Project planning is a phase of the project management process, through which scopes, goals, timelines, resources, and costs are specified. It is an essential aspect of the lifecycle of a product and is directly linked to the success of any project. It is applicable and useful for a variety of business processes, regardless of their scale or scope.
Although project planning methods may differ slightly between industries as activities, resources, stakeholders and timelines vary, there are several steps which you will need to go through to successfully plan any project.
Project Planning Steps
Step #1 Identify the Scope of Work
The first step in project planning is scope planning or simply put – deciding what work needs to be done within a certain project and what outcomes are expected. The aim of scope planning is to outline everything that is expected from a project in terms of tasks, deliverables, and end-results. Scope planning addresses the “what exactly are we trying to do and why?” question in a project.
At this stage, key stakeholders internally and externally must be consulted.
It’s also important to make sure that the agreed-on scope is achievable and realistic – do you have the required skills/workforce, or can you easily access them? Is it possible to attain the resources needed for the project? Is the intended outcome in line with the deliverables?
When the “what” and “why” of the project have been clearly identified, you can proceed with the “how?”
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Step #2 Break it down
Approaching a project as a single task is a tedious and ineffective process. The optimal next step in project planning is dividing the project into smaller, more manageable chunks. These should comprise of the individual tasks that need to be completed for the project to be realized.
At this stage, tasks are identified and allocated to the entity or individual responsible for their completion. It is important here that every task is as clear and specific as possible. Complex tasks can be further broken down into sub-tasks if necessary.
You can also use this step to develop a critical path – that is, outline tasks that are dependent on each other or share a significant relationship. This will make it easier for you to map out the order of planned tasks.
The expected outcomes after each of these chunks or tasks are completed, in the overall scope, can be highlighted as milestones in the project lifecycle. Setting these milestones allows you to easily monitor progress and also boosts focus, as every task holds a degree of urgency to it.
For these to be effective, however, they need to be time-bound.
Step #3 Create a timeline
Once you have divided the tasks and allocated them to team members, you need to figure out the deadline for each task or sub-task.way, you ensure that work on a project doesn’t start too close to the deadline and that one task isn’t overstretched on the timeline at the expense of another.
Creating a timeline is one of the most essential steps in project planning. The more detailed a deadline on a timeline is, the more likely it is to be followed.
Step #4 Plan your resources
Resource planning is basically the gathering and utilization of all resources needed to carry out a project. These include everything that is required for the project – equipment, materials, technology, facilities, people, etc.
At this stage of project planning, you will need to estimate what resources are needed, when and how they will be used and where they will be acquired from. It is advisable to plan these based on each project task and not the entire project. This helps in optimizing resources and leaves room for reallocation in cases where they would be more valuable elsewhere for a period within the project timeline.
In many projects, human resources are at the core of a project, it is very important that tasks are assigned to individuals with the required skillset. It is also essential that within the plan, one person is assigned one task at a time – this smoothens the general workflow and leaves little room for individuals to mis-prioritize.
However, this might not be the case at all times. E.g. agile methodologies, where each person is assigned several tasks, and it is up to him/her to complete them throughout the sprint.
Step #5 Calculate your costs
Another step in project planning is cost calculation and budget planning. Although these may change slightly over the course of the project, it is always necessary to have an approximate range and stick to it. This is especially important when projects involve external sponsors.
Here, you should calculate how much will go into the execution of each task financially. This includes all resources (human and otherwise) combined with an estimate of probable additional costs. Having a task-by-task budget makes it easier to plan the availability of funds according to the timeline.
The more accurately these are estimated, the easier they will be to manage when the project is in motion. Instead of making guesses, approximate costs based on previous experiences (yours or others’) and proper research.
Step #6 Set standards
Similar to any business process, project planning needs to include the setting of quality standards. Use this stage of the process to create a baseline quality for delivered products or services. Although it may seem like you are merely “stating the obvious” at first, have it in mind that what one person sees as acceptable is not always the same as what another does.
