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All You Need To Know About Project Planning

All You Need To Know About Project Planning

6 minutes

November 11, 2021

by

Let's discover why project planning is so important and how to optimize your project planning process.

Less than half of surveyed organizations say they have a track record of project success. This isn’t surprising given that only 34% of projects come in on time and budget. So why is project success so hard to come by? Why are all these projects failing to fully deliver their benefits? 

While the current volatile nature of the project management environment is no doubt a factor, there are still some crucial steps businesses are missing that could improve their track record. 
Because, after all, failing to plan means you’re planning to fail. Thanks, Ben Franklin.

What Exactly Is Project Planning?

Project planning is one of the most valuable project management processes, and it’s not too difficult to embrace. But, what exactly is project planning, and why is it so important? Project planning is one of five stages in the project lifecycle. As a reminder, according to the Project Management Institute (PMI), the project life cycle includes:

  1. Initiation: A business problem or opportunity is identified, and this stage looks at whether the project can solve it. Key stakeholders are identified and agree to the broad scope of the project. 
  2. Planning: The project’s goals and key milestones are identified, and the actions required to meet them are planned out.
  3. Execution: The project plan swings into action. The project manager keeps a close eye on the project’s actual vs. expected progress.
  4. Controlling: Running in tandem with the execution phase, controlling is all about taking action, as required, to bring the project back on track.
  5. Close: The project comes to an end, and the project team disbands. Project results are communicated with key stakeholders, and any learning is recorded to inform future projects.
4 aspects of planning a project

The PMI’s Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) lists ten distinct project knowledge areas that need to be considered during the project planning phase. These include:

  • Success factors
  • Scope statement
  • Deliverables
  • Schedule 
  • Budget
  • Human resource plan
  • Quality management
  • Risk management plan
  • Procurement plan
  • Change procedures

By following the four key parts to the project planning phase shared below, you’ll ensure you cover off all these areas.

Estimate 

It’s critical to estimate a project’s budget, timescale for delivery, and resource requirements during the planning phase. Without estimates, you can’t define success factors and there’s nothing to track project progress against during the execution phase. 

There are lots of different ways to come up with project estimates. But a simple way to create your estimates is to look at the details of similar projects that have been delivered in the past.  Pull that data into your planning assumptions and then adjust for your specific project environment.

Project plan being created with data from multiple sources

For example, if labor costs have increased, make sure to allow a larger budget for resourcing.

Agree

Once you’ve completed your estimates, you’ll need to agree on them with key stakeholders. This will allow you to finalize the project scope and deliverables, budget, and timeline. Once those are agreed on, the nuts and bolts of the project plan can be put in place, including the delivery schedule of all the project milestones and the expected quality standard. At this stage, you’ll also need to decide on the methodology you’re going to adopt to manage the project.

There are two main project methodologies: Agile and Waterfall. There are marked differences in each approach, so you must be clear on which one you’re going to use. The Waterfall methodology requires a significant amount of planning upfront, and the project is delivered sequentially, stage by stage. An Agile project delivers the project in short iterations. After each iteration, the project team reviews the work and decides what to do next to bring the project closer to its goal.

comparison of Agile and Waterfall project methodologies

Several frameworks sit under the Agile methodology umbrella. 84% of Agile teams use the Scrum framework. Other popular approaches include Kanban, XP, and hybrid models like Scrumban.

Communicate

You must communicate your project plan with stakeholders. And that shouldn’t just include senior stakeholders. Though you’ll need their support to obtain the funding, procure resources, and business knowledge required, it’s not just their buy-in that’s vital for project success. Wider business stakeholders, including employees who’ll be the end-users of project deliverables, should also be engaged in the project planning process. 

Some might have responsibilities within the project team, others may be subject matter experts consulted for their insight, and still, others may just need to be informed of plans to keep them on your side. Effective early communication makes it much easier to engage people with the project and makes project implementation much less challenging, especially if there are business areas resistant to the change.

Monitor 

Finally, your project plan mustn’t be a one-and-done scenario. It should act as a reference point throughout the project execution phase. You’ll need to use the estimates you did as part of your project planning to track actual progress against planned progress. Monitoring progress and noting any deviations allows you to respond quickly if things look to be going off track.

Kanban board showing tasks and their status SmartSuite Image Library: Project Management - Project

During the planning phase, you’ll also outline how monitoring and reporting will take place. Your plan should note the frequency of communications and what information will be shared with whom. It should also detail how to deal with formal change requests if the project requirements change while underway, and how to evaluate, monitor, and mitigate project risks.

