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What is a project brief, and why does it matter?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

November 01, 2023

While that first spark of an idea is an exciting time, it pays to get all your plans clarified and signed off before you start throwing time and money at the endeavor. So today, we’re going to take a closer look at one of the most important documents of the lot: the project brief. 

The project brief is more than a plan; it’s a high-level document that bridges the gap between your idea and the stakeholders’ understanding of it. A well-defined brief significantly impacts the success of a project by aligning expectations and minimizing misunderstandings — so it’s well worth your time. Here’s what you need to know. 

What is a project brief?

A project brief is a document that outlines the goals, scope, and deliverables of your project. Think of it as being like a blueprint to a house: it shows you the essential measurements and materials, but nothing so granular as step-by-step decoration tips. Its primary function is to provide a clear overview for everyone involved, whatever their role or level of technical ability.

Two real-world examples

Let’s say you’re designing a website for a new cafe in town. It’s not the project brief’s job to tell you the intricacies of the website’s design or the exact shade of orange for the header. 

Instead, it gives you an overview of what the website should achieve. For instance, attracting customers, providing key information about the cafe (like the menu and opening hours), and creating a space for customer reviews.

Or perhaps you’re working on an ad campaign to promote a new brand of eco-friendly sneakers. The project brief might highlight the target audience, the campaign’s key messages, and the expected outcomes, like increasing brand awareness by 20%.

In both examples, the project brief serves as a starting point. It gives you and the team clarity and purpose while keeping everyone pulling in the same direction.

What’s the purpose of a project brief?

Here’s what it brings to the table:

  • Alignment: By clearly laying out the goals, scope, and deliverables of a project, the brief ensures that everyone involved knows the point of the project. 
  • A clear path ahead: Setting clear objectives is akin to drawing a map for a journey. It marks out the destination and often charts the best routes to get there. 
  • Defined boundaries: Ever heard of ‘scope creep‘? Without a defined scope, projects can easily go off the rails, expanding beyond their initial boundaries, often leading to increased costs and delays. A project brief keeps this in check by clearly specifying what’s included in the project and, just as importantly, what isn’t.
  • Risk management: By identifying potential challenges and risks upfront, a project brief prepares teams to face these challenges head-on or even sidestep them. 
  • Stakeholder communication: The project brief serves as an excellent tool for getting buy-in from stakeholders. By presenting a clear and concise vision of the project, it can help you secure resources, budget, or simply get everyone on board with the project’s direction.

Where does a project brief fit in the wider project lifecycle?

The brief is one of the first documents you create at the start of a project. Here’s where it fits in and how you use it during each stage of your project’s journey. 

1. Initial idea or problem recognition

Before anything else, there’s usually an idea, a challenge, or a problem to solve. Maybe a community needs a new park, or a company decides it needs to cater to an emerging market. Whatever it is, you’ll need a document to clarify how you’ll turn that spark of an idea into a reality. 

2. Drafting the project brief

Once you’ve fleshed out the initial idea, it’s time to articulate it in a structured way. This is where the project brief comes in. 

It captures the essence of the project, its goals, the challenges, and the expected outcomes. E.g., in the case of the new community park, the brief would detail why it’s needed, its proposed features, the budget, and the target completion date.

3. Stakeholder review

With the project brief in hand, it’s shared with key stakeholders. This could include company leadership, potential investors, or community leaders, depending on the nature of the project. Their feedback and insights help refine and perfect the brief.

4. Project initiation

Once the approvals are done, it’s time for project kick-off. The brief serves as a reference point throughout, ensuring all teams and stakeholders stay aligned.

5. Development and execution

As the project progresses, teams will continuously refer back to the project brief to make sure they’re on track. Whether it’s the architects designing a park or the marketing team prepping its launch, the brief offers clarity and direction.

6. Project closure

Even after the project wraps up, the brief isn’t shelved. It’s often revisited during project evaluations to measure success and determine if the project met its initial objectives.

