Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to focus on the intense research activity with regard to the project inception stage. The need to establish the project parameters and performance requirements is crucial to the success of any construction project. Many organizations have been developing approaches to assist everyone involved in this process. This study aims to provide some data on one approach used by the authors during these early stages. Design/methodology/approach - One approach to these early stages of the project is the use of a workshop-based technique termed "strategic needs analysis". Strategic needs analysis assists in these critical inception stages in the development of a project. Six action research studies based on these workshops were organized and analyzed by the authors. This has resulted in the development of a series of decision-making attributes that capture the key characteristics relevant to the project inception stages. Findings - This paper analyzes and identifies on a two-dimensional scale the best- and worst-performing of the identified attributes classified by the stakeholders in each study. Research limitations/implications - The conclusions to this research suggest that working during these early inception stages with briefing workshops is both challenging and difficult. Practical implications - The findings provide a springboard for pointing out how an ambitious approach like this will always lead to practical implementation problems. It also provides data to indicate where one can begin to try to overcome these deficiencies. Originality/value - Data analysis and experience on this key stage of a project are now available to inform future researchers and practitioners in this complex but important area of activity.