In summary, during project planning:

  • The project scope is finalized
  • A timeline for the project is agreed on and a schedule built
  • A methodology is chosen
  • A budget is set 
  • Resources are estimated and procurement approach agreed
  • Key deliverables and quality standards are agreed
  • Project controls and reporting are determined

What Are the Benefits of Effective Project Planning?

Effective project planning has several benefits. We’re going to outline them for you below.

list of project planning benefits

Agreed Scope 

A good project plan clearly articulates what the project will and won’t deliver. This is important as frequent changes to the scope can be one of the key project management challenges for organizations. Defining the scope early means it’s easy to tell if the scope changes during the project and to assess the impact.

Business Alignment

We’ve likely all fallen foul of the requirement to deliver a C-suite member’s pet project while everyone around us questions exactly what the point is. Proper project planning offers a sense check as to whether the project aligns with the broader business strategy. It doesn’t mean you’ll always escape the CEO’s “next big thing” project, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Defined Accountability

A vital part of project planning is identifying key stakeholders and outlining their responsibility, designated authority, task ownership, and overall accountability levels. This clarifies who can make decisions, who needs to be consulted, and who can sign off on project changes.

Stakeholder Consensus

The planning phase is an opportunity for essential factors to be agreed on, such as who’s responsible for what, how the project will be governed, and how resources will be secured. It’s also an opportunity for any planning assumptions to be called out and for communication and reporting plans to be agreed upon. At the end of the process, all the main stakeholders should be clear about and on board with the project goal, objectives, and delivery approach.

Risk Identification

During the project planning process, a risk management approach should be agreed upon.  Establishing a process for identifying, categorizing, and mitigating risks can help the business better prepare for any risks that become issues during the project life cycle. Risk owners can be more vigilant in spotting problems, and mitigation plans can be created ahead of time to reduce business impact.

Graph showing risk level of tasks SmartSuite Image Library: Project Management - Risks & Issues

Appropriate Resourcing 

Taking the time to pin down the scope early in the project life cycle offers greater reassurance that the project timelines and resource allocations are reasonable. If the scope isn’t clearly defined, it’s going to be pretty hard to determine how much time will be required to deliver said nebulous — and likely growing — task list. Deciding what project resources will be needed and when will be like nailing jelly to the wall. Suffice to say, it’s not pretty.

How to Create a Project Plan in 6 Simple Steps

Hopefully, the above list has convinced you that robust project planning offers benefits that are not to be ignored. But how do you get started pulling together a project plan that can help guide your project to success? We’ve got six simple steps to get you started if you’re planning an individual project. If you’re planning at a program or portfolio level, this might look a little different.

Identify Key Stakeholders

Like most things in life, it helps to know who you’re dealing with when working on a project.  Figuring out early on who the movers and shakers are in your particular project will improve everything from securing the right resources to avoiding angsty employees further down the line. You probably identified your key stakeholders during project initiation. Now it’s time to drill down a bit further. Consider their interest in and influence over the project and work out what’s needed to stay on their good side.

2x2 matrix with stakeholder interest level on x-axis and influence on the y-axis
Image Source

Negotiate and Confirm Scope

In case you missed the not-so-tiny hints littered throughout the article thus far, negotiating and confirming your project’s scope is critical to its success. You need to know precisely what you're on the hook for before deciding whether you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Get crystal clear on the project’s overall goal, objectives, and success criteria. Make sure those are documented and agreed on by the project sponsor. That’s the person who holds overall accountability for the project. You’ll also need to finalize the essential high-level project deliverables and, just as importantly, record anything that’s flagged as being out-of-scope.

Decide on the Project Structure

Your project plan should document which methodology and framework you’ve chosen, along with what that means for how work is organized. Certain project management frameworks — such as Scrum — require specific project roles. These should be identified and appropriately resourced. The project governance structure should also be agreed on.

You’ll also want to put together a communication plan with details about the type and frequency of communications the project will deliver. Also include the intended audience and the channels that you’re going to be using. This will also include your reporting mechanisms and how you’ll keep various stakeholder groups informed about project progress.

Finally, you’ll need to break down the project deliverables into smaller chunks. Record key milestones and list the tasks that will be required to achieve them. Identify any tasks that are dependent on other tasks and organize them into a sensible schedule of work.

Estimate Project Timeline

Once you’re clear on the project’s scope and you’ve broken it down into manageable chunks, you can start to estimate the project timeline. 