Who’s responsible for writing a project brief?

In most scenarios, the responsibility doesn’t fall squarely on the shoulders of one individual. It’s typically a collaborative effort. That said, there are primary players who usually spearhead the process.

1. Project manager

More often than not, the project manager sits at the helm of creating the project brief. With a comprehensive understanding of the project’s scope and objectives, they’re well-positioned to articulate the project’s vision, goals, and parameters.

2. Project sponsor or initiator

The individual or group who initiates the project — be it a department head, a CEO, or a community leader — often plays a key role in shaping the brief. Their insights, based on the broader organizational or community goals, provide essential context. 

3. Key stakeholders

Stakeholders, particularly those with significant interest or investment in the project, can contribute valuable insights. This could include department heads, investors, or even representatives from the project’s target audience.

4. Subject matter experts

Depending on the project’s nature, experts in the relevant field might be roped in to lend their expertise. For instance, if a company is launching an environmentally friendly product line, they might consult with environmental scientists or sustainable manufacturing experts to ensure the brief’s objectives align with best practices.

What elements should you include in a project brief?

Crafting a project brief is about ensuring the right information, in the right detail, reaches the right people. To create a robust and informative project brief, certain elements are essential. Here’s what your brief needs as a baseline. 

1. Overview

Start with the basics. What’s the project all about? Offer a brief description that encapsulates the essence of the whole thing. For example, if you’re developing a community garden, this section would describe the intention behind the garden, its size, and its proposed location.

2. Objectives

Clearly state what you aim to achieve. Using our community garden example, objectives might include promoting sustainable living, providing a space for community interaction, and reducing the neighborhood’s carbon footprint.

3. Scope

Define the boundaries. What will the project encompass, and what will it intentionally exclude? For the garden, the scope might cover the types of plants, seating areas, pathways, and any facilities like a tool shed or compost area. It should also mention what’s not part of the project — perhaps a children’s playground or a water feature.

4. Target audience or beneficiaries

Who is the project for? Identifying your target group ensures the project meets their needs. In the community garden scenario, the beneficiaries might be local residents, schools, and community groups.

5. Constraints

Every project will have its limitations, be it budget, time, or resources. Clearly outlining these ensures they’re factored into planning and execution. Maybe our garden has a limited budget or needs to be completed before the onset of winter.

6. Stakeholders

List the major players. Who has a vested interest in the project? This could range from investors and sponsors to community leaders or local businesses.

7. Budget

Money matters. Clearly outline the project’s financial boundaries to ensure everyone works within the allocated funds. For the garden, this would include costs for plants, soil, tools, and any other infrastructure.

8. Timeline

Set out key milestones and deadlines. A well-defined timeline keeps things on track. For our garden, this might involve deadlines for soil preparation, planting, and the official opening.

A project timeline created in Cacoo

9. Risks and challenges

Anticipate potential hurdles. Whether it’s unpredictable weather affecting your garden’s progress, or potential resistance from certain community members, it’s crucial to be prepared.

10. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

How will you measure the project’s success? For the community garden, KPIs might include the number of residents participating, yield from the garden, or reduction in local carbon emissions.

11. Communication strategy

Note down how you’ll keep everyone informed. Will there be monthly stakeholder meetings, weekly email updates, or a notice board at the project site? Or, better yet, a project management tool where everyone can log in and track progress?

How to write a project brief in 12 easy steps (with examples)

Writing a project brief might seem intimidating, especially if it’s your first time or if the stakes are high. But fret not. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you.

1. Start with a clear title

This might sound overly simple, but a well-thought-out title gives clarity and focus. Make sure it accurately represents the project. 

For example: “Community Garden Establishment at Maple Park”

2. Write the project overview

Think of this as your elevator pitch. In a concise paragraph or two, describe the core of your project. Remember, this isn’t the place for exhaustive detail. 

For example:

The Maple Park Community Garden aims to transform a vacant plot into a flourishing space for local residents to grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers. This initiative seeks to promote sustainable living and foster community bonding.

