who have the problem and why they benefit from having the problem solved is – you guessed it – a project concept.

The project concept document provides both words and pictures.  In the project concept, do not discount the value of including photos that help describe the problem, users and benefits. I don’t mean decorative fluff that makes the document look pretty. No, I am talking about visuals and schematics that have meaning. Images that help the reader imagine your idea in their own mind. Hand drawn sketches can be really useful in a project concept document.

Your project concept should be no more than two pages long. If it is longer, then you have too much fluff.  Cut it back. Get to the point. Precise and concise. A quality project concept will clearly and precisely articulates your idea in the form of: problem – user – benefit.

A project concept proposal should not in any way describe the solution. That if for the next stage of developing the project charter, business case and / or project initiation document.

With your project concept in hand, now it is time to sell it. You need to find someone who is prepared to give you opportunity to develop your concept into a business case.  That takes time, money, people and resources.

The more people you share your concept with, the better. Do not fear sharing your idea outside of your business, division or even organisation. It is not necessarily true that just because you can’t find a backer for your concept, does not mean it is not a valid one.  Not everyone in government has money to spend all of the time.  A bit of patience may be required.

The last word

Developing a project concept proposal and selling it to a potential project sponsor will cost you only a little in time and not a dime of money. What is needed most is a bit of initiative to act. Anyone can create a project concept and everyone should do it.

The world is changed by those who turn up and take action. Those who take the initiative, develop their project concepts and set out to create new projects will be those that make all the difference in the public service.

[php snippet=2]