Project planning is a big task in the problem-solving process, often not given the attention it deserves or misunderstood. For some people, project planning can be hard and time-consuming, while for others it can be a more straight-forward and enjoyable task. In both cases, it is important to understand why designing a project plan is important and how much is can influence the evolution and success of a project.
A project plan is broadly defined as:
“A formal, approved document used to guide both project execution and project control. The primary uses of the project plan are to document planning assumptions and decisions, facilitate communication among stakeholders, and document approved scope, cost, and schedule baselines. A project plan may be summarized or detailed.”
In other words, a project plan is a document that presents a plan of what needs to be done in order to achieve a bigger goal (project completion) specifying who does what, when and how. Although it seems an easy enough task, many professionals struggle to determine what are the key tasks involved in a project, or how to allocate the right amount of time to each task. Another common case is spending hours designing a project plan document that ends up never being used by the team. In these cases, we think that project plans fail, are unnecessary, or that creating one is most likely to be a waste of time. There is no magic recipe to create the best and most successful project plan, but there are a few steps that we can follow to facilitate the process and design a doable and useful project plan.
1. Understanding the project
As a first step, the essence of project planning is understanding the:
- Status of the project: Make sure that everyone involved in the project (2 people or a group of 25 people) share the same understanding about the project. Does everyone involved in the project know what the project is about and which is its current state?
- Aims of the project (WHY): Get clarity about what the aims of the project are. This will help identify the different focus areas of the project. What are we trying to achieve with this project?
- Actions items (WHAT): Now we need to identify the actions that need to be done in order to complete the project. These actions are often referred to as Action items (verbs).
- Workloads (HOW): Determine how action items are going to be performed, which tools and/or methods will be needed to accomplish that. Be specific and define workstreams related to one (or related) action items.
- Team members’ roles (BY WHOM): Determine who is going to do what in the team by defining clear roles, tasks and responsibilities to each member of the team.
- Durations of tasks (WHEN): This step tends to be the hardest one, because it is difficult to account for each possible scenario or problem that may arise. Each action item is a link in a chain; when one action item gets delayed, it can generate a domino effect causing major delays at a broader level. It is important to keep in mind that duration of tasks and deadlines are at the beginning most likely to be estimated, and that they can (and should) be modified if unpredicted events happen.
2. Creating the project plan document
The next step is finding a way to present the above information that is useful and understood by all team members. A project plan document needs to clearly show team members, focus areas, action items, task durations and connections between those components (actions, responsibilities, dates, skills, people). There are many ways in which components can be presented in a document: using a specific software, using Excel, drawing on a big sheet of paper, writing on a white board. There is no unique way to create a project plan but information design principles and tools can be very helpful at this stage of project planning:
- Visual thinking: No matter how we design our project plan document, the important part is that we have to externalise and share the plan with the team. All team members should have access to the document, understand it, and be able to interact with it.
- Defining structure: In the same way we need to create a skeleton to organise elements in a visualisation, we need to define the best way to present all components in the document (e.g. vertical table, horizontal table, a timeline, etc.)
- Defining priorities: Some focus areas will require more immediate attention than others, and therefore some action items will need to occur first than others.
- Creating categories: We can group action items as categories in different ways, e.g. by focus areas, by team members, by immediate needs, etc.
- Colour coding: Priorities and categories should be clearly distinguished, for example, by applying a different colour to each of them. Each team will define their own colour-coding system that better suits their needs.
3. Project planning Tips
Below is a list of tips to keep in mind when creating a project plan:
Before the beginning of the project:
- Gain full understanding of the project (What is the project about and why it is important?)
- Identify stages of the project (What needs to happen?)
- Identify areas that need work (What are the focus areas of this project?)
- List action items (What activities need to happen in each of the above areas?)
- Determine priorities (What needs to happen first?)
- Assign roles (Who needs to do each of the above activities?)
- Establish deadlines (By when the above action items need to be done/completed?)
- Visualise duration of tasks and roles (How can we make the plan more accessible to all parties involved in the project?)
- Set clear expectations (What are the priorities? What are the immediate goals? What are the long-term goals?)
- Account for the unexpected (What could be a Plan B is X did not happen?)
During the development of the project:
- Manage duration of tasks (Are action items doable in the time initially allocated?
- Ensure deadlines are met (Is everyone doing what they are supposed to be doing?)
- Be prepared for changes (What would you do if the originally planned key action items are not completed on time?)
- Do your part (Am I doing what I have agreed on doing? Am I meeting my own deadlines?)
After completion of the project:
- Revise (Did the initial project plan cover the key areas for this project? Did we meet the deadlines? Did we allocate sufficient time to each action item? Was everyone in the team comfortable with their roles? Did everyone understand their roles?, etc.)
- Reflect (Why could we not meet the deadlines? Why did we meet the deadlines?, etc.)
- Rethink (How can I improve the plan in future projects?)
Project plans are not rigid, and should not be seen as written in stone. They are a working document aimed to guide a process and help alignment across all team members involved in a project. Project plans can be fallible. To minimise this risk, we should do our best to stick to our plan, and make it clear from the beginning that everyone in the team should commit to do their best to respect deadlines and milestones. Of course, if something unexpected occurs, the project plan will be updated to contemplate the new situation.
Project planning is both managing teams and individuals, and ensuring that everyone shares the same understanding of the underlying problem-solving process. The more complex the project and the more people involved, the harder to manage deadlines and tasks completion. Manage teams and individuals is an essential skill for the success of a project plan that deserves its own analysis and post.
– Roam, D. (2008) The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Portfolio: USA