3. List the objectives

Bullet points work well here. Clearly state the primary goals you intend to achieve. 

For example: 

  • Promote sustainable and organic farming practices;
  • Provide gardening opportunities for at least 50 families;
  • Strengthen community ties through collaborative efforts.

4. Detail the scope

Outline what the project will and won’t cover. Being specific helps set expectations.

For example: 

The garden will feature 50 individual plots, a shared herb section, and a communal seating area. However, the project will not include water features or play areas for children.

5. Identify the target audience

Mention who stands to benefit from or participate in the project.

For example: 

Local residents of Maple Park, nearby schools, and community groups.

6. Address constraints

Lay out the project’s limitations, whether they’re time, budget, or resource-related.

For example: 

The project has a budget of $5,000 and needs to be completed in 6 months.

7. Highlight stakeholders

This section lists the primary players involved in the project.

For example: 

  • Maple Park Residents Association
  • Local council; and 
  • Green Earth, a non-profit organization.

8. Outline the budget

Detail the financial constraints and allocations.

For example: 

$2,500 for plants and soil, $1,000 for tools, $500 for seating, with the remainder reserved for unforeseen expenses.

9. Set the timeline

Provide a breakdown of phases or milestones, with projected completion dates.

For example: 

Soil preparation by end of March, plot allocations by mid-April, inaugural planting day on May 1st.

10. Enumerate potential risks

It’s essential to anticipate challenges and make strategies to address them.

For example: 

Possible delays due to inclement weather, ensuring regular maintenance by residents, addressing potential disputes over plot usage.

Consider adding a risk register to your project documentation, as well as a contingency plan

11. Describe the communication strategy

Set out how you’ll share updates throughout the project.

For example: 

Monthly meetings at Maple Park community center, weekly email newsletters, and an active social media group for immediate updates.

12. Organize your documentation

During the lifecycle of a project, there are countless things that might hold you back – don’t let bad paperwork be one of them! 

  • Make sure everyone understands the importance of naming conventions 
  • Put all relevant documents in an easily accessible place — and tell people about it!
  • Create a project wiki via your project management tool. It’ll act as a central repository for everything — from the project brief, to workflows and roadmaps.

Two project brief examples

Here’s how the above might play out in document format.

Project Brief #1: A mobile learning app for children

1. Title

KidsLearn: An Interactive Learning App for Children

2. Project Overview

The KidsLearn app aims to introduce children aged 4 to 8 to foundational educational topics through interactive, game-based learning. This app seeks to make learning fun while supporting cognitive development.

3. Objectives

  • Introduce foundational topics in mathematics, science, and language arts;
  • Engage children with interactive multimedia content;
  • Promote regular learning habits through reward systems.

4. Scope

The app will feature:

  • Five interactive games for each subject;
  • A progress tracker for parents;
  • Reward badges for milestones.

The project will not include:

  • Content for children above eight years;
  • Physical merchandise or rewards.

5. Target audience

Children aged 4 to 8 and their guardians/parents.

6. Constraints

Budget capped at $50,000; 6-month development cycle.

7. Stakeholders

  • App development team AppStars;
  • Early childhood educators;
  • Beta-testing families.

8. Budget

$25,000 for app development, $10,000 for multimedia content creation, $5,000 for beta testing, $5,000 for marketing, with $5,000 reserved for unforeseen expenses.

9. Timeline

Prototype by end of the second month, beta testing in month four, app launch by end of month six.

10. Potential risks

Development delays, unanticipated software bugs, lackluster beta testing feedback.

11. Communication strategy

Bi-weekly updates via email to stakeholders, monthly review meetings.

Project brief #2: Community rooftop garden initiative

1. Title

“SkyGarden: Rooftop Green Space Initiative”

2. Project overview

The SkyGarden project aims to transform underutilized rooftop spaces in urban settings into thriving community gardens. This initiative seeks to provide urban dwellers with gardening opportunities, promote environmental sustainability, and improve mental well-being.

