The problems with project planning

Blog 07-04-2021


I’m often asked to do project health checks and one of the first project documents that I look at is the project plan. It is amazing how poor some of these plans are. One of the most common RAG status indicators is progress, i.e. how is the project doing against the timeline that is in the plan. It goes without saying that if the plan is no good the project is also no good!

There are many tools out there that support the planning process but many of these are over complex for most projects. Before investing in expensive project planning tools it is worth stepping back to see how good plans should be developed.

Plan Backwards

Plans should be planned from the end target backwards and not from the start date forwards. Sounds obvious, right? The reality in project planning is that too little attention is paid to the end goal of a project. Too often the end goal is a vague one about the implementation of a system.

Let’s take an example of buying a house. An end goal may be “when I have moved into my new house.” This is not a good end goal as I would not consider my move a success if the furniture had not been delivered and I had no gas or electricity. The goal does not mention these key success criteria for my Move Project.

A better end goal would therefore be: “When I have moved into my new house with my furniture delivered and services available”.

If we use the first end goal and then plan backwards, we may miss out on important milestones and activities related to moving furniture and arranging for gas, electricity to be turned on.

If we use the second goal it will be very clear that we need to plan for moving furniture and turning on key services.

Most project planning is from the start forwards, but a better approach is from the end milestone backwards. With this approach it is very important to focus on what the end goal is so that the plan developed is one that includes all the milestones and activities required to meet the project’s goal.

Click here to find out more information on this outcome-driven planning technique.

You Need More than one plan!

The second major mistake I see in project planning is that there is only one plan. A project plan, however, has many ‘audiences’ and one plan cannot possibly cater for all users. The typical users of a project plan include:

  • Project manager;
  • Sponsor
  • Stakeholders
  • PMO;
  • Team members…

One plan cannot hope to address the different needs of these individuals or groups. If you try and give a Microsoft Project plan to a sponsor, it is too detailed for him or her to really understand the true health of a project. A better option would be to use a milestone plan for steering committees and sponsors. You cannot manage the team however with this type of milestone plan. They need to understand in detail what tasks they need to achieve and also what milestones they need to work towards. For team members therefore you also need a detailed activity plan.

MS Project (detailed activity plan) integrating with PM3 (milestone plan)
MS Project (detailed activity plan) integrating with PM3 (milestone plan)


The answer then is to use 2 plans when managing a project:

  • A milestone or outcome-driven plan; and
  • A detailed activity plan.

I’m not advocating two separate plans here, but 2 plans that are interlinked.

Outcome-driven success

Outcome-driven success

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