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How to Plan a Project

"A goal without a plan is just a wish." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Planning is a very natural process. Every day we all make lots of little plans (eg. what we will watch on tv tonight, what we will do at the weekend, what we will have for dinner, where we will go on holiday). The process is so natural that we probably don't even think of it as planning, just another part of our daily lives. The fact is though, we all plan all of the time and are (on the whole) rather good at it.

What is involved?

Always try and plan projects as you would ‘naturally ‘plan. Use the following as guide:

- Start with what it is you want to achieve from the project (ie your objective) and break it down into the things you need to do in order to achieve it. For example, if you want a ‘great holiday’ next year (and want a good early booking deal) you may want to start your ‘next holiday’ project now. You know that to have a ‘great holiday’ you will need to make a holiday ‘Booking’, book the cat into a ‘Cattery’ and make sure someone is keeping an eye on ‘Granny’. At some point you will need to pay the ‘Balance’, ‘Pack’ and ‘Transport’ yourselves to the airport. Six things (known as ‘products’) you need to get done in order to achieve your objective.

- Start at the end of your project and work backwards to get the timing of the ‘products’ sorted. In the example, you probably have a good idea of when you want to go, so use that as the end point. ‘Pack’ you will probably start a few days before you go. ‘Transport’ you may also want to look at a few days before as well, especially if you need to leave early or want to stay overnight before you fly. Ensuring ‘Granny’ will be ok you may want to look at a few weeks earlier, at which time you may also want to book the cat into the ‘Cattery’. Paying the ‘Balance’ will be set by whatever contract you agree with the travel company, leaving making the ‘Booking’ the immediate concern (if you want to take advantage of early booking discounts).

- Review your timings and make sure you have the ‘product’ order right. It could be obvious (as in this case - eg. you wouldn’t plan to start packing after you had got yourself to the airport!) or it could be less so. Take some time to ensure that something you want to do next week is not dependant on something that won’t be started until next month.

- The only other thing you may want to consider at this stage is roughly how much it is all likely to cost. Remember this may only be an estimate at this point.

- You now have a high level plan (all the things you (think) you need to do; on the dates you (think) you will need to do them.). Now decide what needs to happen now or in the next few weeks and call that your first ‘stage’. If appropriate divide up the rest of the project into stages as well and mark them on your plan. Now focus back on your first stage and what needs to be done (in our example there is just one ‘product’ the holiday ‘Booking’ itself). For every ‘product’ in your first stage, you need to answer some specific questions:

  • What needs to be done? eg Get some brochures? Go online? Trip to the travel agent? Consult the family? Choose the holiday?
  • What is your budget? eg How much can you afford to pay the holiday operator?
  • Who will do the work? eg Who will go to the travel agent? Who will check that the family are happy with the destination?
  • Are they available to do the work? eg Do they have time? If this were a business project, have you discussed their involvement in your project with their line manager?
  • How will you know when this has been done properly? eg Will you get a booking confirmation from the holiday company? Will it be a piece of paper / an email? Who will check it is right? Where will you keep it safe?

In answering these questions you will have created a mini or ‘stage’ plan for getting the first ‘products’ completed.

Unless it is you who will be actually doing the work, don’t concern yourself with the step by step tasks of how the work will be done, just agree the above with whoever will be responsible for each ‘product’ and agree how you will keep in touch. i.e. How and when they will keep you appraised of progress and how they will get in touch if things start to go awry.

Finally when you have finished your plan, get everyone to take a good hard look at it and try and think of what could go wrong. This may seem very pessimistic but could really save you time and effort later. For everything that could go wrong see if there is something reasonable that you could do to reduce the chances of it happening. Also think of what you would do if it did go wrong. Keep all these ‘risks’ to the project in a Project Log (see below) and refer back to them regularly.

Who does what?

As the project manager you are responsible for the project’s plans. This does not mean you should write them in isolation, far from it. Consult as widely as possible, try holding workshops to get others to input into your plan.

When does it happen?

Planning must be continuous throughout you project. Many things will happen during the project that will force you to make controlled changes to your plans. No plan can (or should) survive in its original form from the start of the project to the finish.

Hints, tips and pitfalls

  • If you have to use a planning ‘tool’ like Microsoft Project, remember it will try and force you to plan ‘unnaturally’. ie. Adding each individual task from the start of the project to the finish. If you have to use such a tool always try to plan first and then (if you have to) load the data into the ‘tool’ afterwards.
  • Plan the next stage before you finish the current stage. When you reach the end of the current stage, present your governance body with a complete view of what you have done to date and what you intend to do in the next stage.

Key documents

The project initiation document (PID):

The PID is the home of all the definition information regarding your project. eg Your objectives, the business case, communications and quality plans etc.

The project plan:

The project plan comprises your high level plan and the current stage plan. It can take many forms you should ensure that you use something appropriate for the project you are managing. NB: Project plans are often found within the PID rather than as a separate document.

  • Product descriptions: The easiest way to agree ‘products’ is by using product descriptions - they can usually be contained on one sheet of paper and succinctly contain all the information that you, and the person responsible for the ‘product’, need to successfully deliver the product
  • Work packages: If required a work package agrees a working relationship between you and the person responsible for one, some or all of your project’s ‘products’
  • The project log: The project log contains details of all your project risks and other information and is often your most useful document next to the PID and plan

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