3. Objectives

  • Create five rooftop gardens across the city;
  • Encourage community participation and ownership;
  • Provide workshops on urban gardening and sustainability.

4. Scope

The project will:

  • Identify and retrofit suitable rooftops;
  • Organize monthly gardening workshops.

The project will not:

  • Venture into ground-level parks or gardens;
  • Include commercial farming activities.

5. Target audience

Urban residents, particularly those without access to garden spaces.

6. Constraints

Budget of $100,000; 1-year project duration.

7. Stakeholders

  • City council 
  • Environmental NGOs
  • Local residents and community groups

8. Budget

$40,000 for site preparation and retrofitting, $20,000 for plants and soil, $10,000 for workshops and community outreach, $20,000 for maintenance and utilities, with $10,000 reserved for unforeseen expenses.

9. Timeline

Rooftop selection by month 2, retrofitting completed by month 6, first workshop in month 7, all gardens operational by month 10.

10. Potential risks

Structural challenges with rooftops, lower than expected community interest, weather-related damages.

11. Communication strategy

Monthly town hall meetings, regular updates on community bulletin boards and social media channels.

10 tips to make your project brief more effective

Crafting an effective project brief isn’t just about including the right information. It’s also about presenting that information in a manner that’s both clear and engaging. Here are some practical tips.

1. Keep it concise but comprehensive

A good project brief gets straight to the point. While it’s essential to cover all necessary details, avoid overwhelming readers with too much information. Prioritize clarity over jargon. For example, instead of saying, ‘The project seeks to ameliorate community interaction via horticultural engagement,’ simply state, ‘The project aims to boost community interaction through gardening.’

2. Use visual aids

Pictures, diagrams, and charts break up large chunks of text and provide a clearer understanding of certain points. Use diagramming tools for quick project brief templates, drop-and-drag editing, and real-time collaborative sharing capabilities. 

3. Involve stakeholders in the drafting process

Before finalizing your brief, get feedback from key project stakeholders. They should be able to offer valuable insights, or point out areas that need more clarity

4. Be consistent 

Use a consistent format, font, and style throughout your document. It makes the brief easier to navigate and appears more professional.

5. Define all terms and acronyms

Not everyone reading your brief might be familiar with specific industry jargon or acronyms. A small glossary or inline explanations can make a world of difference.

6. Revisit and revise

Just like any other document, it’s important to revisit your brief after a break. Fresh eyes can spot inconsistencies or areas of improvement.

7. Use clear headers and subheaders

This helps readers quickly find the information they’re interested in without having to skim through the entire document. For example, a section titled ‘Budget Breakdown’ immediately signals to the reader what they can expect in that section.

8. Highlight critical information

Whether it’s through bolding, underlining, or color, ensure the most critical points stand out. Diagrams also add emphasis to a point (not to mention make data easier to digest). 

9. Provide contact information

At the end of the brief, make sure to list out contacts for those who have questions or need further clarification.

10. Set out a communication plan

Not everyone communicates best in the same way. Some love to talk, others love to read. Asynchronous communication is vital for remote teams in different timezones, while important meetings are best face-to-face. Set out both the team’s contact details, as well as a page or two outlining how to reach people, and the best communication channels to use for specific situations. 

11. Use project management software

Tools like Backlog allow you to integrate your brief into a collaborative workspace. By adding your project brief to the tool’s wiki or documentation section, team members can easily refer back to it, track changes, and even link specific tasks to sections of the brief. This seamless integration keeps everyone aligned while reducing the risk of miscommunication.

Things to avoid when making a project brief

Crafting a stellar project brief is as much about knowing what to include as it is about knowing what pitfalls to steer clear of. Here’s a rundown of things you might want to sidestep to ensure your project brief truly shines.

1. Vagueness

A project brief needs precision. While it’s tempting to be broad to cover all bases, specificity ensures all stakeholders are on the same page. For example, instead of saying ‘We want a new website sometime this year,’ specify ‘We aim to launch our redesigned website by October 15th.’

