The 10 golden rules of planning

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One of the joys of my job is that I get to work with lots of different organisations and project professionals. I frequently help organisations develop project management methods and deliver training to both new and experienced project professionals. Their greatest weakness (aside from chocolate and red wine) is planning. So many project managers don’t have good planning skills. It’s difficult to condense a full day training course into 10 sound bites…but here it goes:

1. Scope
The no.1 reason why projects fail is scope creep or lack of scope definition. You can’t plan something when you haven’t agreed the scope of work. Those of you running R&D projects don’t have an excuse either – plan as far as you can see (the planning horizon) in detail then go to a high level plan based on sound assumptions.

2. Team
You are not the expert in everything. You have a project team (hopefully) and this has to be their plan, not your plan. All knowledgeable team members must engage in the planning. Effective planning workshops work best with small groups.  

3. The work is complex
Break it down. Take the scope and break this down into smaller chunks of work. You now have a simple Work Breakdown Structure. This is not a schedule, but a clear understanding of what the tasks are that make up this project.

4. Sticky note time
Don’t start writing a “to do” list. Take the defined work and build a plan using sticky notes (one for each task) that covers the whole lifecycle.  Is this all the work? Now put these in order based on logical relationships. What is needed before you can do xyz? This very visual plan is a great way to engage all team members in the planning process.

5. More sticky note time
Now consider the key stage gates and milestones. Make sure you add these to your visual plan. Have any of these been pre-agreed? Has a finish date been imposed by the Random-Deadline-O-Meter machine belonging to senior management?). Add these as Anchor Points to help calculate dates.

6. Estimating  
Think about both “hours required to complete a task” and “over what period of time” those hours will be worked (elapsed time).  An 8 hour task might be completed in 1 day or spread over a week. Engage team members. This is the teams estimate, not something imposed by the project manager that no-one else is bought into.

7. Balance the level of detail 
Don’t try to plan every tiny element of your project. Agree a piece of work and deadline with team members. Let them sort out the details of what they are doing at 3pm on Tuesday and how they are going to meet the agreed deadline.  

8. Baseline
Once you have taken your sticky note plan and entered it into Microsoft Project save this best guess plan as the Baseline. It will not be perfect. Work will take a longer and shorter time than expected, but this provides an important reference.

9. Progress
Update your current plan on a regular (weekly / fortnightly) basis so that you can compare actual progress to the original baseline plan. A good project manager always knows where they are compared to where they should be. 

10. React
Check progress and react if things are falling behind. Don’t wait until the end of a project. Equally when deadlines are achieved celebrate this success.


This blog is written and sponsored by Wellington Recruitment.

Related content:

If you wish to build on your knowledge of planning, you might enjoy our comprehensive guide: Planning, Scheduling, Monitoring and Control (2015)

Vince Hines

Posted by Vince Hines on 13th Oct 2016

About the Author

Vince is the Managing Director of Wellingtone, the project management recruitment, training and consulting company based in Windsor, Berkshire. The Association for Project Management and Wellingtone have formed a unique alliance to provide a career development service to the project management profession. Wellingtone is also an APM accredited training company and a Microsoft Gold Partner for Project and Portfolio Management. Vince is an expert Project Management Consultant, having worked with clients across the UK, US and Europe. He retains a number of professional qualifications including MAPM and has extensive real world experience of developing client project management maturity. As Managing Director of Wellingtone Vince has a particular insight into career development and recruitment of project management professionals and is a judge for the Annual APM Awards.

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