These standards should be communicated internally and externally (if needed), to avoid misalignment of expectations. This will help you avoid too many repetitions or revisions of finished work and prevent the unnecessary waste of resources.
Step #7 Prepare for the risks
You have everything – timelines, budgets, resources, assigned tasks and all. The only problem is – a single unexpected event can derail your progress and disrupt your carefully thought-out plan. Even when an organization is highly invested in business process improvement, there is always a possibility that something along the way will go wrong – this is where risk management planning comes in.
Think of this step as dressing your project in a bulletproof vest. It does not fully protect it, but it significantly lowers the possible negative impact. The more potential problems you can come up with solutions or preventions for, the better protection your plan will have.
Step #8 Share it!
You’ve created your project plan, you factored in the risks and feel more than prepared to proceed with actually delivering the project. Before you rush into scheduling that project kickoff meeting, ensure that everyone directly involved with the project has had a chance to go through this plan – or at least, the parts that directly concern them. You will usually have to share this with any sponsors as well.
Common Errors in Project Planning (and How to Prevent Them)
Project planning is based on predictions and not real-time events. This can lead to uncountable challenges. However, there are a few commonly met errors which you can easily avoid.
Scope creep occurs when the scope of work of a project slowly changes and progressively deviates from the intended plan. Although some scope creep is natural, it can rapidly cause unmanageable situations and overcomplicate a project. This is most common when a project is carried out for an external entity.
Scope creep can lead to a general delay in the project timeline, demotivation of an overworked labor force and a reduction in the quality of work done.
When a project deals with providing a product or service externally, it is best to develop a Statement of Work (SoW). This usually serves as a part of the contractual agreement entered into by the entities. The statement is basically written documentation of the agreed-on scope and can easily be referred to whenever either party expects more than what was initially agreed on.
The manager in charge of project planning likely does not possess all the knowledge and skills necessary to execute every task within the project and so he/she may not have realistic predictions of how long each process will take. For this reason, estimated timelines are often flawed and stretched too thin.
Consult with the talent before making timeline commitments and setting deadlines. Quite simply, directly ask the professionals what timeframe the specific task can be completed within. To be extra safe, you can intentionally leave some float (or slack.)
Float/slack is a term for the amount of time a task can be delayed and not delay subsequent tasks (known as “free float”) or the overall project completion date (known as total float.)
Project managers can get carried away with monitoring and tracking. Sometimes this leads to extreme micromanagement which is neither efficient nor comfortable in a working environment. Beyond micromanaging, it is also common for project managers to try taking on too many tasks within a project from the very inception of the plan.
Delegate tasks, communicate the project plan, make sure it is clear to all those involved and set a regular meeting time. Use these meetings to keep track of progress and discuss possible challenges. Do not handhold members of the team through the entire process as this is unlikely to yield a better end result.
No matter how thorough and proper project planning attempts to be, issues can develop and spread very easily when there are errors in communication between team members or between the team and external entities. Miscommunication can lead to unnecessary mix-ups, unclear responsibilities/deadlines, and frustrated team members.
Ensure everyone on the team knows what means of communication will be used during the project. This can be by email, workflow software or any other communication solution – as long as there’s consistency and clarity within the platform.
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It is also very important that all changes in the project plan, deadlines or scope are communicated with everyone affected by them.
Also try not to overflood everyone with every piece of information – for example, if an individual on the team is responsible for later steps in the project, it is usually unnecessary for them to be copied in every email which doesn’t affect them or their task, as long as they are given general updates on the progress gained.
Project Planning Toolbox
Part of the project planning process is always finding ways to synthesize all that information. There are many methods and tools used in project planning and the project manager’s selection usually depends on the project type and number of stakeholders involved. Regardless of what system is created though, a basic knowledge of some tools will always prove useful.
