10 Common Sense tips on how to Plan a Project

Blog 08-04-2021

Struggling to Understand how to Plan a Project?

Are you struggling to understand how to plan a project that keeps you and your team on target? In this blog, our resident PMO expert David Walton, shares his extensive experience on project planning using a simple, but effective, 10-step technique that will guarantee you deliver your projects more effectively and efficiently.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”
– Mike Tyson

I’ve often been asked to review a project or a programme and the first artefact that I ask to see is the project or programme plan. I am often very surprised by the quality and completeness of the plans that I have reviewed. For important projects and programmes I have seen the following:

  • Plans drawn in excel
  • No baseline
  • No milestones just activities
  • One plan that is used for communicating with team members and senior sponsors
  • No tracking of progress
  • Plans that the team are working to but ones that everyone acknowledges as un-achievable.

“I’ve only been on this project for 5 days and I’m already 7 days behind!” -(Overheard from a project team member)

I think that in many cases there is a basic lack of understanding of how to plan a project. The remainder of this blog is how I think a good project plan should be developed.

Step 1. The planning approach should be collaborative and democratic.

Too often, plans are developed by one person in a darkened room with little or no reference to others. Developing a plan collaboratively with team members who can contribute to a project plan is a good way of achieving buy-in and also a way of ensuring that key milestones and activities are not missed. Estimates are also likely to be more accurate if more than one person is checking an estimate and contributing to the project plan. This is probably the most important tip in how to plan a project.

Step 2. Use a Delphi estimating technique.

I’ve alluded to this in step 1 but it deserves a separate guideline as it’s so important. It goes without saying that a plan with poor estimates is one that is going to fail. For key tasks and milestones ask two or more team members to independently (no conferring) estimate the tasks or milestone. They then come back together and compare estimates and assumptions. If they differ, they discuss reasons why they are different and then redo the estimates. This continues until both estimates are within an acceptable error range.

Step 3. Use Smart Milestones.

I see too many milestones that are really activities. Milestones are when something has been achieved and can be prefaced by the word “when”. Activities usually start with verbs, e.g. gather requirements. Milestones are important in a plan as they help visualise what has been achieved and how far along the path to your final destination you are.

It is important for everyone to know when a milestone has been achieved. This is why your milestones need to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound). SMART is an acronym that usually applies to objectives but can also be applied to milestones. For example, “when the requirements have been gathered” is not a good milestone. A ‘smarter’ one would be: “when the requirements have been signed off and agreed”. This example is a good milestone as it is very explicit in terms of what needs to be done for the milestone to be achieved and it enables the team to progress forward with delivering the project.

Step 4. Be honest and realistic.

Whatever the political pressure, be honest about what can be achieved by when. Impossible deadlines demotivate the team and the project will only fail to deliver against these impossible timescales.

Step 5. Plans must be updated regularly

A plan is a living document but too many plans are developed and then barely looked at or updated. Plans should be regularly updated with progress and slippage. The plan needs to be updated or re-planned if more information becomes available that indicates that the current plan is no longer valid.

Step 6. Use rolling wave planning

Plan in detail for the next phase and plan at a high level for phases of the project that are a long way in the future. Too much time is often wasted in planning to low levels of detail for activities many months in the future.

Step 7. Plan a project top-down and bottom-up.

Work with the team to develop the top-down milestones that need to be delivered. For some of these milestones, we then develop a bottom-up plan that ratifies the dates of the top-down milestones. Of course, if the milestones need to be changed after the bottom-up planning then this needs to happen

Step 8. Have multiple plans.

There are different uses of a project plan from assigning technical tasks to the team to communicating progress to the sponsor and senior stakeholders. All too often I see a detailed Gantt chart being used to communicate progress to senior stakeholders. Better to have two levels of the same plan; a high-level milestone plan for senior managers and a more detailed one for the team. Both plans should be different lenses of the same plan.

Step 9. Make one person accountable.

Ensure that there is one person who is accountable for the completion of each task or milestone. There may be a number of people who need to contribute to risk or milestone but one person must be ultimately accountable. Having multiple people accountable can lead to confusion about who is doing what which often leads to milestone slippage. There must be no ambiguity in who is accountable for each task or milestone.

Step 10. Plan a project for your resources to be less than 100% available.

For example, a task may take 5 days of actual effort. Some project managers assume that each resource assigned to their project is available for 100% of every day or week. Project planners must allow for sickness, downtime, administration, etc. Rather than assuming 5 days availability for each week, a more realistic availability would be 4 or 4.25 days. The exact number, of course, will depend on your organisation.

If you follow these 10 steps on how to plan a project, you will develop realistic plans and your project will have a greater probability of success.

Example of a top-Down Milestone Plan in our PPM tool, PM3
Example of a top-Down Milestone Plan in our PPM tool, PM3

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