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PMO Advisory | April 2019

Addressing the Problem of Fuzzy Front End on Projects

Prof. Dr. Te Wu (PfMP, PgMP, PMP, PMI-RFP)

What is the Fuzzy Front End?

The Chinese have an old proverb: “a thousand-kilometer journey starts with the first step.” But what is the first step? How do you know it’s in the right direction? What are the prerequisites that must be dealt with? What if the destination itself is rather fuzzy?

Projects, especially complex projects with high uncertainty as in the case of innovation, often have many if not infinite approaches. One of the first and perhaps most challenging project management activity is to find the optimal approach to address the challenge.

Anatomy of the Fuzzy Front End

The fuzzy front end is defined as the period between the project initiation as an idea and when it is ready for development. In this critical phase, all customer problems, issues, process gaps, untold opportunities, future upgrade plans and friendly chitchats happen. They may be not formally documented or identified as future sales opportunities. However, they are said and should be taken advantage of. The real strong customer relationship starts here. In addition, the potential of project success also starts here. At this very beginning, customers are usually in a messy state of mind. They have no defined requirements and there are no clear timelines for them to have hopes for. All this needs to be determined. To benefit the project the most, and avoid derailment, organizations should retain project experts to develop a well-organized approach to project execution.

These are just some examples of common challenges at the initiation of projects. There are potentially endless lists of factors contributing to and aggravating the “fuzziness” of the projects at the initiation and planning stages. Below are three main categories of factors

1) Project Factors

Project deliverable itself is poorly defined or understood (e.g. technically difficult to specify the details or lacking internal expertise to fully define the deliverables) or pin down (e.g. as there are multiple conflicting factors)

Innovative projects, especially those at the bleeding edge, are by definition implementing new and often unproven technology. This creates additional uncertainties such as stability, quality, functionality, and potential integration issues with the rest of the systems and processes.

2) Organizational Factors

The project team’s maturity and cohesiveness are important factors to consider. With a high performing team with a strong understanding of project management, most of the lesser challenges would essentially go away through superior problem solving and teaming skills. But the same issues confronting a less mature team would often result in bigger obstacles.

The sponsoring organization’s culture, processes, and competencies are important considerations. The “fitness” and “alignment” of decision making and governance can have a major impact. For example, if key decisions take weeks or months to make, then iterative approaches like Scrum are likely to be sub-optimal and directly impact the time required to make key decisions at the start of the project.

3) Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are considerations external to the project and the organization working on the project, which on a large and complex project can be quite numerous. For well-defined projects in which the underlying technology is mature, the environmental impact can be well estimated and managed. But for projects that are truly innovative or with a high degree of competition, environmental impact can be more significant.

Examples of environmental factors include:

- Social/economic – Such as society’s acceptance of artificial intelligence in driverless vehicles, even if the technology is proven, or the state of the economy.

- Industry and competitive – The amount of competition in an industry.

- Regulatory – Governmental involvement, regulations, guidelines, and even industry standards can impact how projects are defined and thus create additional concerns at project initiation.

Implications if not Handled Correctly

Activities in the fuzzy front end are usually difficult to anticipate, understand, and determine. Some project managers underestimate the seriousness of fuzzy front ends. Their attitude may be to under-emphasize planning since it’s so chaotic. They may not have a vision for the project flow or create a full project plan to deeply understand customer needs and requirements. Some may even hide behind the “agile” methodology so there are excuses for weak analysis, little documentation, everything “goes” attitude toward scope definition, and ultimately a poor foundation for the project. This can surely cause serious gaps and misunderstandings of customer needs. Accordingly, potentials risks and issues are not identified well. And project delays, risk mitigation alternatives and resource allocation are not done properly either. As a result, chances of project failure and customer dissatisfaction are high.

Good Practices for Handling the Fuzzy Front End

With often many choices to make at the onset of projects, project managers should drive to a degree of certainty as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Here are five good practices to consider – to drive toward stability and certainty:

Vision – Develop a clear direction and compelling future for the outcome for the project. Having a strong vision anchors the project team toward a common set of objectives

Champion – Seek one or more change champion(s) who can engage key stakeholders, develop them into willing and collaborative partners, drive them toward achieving the vision, and fight the good battles.

Sponsorship – Make sure there is executive management involvement that provides coverage on contentious issues. For larger projects, consider establishing robust governance to guide key decisions

Customer – Involve customers and end users early on, to refine product ideas and project implementation processes

Process – Identify and implement a project management approach early on, to instill process rigor early. But also be willing to change as innovative projects can have many detours

[Note: The full article contains five more good practices. Scroll to the bottom to see the link to the full article.]

Six Steps for Managing the Fuzzy Front End

There are many ways to manage challenging projects. The six steps below provide a simplified overview of managing projects with fuzzy front end problems:

1) Evaluate project situation

2) Determine project success criteria, and consider developing three sets of success criteria:

- Minimum threshold for success

- Realistic criteria for success

- Stretch goals or wildly successful

3) Collect customer / sponsor insights

4) Develop strategic foresights and prioritize requirements

5) Determine implementation approach (e.g. waterfall, agile, process rigor)

6) Execute the project plan


To be able to manage fuzzy front ends, one must be able to ask the right questions and be able to absorb the value behind large amounts of collected qualitative and quantitative data. The uncertainty and complexity of this early stage makes “Fuzzy Front End” a very descriptive expression and a complicated phase for project managers. This article introduces the concepts, provides an anatomy of the situation, discusses the implication of poorly managing the problem, suggests good practices to address the problem, and prescriptively outlines a method of tackling the problem of the fuzzy front end.


1) Frishammar, J., & Florén, H. (2014, March 24). Achieving Success in the Fuzzy Front End Phase of Innovation. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from http://www.innovationmanagement.se/2010/10/20/achieving-success-in-the-fuzzy-front-end-phase-of-innovation/

2) Mootee, I. (2011, March/April). Strategic innovation and the fuzzy front end. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://iveybusinessjournal.com/publication/strategic-innovation-and-the-fuzzy-front-end/

3) Evans, G. (2013, January 28). Project Management in the Fuzzy Front-End. Retrieved February 25, 2019, from https://www.slideshare.net/gmevans1/white-paper-pm

4) Managing the Fuzzy Front End of Projects. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.sandboxmodel.com/content/managing-fuzzy-front-end-projects

If you enjoyed this article, please join us for a webinar on April 24th, 2019. For more information, visit: www.pmoadvisory.com/webinar/fuzzy-front-end

In addition, the article published here is a “shortened version” in the interest of brevity. For a full-length article, visit: www.pmoadvisory.com/blogs


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