The Affinity Diagram
An affinity diagram is a tool used to organize large scopes and disorganized data/information. It does this by dividing these complex data groups into subgroups and organizing them based on their natural relationships or common themes. It is most efficient in synthesizing brainstorming and research outcomes.
You create an affinity diagram by:
- Generating ideas
- Displaying the ideas
- Sorting them into groups (and subgroups if necessary)
- Creating headers for each of these groups and combining all these (which then serve as the finished affinity diagram.)
The Relations Diagram
A relation or interrelationship diagram is a visual representation of the cause-and-effect relationships between tasks, groups of tasks and issues. This can be used on the project planning level to map such possible relationships. At later stages of the project lifecycle, the diagram can be very useful in the quality control process.
You create a relations diagram by:
- Defining the issue that the diagram will explore
- Brainstorming ideas about the defined issue
- Placing these on the diagram
- Taking each idea and considering whether it causes or is caused by another task in any way.
- Repeating for all ideas.
The Prioritization Matrix
A prioritization matrix is a tool which allows strategic prioritization of tasks. It outlines objectives and estimates priorities based on weighted criteria. This is very helpful for the project planning process as it gives a realistic view of what tasks are most important for project delivery.
To create a prioritization matrix:
- Define the end goal (this can be the overall objective or the group of deliverables)
- Create assessment criteria to define priorities by (what would make one task more important to execute sooner than another)
- Agree on these with the team
- Start with the prioritization by having each member assign a score to every task
- Calculate the final score of each of these
- Compare them
- Sort the tasks based on these scores
- Communicate them
Process Decision Program Chart
The process decision program chart (or PDPC) is a method used to identify and document all required steps to complete a certain process within a project. It is also simply an add-on to other business process diagrams or planning tree diagrams – basically, they serve as an extra level to the already existing project plan.
This is a tool that can also be used in risk management planning. This is because analyzing a process cannot be complete without identifying what could possibly go wrong. The purpose of the chart, in this case, is to define risks, consequences of failures and contingency plans.
You can make a process decision program chart by:
- Creating a tree diagram of the entire project
- Gather everyone involved in the project
- Create a next level of the diagram – use it to present any real problems that can arise while the project is worked on
- After identifying problems and possible failures, create another level.
- Brainstorm solutions for the listed risks and include them in the newly created level.
- Consider what resources are required for these solutions (finances, time and even human resources.)
One of the easiest and most logical ways to represent a project plan or schedule is the use of a Gantt chart. The Gantt chart is a method of visually representing tasks in a project over set periods of time. It was first introduced by Henry Gantt, one of the most important figures in project planning and management.
It makes use of horizontal lines to show the amount of work completed in a specified period – it can also be used to compare planned vs. actual work completed during that time.
To create a simple Gantt chart:
- Identify all tasks that need to be completed
- Define periods of time they require
- Prioritize tasks – what needs to happen when
- Have a horizontal axis to represent time
- Have a vertical axis to represent tasks
- Fill in the data
Project Planning with Business Process Management Software
Too many emails coming in and out, too many stakeholders to consider and a team of individuals to handle can get more than stressful and confusing. Even with all necessary information available and knowledge of the essential tools needed in project planning, a project manager is only human and is bound to make some mistakes.
Having separate platforms and tools to use for different aspects of a project is oftentimes necessary and unavoidable. However, with innovations in technology, it is no longer necessary to manually keep up with these details. You can make use of business process management software to ease the flow of all the aforementioned processes.
Such software is very useful in optimizing processes as it brings all the different components into one hub. The platform makes it easier and faster to monitor, track and analyze project parts regardless of the industry or scope.
Project planning can be a tedious and long process if not approached properly. However, it is a process that has been used and developed for centuries – be it in building cities such as Rome, or creating a new product that takes over a big market share.
With the right mindset and toolkits, project planning is the backbone of any given project. Make sure you have a clear idea of what needs to happen and that everyone is always on the same page – in terms of objectives, timelines, and overall delivery.
Take it one step at a time and break up the project into however many components will make its delivery possible.