There are several ways you can estimate the duration of each task. One way is to look at previous projects and see how long similar tasks have taken. It’s worth asking other experienced stakeholders for input and setting a duration between the most optimistic and pessimistic answers. Make sure you also build in some contingency time for changes or challenges that arise during the project. This will give you a bit of a buffer.

Once you’ve estimated the duration of each task, organize them in the order they need to be completed — this will depend on which tasks are dependent on other tasks.

Image showing project tasks organized in a calendar view SmartSuite Image Library: Timeline - Timeline Spotlight

Now you can look for your critical path. Some tasks can be done alongside others, so don’t add to the overall length of the project. The critical path is a list of tasks that result in the longest duration of the project. Each of these tasks needs to be completed on time for the project to finish on schedule. You’ll want to keep a close eye on their progress.

Estimate Resourcing Requirements 

Now that you know exactly what work needs to be done, you can estimate the resources needed. This will include both the labor hours required and specific skills you’ll need. It’s likely that you won’t be able to staff your project team solely with business employees, so this is also a chance for you to identify resourcing gaps and decide how you’ll fill them. 

If you need to recruit contractors to fill gaps in labor hours or critical skills, you’ll need to create a recruitment timeline. Being clear on your timeline is important here. If you recruit too early, you’ll have contractors on an expensive day rate sitting around twiddling their thumbs. But, recruit too late, and you ruin your chances of delivering the project on time as tasks grind to a halt.

Record the Risk Management Process

As part of your project plan, you’ll also want to document how you plan to identify, record, and mitigate risks. You’ll need to set up a risk log to capture any identified risks and categorize them according to their impact level and likelihood of occurrence.

Report showing list of tasks with risk level denoted as red flags

Make sure you assign each risk to a risk owner. This person will monitor said risk and come up with a mitigation plan should it turn into an issue. A common risk for most projects is changing requirements. You should also make sure to outline your change control process, so you’re clear on how to manage change requests. 

Noting what can be dealt with at a project level, what needs a different level of authority, and how changes are communicated are all part of your change control process. Ensure all of the above are clearly documented in the project plan and communicated and agreed on with stakeholders.

How Software Supports Effective Project Planning

You’re probably getting the sense that project planning has quite a few moving parts and things to keep on top of. Project management software can be hugely helpful in making the process easier and less time-intensive. To get the most from your software solution, look for these key features:

Effective task management. During project planning, you'll be breaking down your complex behemoth of a project into smaller, more manageable chunks. Look for software that makes it easy to assign work and update resourcing on the fly. Drag-and-drop functionality and automations that notify you when a task’s status changes all make keeping on top of who’s doing what a whole lot easier.

Image showing email being sent after task status changes

Easy collaboration. Projects have a lot of different stakeholders. Even before the work gets underway, there’ll be several people you need to engage to get your project plan finalized. Make sure your PM software makes it easy to view, share, update and store documents within a central platform, so you’re not worrying about version control or things being lost. Software solutions that let you communicate in-platform or through integration with your favorite apps also make collaboration easy. 

Chat box showing a conversation between two people

A good platform lets you tag others for their input, drop a note to HR to kick-off recruitment, or organize a coffee meeting to talk the project sponsor through the latest plan, all in one place.

Real-time updates. Effective decision-making relies on tracking changes in real-time. You need to be able to see an accurate picture of your project’s status at any point. This is not only so you can answer awkward questions in last-minute stakeholder meetings. You also need to make sure productivity isn’t affected by people working with out-of-date information.

Project visibility. Once your well-planned plan kicks off, you want some way of knowing that everything is going to, well, plan. Simple, engaging dashboards that keep your project visible to you, your team, and key stakeholders are critical. Whether that’s individual task progress, labor hours completed vs. expected, or high-level reporting against project objectives, you need the information at your fingertips and presented in a way that’s easy to explain. 

So, look for a software solution with multiple ways to visualize your data. For example, in SmartSuite, there are seven different views to choose from depending on stakeholder preference.

Project Planning Is Crucial for Project Success

While change is almost inevitable during the project lifecycle, time invested in the project planning process is rarely wasted. A good project plan lets you predict how changes will affect your overall project outcome and take the action needed to keep your project on track. Project planning software makes making changes simple, with data that updates in real-time, so you’ve always got the information you need for effective decision-making at your fingertips.

SmartSuite is a fully customizable work management solution that has all the features you need to make your project planning simple yet effective. Get started with SmartSuite today and sign-up for your free trial.

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