When you get given a new project it’s tempting to rush off and start doing the work. There are things to buy, people to talk to and a huge task list to write. Right?
Before you get too far into the doing of the project you need to step back and plan the work. If you want to manage your project successfully you need a bigger picture view of everything that needs to happen and how it is going to get done. That’s what project planning gives you. Yes, it slows down the start of the ‘doing’ but it saves you a ton of time longer term when you can whizz through the different steps knowing exactly what’s coming next. Trust us, planning is invaluable!
In this article we’ll share everything you need to know about project planning. It’s our ultimate guide to starting your project off right.
What is Project Planning?
First, let’s clarify what we are talking about. Many people think of the project plan as the project schedule: The list of tasks and dates that tell you what to do when. That schedule is part of your project plan, but it’s not the only part.
Project planning refers to everything you do to set up your project for success. It’s the process you go through to establish the steps required to define your project objectives, clarify the scope of what needs to be done and develop the task list to do it.
The activities in project planning are varied because you have to work out how to achieve your goals. Every project is going to be different as the objectives will be different. Most of the work of planning is thinking about what you need to do to get everything done and putting the structure in place to make that happen.
By structure, we mean the processes and governance to keep everything running smoothly. These are things like the change management process, the budgeting process, how you are going to sign off the deliverables when the time comes, what quality measures are important and things like that. We’ll cover those in more detail later.
The end result of project planning is…ta da!… a project plan. This is a document or set of documents that explain what you are going to do and how you are going to do it.
Pro Tip: Remember, project managers don’t plan to fail, they simply fail to plan. You’ve got this!
Why You Need A Project Plan
The project planning phase comes at the start of the project: It’s after the initiation phase where all you’ve really done is got approval to go ahead and put the basics in place (like appointing you as the project manager) and before the delivery phase where you actually do the work.
We plan at the beginning to save time later. A good plan means that you don’t have to worry about whether those people are going to be available on the right dates – because you’ve planned for them to be. You don’t have to worry about how to pay those invoices – because you’ve planned your financial process. You don’t have to worry about whether everyone agrees on what a quality outcome looks like – because you’ve already planned what quality measures you are going to use.
It sets out the processes that everyone is expected to follow so it avoids a lot of headaches later. For example, if you specify that estimates are going to be worked out by subject matter experts based on their judgement and that’s approved, later no one can complain that they wanted you to use a different estimating technique. They’ve known the deal since the start.
Planning streamlines the doing.
Project plans are also really helpful for monitoring progress. You can go back to them and check what you said you were going to do and how, comparing it to what you are actually doing. This gives you a good reality check and enables you to change course if you need to, bringing the project back on track.
How Long Does Project Planning Take?
This is hard to answer. It’s going to take longer to plan a moon landing than building an app.
The best way to estimate how long your project planning phase will take is to look at similar projects that have happened before and see how long it took them to plan. Talk to the project manager as well, if you can, because they’ll have a view on whether that length of time was enough or not!
It’s easy to see how long other projects took if you have a project management tool that archives your old project schedules and makes the data available to everyone who needs it. You can then search for similar projects and study their schedules in detail.
The Tools for Project Planning
Project planning is all about working out what to do and how to do it, so you need to get a lot of people involved. There are several good tools and techniques for getting information from other people including:
- One-to-one meetings or interviews
- Surveys or customer focus groups to gather and validate requirements.
Pro Tip: Try using brainwriting in these sessions to get the most out of the available time. ProjectManager.com contributor Elizabeth Harrin explains how in this article about how to brainstorm more effectively with your team.
You should also arm yourself with a lot of sticky notes. They are incredibly useful for noting down important things that should be in your project plan. You can also use them to help structure your plan by writing down the key headings and then moving them around as required until you have a flow that looks right.
Finally, you’ll need an online project management system to store your plan in. Make sure that everyone in the team can access the latest version of the project plan.
The Elements of A Project Plan
A lot of project planning is talking to your team, getting the views of the people who will be affected by the project and working out how it all hangs together. There’s a lot of chat and a lot of thinking time.
The end result of your planning phase is a document called the project plan. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide) – Fifth Edition says that the project plan in made up of lots of subsidiary plans. These include:
- A plan for managing the human resources on the team both in terms of availability and skills
- A plan for managing costs and the budgeting elements of the project including any procurements or supplier engagements you might have.
- A communications plan setting out who is going to receive messages about the project, when and in what format
- A plan for dealing with project risk including the processes for logging and tracking risks
- A quality plan that specifies the quality targets for the project.
That’s a lot of documentation.
In reality, it’s rare that you’ll produce these as individual documents. What you need is a project plan that talks about the important elements of each of these. There’s no point creating a big document that sets out exactly how your business works anyway. If you already have a structured risk management process then don’t waste time writing it all down again in your project plan.
Your project plan needs to include enough information to make sure that you know exactly what processes and procedures need to be followed and who needs to be involved.
Get your project plan approved by your stakeholders and project sponsor as well as the team themselves so there are no surprises later.
Jennifer Bridges, PMP, goes through all the elements you need in your plan in her video on project planning.
How To Create A Project Plan
By now you’ve probably got a good idea of how to go about creating your project plan. You need to spend time with your team:
- clarifying what you need to achieve together
- working out the processes you need to get there
- developing an action plan for how you are going to take this forward.
Ultimately, the project manager is responsible for producing the project plan and while you can’t make up all the content yourself, you’ll be the one banging the keys to type it all out. Use templates where you can to save time.
How To Manage Your Plan
Your project plan is not a document written in stone. You should be referring back to it and making changes to it as often as you need to. Parts of it, like your project schedule, will change almost daily. Other parts, like your procurement plans and cost management processes, won’t change at all during the life of your project.
The important thing to remember is that if your plan isn’t working for you, think about what you can do to change it. It’s there to guide your project management, not restrict you from doing the right thing. If you need to review how you manage project resources, then go back and review it. Make the changes you need, get the document approved again and share it with the team.
How To Plan When You Don’t Have All the Answers
Yes, this happens – most of the time! It’s rare to have all the information at the beginning of a project. Most managers want you to dive in and get started and you might not have the luxury of knowing all the details.
That’s OK; we have techniques to help deal with uncertainty.
First is the project assumption. You use these to put caveats on your plan and to document the things that you assume to be true at this point in time. For example:
- We assume that the resources will be available.
- We assume that the required funding is available.
- We assume that the colors requested will be in line with the company brand and that Marketing sign off is not required.
You get the picture. Then, if the design team come back and say that they want the product to be a totally new palette of colors and that Marketing have to approve that, you are justified in saying that you’ll have to change the timescales on the schedule to make that possible. You planned based on an assumption (that everyone agreed to, because you got the document approved) and that assumption turned out not to be true.
Sometimes your team will know the detail but want to avoid putting something down in writing. Project management coach Susanne Madsen shows you how to brush up your leadership skills and find out how to challenge and support your team in this video.
Getting Your Plan Approved
OK, we’ve talked a lot about what project planning is and why you must do it, so now let’s get into the detail of how you plan your project. Let’s assume that you already know what your project is going to achieve and that you have authority as the project manager to get started.
Jason Westland, CEO of ProjectManager.com, has written a free ebook on project planning. Download your copy for free and use it as a reference guide as you put your plan together.
Next Steps for Project Planning
The most important thing to remember is that you shouldn’t rush project planning. Done properly, project planning takes time. And it’s worth doing it properly because if you don’t, we guarantee that you will hit problems later on as people won’t understand what they are supposed to do and why.
Great planning sets you up for success. It gives you the confidence of knowing that you’ve got all your processes, tools and systems in place to deliver the perfect result.