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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.

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  1. Kevin Morgan
    Kevin Morgan 25 November 2020, 06:27 PM


    Some good points here, a useful 'sound-bite' of information. 

    I typically find that the handover between a tender team and the delivery team to be sketchy, with lots of assumptions made early on, rightly so, but these assumptions are not handed over sufficiently. This leads to issues later on within the execution phase, but could be avoided if the correct effort is put in early on. 

    One key problem within the construction industry is competitive tendering leads to cutting costs, and only allocating resources when applicable to the project phase/ when they become available (finishing off other projects). From a business perspective this makes sense, except this 'cost saving' approach could have a detrimental effect on the project if the investment isn't made early enough. It's the old cliché - "prevention is better than cure!”

  2. Jeffrey Wilson
    Jeffrey Wilson 23 June 2017, 10:04 AM

    Some good points, especially scope of work, it amazes me how often elements of projects are not fully understood. In my experience not enough effort is put in at tender stage to ensure the execution team have a head start when the contract kicks off. This usually equates to getting the WBS & CBS aligned early so cost & EVM reporting and schedule are in step with each other. The estimate needs to be coded to align to the WBS to ensure this. That way money is assigned in the correct place in the schedule.