What is the Front-End?
According to the authors, the definition of the "front-end" of the project is bound up with the definition of what a "project" is. Morris (2016) distinguishes between those that see the front-end as the vital "shaping" part of a potential project, and those that see the project only starting once the "front-end" is completed. Edkins and Smith (2012) note that there is no agreement on the definition, but conclude that there is agreement (and evidence) that: "the early stages of a project are one of the primary points where strategic success or failure for the project is set". For what can happen in the "front-end", see Table 1.
The front end is where ...
The initial idea emerges.
Where does the idea for the project come from, what is it based on, whose interests would it serve, who would pay for it?
Complexity and underlying problems and needs are analyzed.
It is important to look at the context where it emerges, and the various complex and uncertain factors on which it depends.
The first estimates of costs and benefits are made.
Early estimates are important to evaluate the project although these will become refined as project concept is identified (see also item 9)
The stakeholders' preferences and incentives become visible.
These can be complex, and stakeholders can be in complex structures.
There is very little information.
The front-end is characterized by scant information available about the, as yet ill-defined, project. The danger is that decisions are based on an overload of detailed, but uncertain information up front, rather than carefully selected facts and judgmental information relevant to the essential issues.
Uncertainty is at its highest.
Below we describe how this uncertainty can be navigated, and possible scenarios of the future considered. Before the project is defined, the use of highly-refined "heavyweight" project risk management is not yet possible.
The opportunity space is/should be explored.
Frequently, the choice of a conceptual solution is made without systematically scrutinizing the opportunity space up front. This partly explains the well-noted "rush to solution".
The conceptual alternatives are carved out.
Note that in discussing the shaping of large engineering projects, the seeds of success or failure are planted early. A key to success lies in the choice of concept.
First estimates are refined, as the concept is developed.
The focus is often on the final cost estimate (the budget), while the trend of early cost estimates are overlooked during the project front-end development. Hence, consideration of optimism bias and strategic misrepresentation are ignored.
Stakeholders are recognized.
The affected parties could/should have a chance to have some impact on decisions. This is a source of some-times vital feedback, often forgotten, and illustrates the non-linearity of the process.
The project is situated within a wider strategy/ project portfolio.
The selection and prioritization of a new project requires consideration of the portfolio view.
The foundation is laid and the main decisions are made.
At this point, a Go/No-Go decision (i.e. the determination to proceed with or relinquish a project) can be reached.
"Quality at entry" can be secured.
In other words, the project definition can be of high-quality and confidence can be placed in the project's successful delivery.
Table 1: Front-end content summary
Discussion of the Table 1
A project results when an organization or party has a desire to achieve a particular change or outcome. When this desire is sufficiently specified and formalized, a person or organization is nominated and/or delegated to undertake a defined project. The organization that initiates the project and desires the project outcome has been called the "permanent organization" although the terminology varies. This is in contrast to the extensive literature around the phrase the "temporary organization" for the entity that undertakes the project. The strategic role of the "front-end" is in defining what the project is to achieve, establishing its feasibility and shaping project "success", as defined in terms of strategic performance rather than deliverables.
This brings in the need for recognizing the "drivers" for what may become the project: opportunities (achieving something desirous) and problems (resolve something that is harming or troubling). The two key words here are "strategy" and "context". It is important to understand that the project "emerges" from some form of consideration. This can be actively encouraged or unexpectedly apparent. Whether active or passive, all projects are the result of some form of consideration and sanction.
The key players can be considered as the "who" as in asking "who is driving the project?" One has to then ask "and why?". The "who" drives the front-end and is someone from the organization that has a desire to achieve a particular change or outcome. That organization will have to put in place project governance to oversee the project, and is distinct from the "project management" to be involved. Hence, the "who" is most typically from outside the project management function. While much of the understanding of what goes on in the front-end is still unclear and poorly understood, what is clear is that it is project management's role to deliver the (so far undefined) project.
Generally, the point at which the front-end finishes is considered to be the point at which final sanction is given to authorize the project. This discussion also points to what is perhaps a gap in knowledge in our field. There has been much work on what organizations need to do and why (well-grounded but treating projects as entities that realize strategy) and internal study within well-defined projects
The front-end is where these two come together: the project does not sit alone, but within an environment and context that defines the need and context for the project. The "front-end" is what defines the joining together of these, and sets the scene up to passing the project over to "project management".
6. Ibid, extracted from section 3.1. RQ1, p2
7. Ibid, Table 1, p3
8. Ibid, section 3.1. RQ1, p2