I have never been excited about the activity of project planning.
There. I said it. The Project Delivery Trainer, who loves, lives and breathes powerful project delivery, doesn’t love project planning.
But hey! Nobody’s perfect!
What I do know though, despite my feelings about project planning, is that avoiding it means I am leaving my team, my confidence and my success to chance.
The act of planning is an investment in your project success and will pay huge dividends when it comes to mitigating and overcoming common project risks.
Like most people who don’t love the planning process, the reason I used to put it off was because it felt like a mammoth task with a huge amount of Information overload.
Putting it to the bottom of my to-do pile felt like the easier option.
But what I’ve learned over the years, is that planning upfront is the easier option over the long term.
Following a planning sequence helps to break mammoth tasks up, provide me with task clarity and allows me to discover potential obstacles or gaps in my projects much more quickly.
A planning sequence also helps everyone on the team, as well as impacted stakeholders, to know what role they play and what they need to do to help the team succeed.
Using the Project Planning Sequence to ensure success
A Project Planning Sequence gives everyone involved in your project a structure to follow when it comes to planning so you can get it done without overcomplicating it.
I typically start my planning in November in preparation for managing my project pipeline for the six months ahead. But there’s no reason why you can’t use this same sequence to produce a project plan for your next upcoming project.
The 5 Important Aspects of Successful Planning
Before you get started with planning, the five steps of the Project Planning Sequence will help you to take some important considerations into account.
These steps are all about getting you in the right mindset, thinking about the bigger picture, and setting yourself up for success prior to putting together your project plan.
Step #1 Internal reflection
Your forward-looking plans should always seek to improve your current position.
To achieve this, you need to spend some time looking back on your performance.
My favourite ways to do this are:
If your team already practices a Lessons Learned process then this part will be easy. Simply review the learnings from your Lessons Learned document for the things that have been done well, and those which have room for improvement.
The aim is to ensure your plan firstly allows you to continue doing the things you are doing well. Secondly, consider what lessons the team has learned and improved on and make sure your plan also allows for these things to keep being improved.
If you are unfamiliar with a Lessons Learned process or need a Lessons Learned document template then check out my Lessons Learned article.
2. Looking at Repeatable Offences
Another way you can mitigate future risks, is to consider repeated risks.
What risks are frequently faced when you deliver projects and what can you implement into your plan to minimise these from occurring again?
3. Assessing Internal Team Dynamics
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, how are your team dynamics?
Remember – planning is all about considering all aspects of a mission and planning how you will achieve success.
If your team is lacking in the way they operate or how they work together, continuing on the same path will only have a negative impact on the success of your project.
The best starting point to improve team dynamics is to gather as a group and encourage open, honest, and respectful communication. For strategies to improve project communication, you should take a look at my Communicating with purpose article series.
Step #2 Company Strategy
The company strategy is the same as the company’s goals.
And while a project may not always be born to fulfil the company strategy, it must ALWAYS link back around in support of it.
Common company strategies can include things like increasing customer satisfaction, improving staff productivity or moral, increasing quality, reduce waste, expand to new geographies.
Projects that don’t anchor to the company strategy, often experience issues with stakeholder engagement and adoption, the project team continuously justifying the projects existence, or projects operating in silos with no support or buy in from the rest of the company.
Plan to avoid these issues by considering the company’s 1-3 year strategies and prioritising the launch of projects which deliver on or help achieve company goals.
Step #3 Stakeholder needs
While many projects come to life because they support the company strategy, there are also projects that are a priority because they relieve a stakeholder’s pain point or meet a new need.
To understand the needs of your immediate stakeholders, you must first know who they are. Your stakeholder is anyone who relies on the work you do or who you rely on for the project to succeed.
Stakeholders can include the leadership team, immediate or indirect teams you service, teams or individuals who are impacted by the work you do or the users of the projects you deliver. They can be both internal or external to the company.
Once you have identified your immediate stakeholders, it’s important you consult with them individually to understand their future needs so you can determine if these will play a part in the projects you assemble.
It also helps to consider what will be needed to assemble these projects if they were to become a priority.
Step #4 Equipped to deliver
Now that you have a priority list of possible projects made up of company and stakeholder needs, it is time to determine, at a high level what is required for you to successfully deliver these projects.
Identifying what you already have access to versus what you need, helps to prioritise what’s achievable before you even start to consider costs. It also helps to categorise projects as quick wins against more complex and longer term goals.
You should also consider whether you will run projects in parallel or one at a time.
This decision will be heavily impacted by what skillsets you will need for each assembled project and if those people are already available within the company and if they have the capacity to take on your project when you need them to.
You can find other considerations to determine whether you’re equipped to deliver in my Communication Success: 5-steps to the right project info article.
Step #5 What are your boundaries?
The final factor in the project planning sequence is to consider the boundaries you need to work within.
The most common example of project boundaries are budgets and timelines. Typically, when doing forecast-planning, a budget will be set once steps 1-4 of the project planning sequence are completed. There are those times however, where each team is assigned a pre-defined budget which they need to work within.
In both circumstances, I would suggest following steps 1-4 before considering what can be achieved within the assigned budget.
I realise that typically, the budget is the biggest factor in deciding the rest of the plan. But there’s a very deliberate reason I consider it last.
It is my opinion that when you start a planning process with limitations such as budget restrictions, the results you plan for are also limited.
By removing such restrictions on determining what stakeholders need, you will help your project team to consider fit-for-purpose projects.
From these fit-for-purpose project ideas, the best course of action can be decided – this might be to deliver the project in phases to fit to the budget, defer to start later when more budget is available or encourage conversations to increase the initial budget.
The same considerations apply to any other pre-defined boundaries such as timings or legal obligations.
What You Should Include in Your Project Plan
Once you’ve worked through the five steps of the Project Planning Sequence, you’ll be ready to put all the information you’ve gathered into a manageable plan or schedule.
Keep in mind, that at this point in the process, there are still several unknowns. So be prepared to keep moulding and adjusting your plan to accurately reflect what you do and don’t know.
Plans can take the form of simple Excel spreadsheets to very complex licenced based systems. Regardless of your choice of tool, these are the things your plan should include.
If your plan is at a high level for a series of projects, then your tasks also need to be at a high level. While a forecast-plan may have the project names with their core milestones, a fully scoped project plan will have the specific tasks to achieve your scoped items.
The person responsible for doing the task or responsible for following up the necessary people ensure the task is completed. The owner should be someone based on the project/program or involved in the planning activity.
Reflects the status of the task to show not started, in progress, finished or blocked.
Is there something else which may impact the delivery or success of each task? Task dependencies can include other projects, people, a business activity, etc.
Highlight any immediate obstacles such as risks or issues which may impact the delivery or success of each task. Typically, this is reflected using a traffic light colour or yes/no with more details found within the project RAID (risks, assumptions, issues, dependencies) Register.
Download my free RAID register template if you don’t already have one.
Start and end dates
The start and end date for each task. Some people choose to have a forecasted start and end date as well as actual start and end dates. My advice is if start and end dates are frequently not being met then there may be other concerns on the project which you should be investigating.
When you make a project plan, you’re making a plan for success
Powerful, successful, valuable projects simply don’t happen without planning.
Using the Project Planning Sequence will help you to feel more structured in your approach to delivering your project and better equipped to deal with potential risk. It will set better discipline and accountability for your project team, and will help people who are critical to the project to prepare themselves to be available when you need them.
Done right, planning will give you freedom in your project and because of this, you’ll learn to make it a priority in any project you deliver (even if, like me, you never really learn to love it!).
So, it’s time to get started. Go forth, plan and start delivering more powerful projects.
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