2. Overloading with details

While a project brief should be comprehensive, don’t make it a repository for every piece of information. Balance is key. 

For example, while it’s crucial to mention the project’s budget, a line-by-line breakdown might be better suited for a separate financial document. If you’re using project management software, simply add a separate page to your project wiki, and label it for easy access. 

3. Using complex language

Avoid industry jargon unless it’s essential, and always aim for plain language that’s easily understood by all stakeholders.

4. Leaving out stakeholder input

A project brief isn’t just the domain of one person or team. Including diverse perspectives gives a more rounded and comprehensive document.

5. Ignoring risks

Every project has uncertainties. Instead of glossing over them, it’s important to acknowledge them, and provide potential risk mitigation strategies.

6. Being inflexible

While a project brief provides a roadmap, it’s essential to be open to adjustments as the project progresses and new information or challenges arise.

7. Forgetting feedback

Before finalizing the project brief, gather feedback to ensure it’s as effective and clear as possible.

8. Lacking a clear purpose

Every section in the brief should have a distinct reason for being there. Avoid including information just for the sake of it.

Project brief FAQs: Some common mix-ups 

So many documents — but which is which, and what does what? 

Project brief vs. project outline

If a project brief is the broad strokes, a project outline is more about the finer details. It’s a structured breakdown of all the tasks, subtasks, and activities required to complete a project. 

For example, if you’re organizing a corporate event, the project brief might mention the need for a venue, catering, speakers, and marketing. The project outline, meanwhile, will go a step further, listing tasks like researching potential venues, comparing catering prices, reaching out to potential speakers, and setting up a marketing timeline.

While both the project brief and project outline bring clarity and direction to a project, they operate at different levels. 

Project brief vs. creative brief

A project brief is relevant to all types of projects, be it launching a new product, creating a mobile application, or setting up a new business unit. In contrast, a creative brief is, well, more specific to creative endeavors. 

Imagine you’re launching a marketing campaign for a new line of artisanal chocolates. The creative brief will focus on the story: Why are these chocolates special? What emotions should the campaign evoke? Should the design lean towards luxurious gold tones or rustic, earthy visuals? 

It essentially gives the creative team a lens through which they should view and approach the project, including emotional resonance, the tone, the visual aesthetics, and other elements crucial to a creative project’s success.

Project brief vs. project charter

A project charter is a more formal document that authorizes the project’s existence. It’s often used in larger organizations or for more significant jobs, and incorporates specifics like project justification, resources committed, stakeholders, project limitations, and predefined objectives. 

Essentially, while the brief communicates the project’s intent, the charter gives it the green light and sets the parameters for its execution. It’ll list things like budgets, sponsors, assigned team members, project constraints (like time or technical limitations), and give a clear definition of what constitutes the project success.

Project brief vs. project roadmap

If the project brief is the ‘why’ and the ‘what,’ the project roadmap is the ‘how’ and ‘when.’ It’s a visual representation or timeline that displays the major milestones, tasks, and phases of the project, often spread across a specific timeframe. While the project brief tells you what the destination is, the project roadmap offers a clearer picture of the journey and the major stops along the way.

Project brief vs. project plan

The project plan delves into the mechanics of how to achieve the objectives set out in your project brief. It’s a detailed strategy that outlines every step of the project, from inception to completion. This includes task assignments, timelines, resources required, potential risks, and how those risks will be managed. 

In our website redesign example, the project plan would detail the design process, the technology stack to be used, the sequence of content migration, testing procedures, launch protocols, and post-launch evaluations.

Project brief vs. executive summary

The project brief is for everyone involved to get aligned on the project’s scope and objectives. The executive summary is designed to give a quick overview, often catering to high-level stakeholders who need to understand the gist without getting into the weeds.

It’s a bit like a trailer for a movie, allowing the reader to quickly grasp the essence without wading through the entire thing.



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