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How to Plan a Project

How to Plan a Project

In this section we’ll take a close look at starting and planning a project. We’ll show you how to gather the information you need, choose the right team, select the appropriate methodology and get approval from project stakeholders.

Identify the areas touched by the project and invite people to the planning meeting who represent those areas. These will not be individuals who will be directly working on the project, but they manage the departments that will.

For example, if a publisher is planning a book launch, think about who needs to be informed; the marketing team, the events team, the printing house, the media representatives etc. This is important because these are the people who will know what work will need to be completed by their respective departments.They will need to know that you will be requiring resources from them to complete the project.

Though preparation of the planning team starts with department heads, they don’t continue down the path of helping to plan the project. The planning team is a different group of people. The goal of the planning team is to help the project manager understand how each section of the project will breakdown.

Invite people who are currently in the task roles that you will require for the project. For example, the sales manager is only useful if they are also doing sales, otherwise you should opt for a sales rep.

Next, you need to hold a meeting to create the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). This is a representation of the work of the project— it’s not your schedule but you will use the information gathered here to create your schedule.

One of the advantages of creating the WBS is its brainstorming, nonlinear approach. By using this method, new ideas will pop into your mind, or the team’s mind and you’ll end up with a more complete understanding of the work.

  1. Begin the meeting with an explanation of the scope and objective of the meeting.
  2. Ask them to sit for 10 minutes and write all the different things they need to do on sticky notes. Have them think in the terms of noun/verb formats; e.g. create document, build a prototype, test program. Doing the first round of brainstorming individually allows them to think from their expertise.
  3. Then ask them to place the notes on a blank wall.
  4. Review what is on the wall and add to it. If you have a team, you can ask them to go up as a group and review the information and add notes where they think it’s needed.
  5. Have your team organize the work by what they think is logical. You’ll end up with clusters of work on the wall.

At this point, you can end the meeting. As the project manager you’ll want to validate that the groupings make sense to you since you have to manage the schedule.

Tracking Resources in Real-Time Gantt View

Your WBS may look different, but here’s the language around the levels.

  • The first level is usually the project name.
  • The second level is usually main phases.

Any box without a sub box is a work package. That means someone is doing the work, all of the work packages add up to the phases.

Learn more:

Review the WBS

A scope statement is a brief summary of what the intended outcome of the project is. Example: Developing a software based system to track time and budget for clients.

When you compare the WBS to the scope, you will likely find new opportunities within the project which you need to take to the sponsor for approval. Sometimes at this stage projects have grown so big and complicated that they are not worth doing. You want to make sure that everything makes sense and will be worth the investment.

The scope statement is not the only thing your should review the WBS against. You also need to review it against the planned schedule and the critical path. Doing this will help you set more realistic expectations for your stakeholders as to when the project can be completed.

Accurately estimating time is one of the hardest things to do when planning your project. Time estimates help determine a large portion of the budget.

There are two variable to take into consideration: Effort & Duration. Effort is what time the work would take if there were no interruptions and no other priorities. If you have to write an email it might take 5 minutes of effort. But if someone calls in the middle of it, then you have to go to a meeting, and then someone needs a decision…This means that the duration of writing the email could be 3 hours or all day.

Think about how you estimate your own work. Do you underestimate? Overestimate? Do you come in pretty close? The truth is, you will never achieve 100% accuracy. No matter how good the plan is, things will happen along the way. You are trying to find the best estimate, not a guarantee.

Why Care About the Hours?

Some project managers tend to dismiss the importance of accurate time estimates. They think "hey, there's no way I can get it right, so why bother?", whereas others think "instead of wasting time creating estimates, I might as well get started on the project and finish it that much quicker." Based on our experience, both of these approaches are wrong and they ignore the main benefits of proper time estimation:

  1. If you're dealing with external clients, accurate estimation helps with inspiring confidence and the likelihood of repeat business.
  2. When you have to bill by the hour, accurate time estimates make it easier for you to account for each hour you or your team spent working on the project, as it will show you what kind of a final figure to expect and give you the opportunity to investigate the discrepancy.
  3. Better time estimation will also allow you to be more efficient in your projects: if you can more accurately judge how long each task is going to take, you can setup your structure accordingly to minimize inefficiencies. No more team members idly twiddling their thumbs, or being overwhelmed by too much to do at once!

The benefits don't end here either. There are many more, like the positive impression people will have of you when your estimates, even for complicated and lengthy projects, prove to be right time and time again. Or, the appreciation your team will have for your ability to assign them only as much work as they can realistically handle.

Limit the Length of Your Estimates

One pitfall that we see time and time again is the adoption of time slots that are way too big to be precise enough.

"Create marketing plan: 24 hours" is not an acceptable time budgeting practice. True, you can probably be this general and still use it for payroll, but you can't really gain any actionable insight from such a vague task description. If you were to instead break that down as:

  • Identify marketing goals for the year: 3 hours
  • Determine the key segments to be targeted: 4 hours
  • Create the 4 P's of the marketing mix (Price, product, promotion, and place): 4 hours
  • Etc...

You would have a much easier time using the same time blocks to estimate what commitment may be required for similar tasks in the future.

Creating the schedule involves talking to your team members, getting their ideas on what work needs to be done first, how long it will take them and asking again if there is anything missing.

Your best approach here is to talk to the people who will do the work since they know the most about how long it will take. There are a lot of techniques to gather an estimate of the time it takes to do a project task, but you only need to know enough about it to feel confident that the timeline is accurate.

Learn more: Project scheduling

Resource Planning

The question that remains before you schedule your project, is how will you get the right team members to be available for the exact timeline that you need?

Easy Projects has a built-in resource loading simulator. This feature allows you to:

  • Put together a project team based on skills and availability
  • Check resource availability
  • Ensure that there are no conflicts with existing project schedules before scheduling your new project

Gantt Charts

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Validate the Schedule

When you put all the information into a schedule you’ll see something like the graphic below. It’s called a Gantt chart. The bars are timelines for individual tasks; the linking lines show logical order called dependencies. After reviewing the information, it’s time to confirm any new scope items with your Sponsor to make sure everything is good to go.

Gantt Charts

There is one more step before you get the sponsor to sign off on the project. You need to take it back to the team and make sure you’ve captured what they meant when they gave you the information. It’s still surprising to me that when people see the whole plan put together, there’s usually a small (or sometimes large) gap left between their assumptions.

For example, the sales team might have assumed that training will take place in a one hour meeting on Monday. Based on that assumption, they estimated that they would be ready to start selling by Tuesday afternoon at the latest. However, when the training team looked at the amount of information that needed to be delivered, they estimated three one hour training sessions over three days. If the training starts on Monday, it will be Thursday before sales can start.

By returning with the plan to the team, you can capture most of the assumption gaps. I like to do this with the whole team if possible. In our example, if training and sales people are in the same room when they notice the gap, they can find a resolution to the problem and you don’t have to head back into a planning session.

When you have the project scheduled, the next step is to go back to your sponsor and get them to sign off on the plan. Once they do that, you are ready to execute.


The RACI Matrix

RACI stands for Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed. A RACI matrix is a chart that outlines the roles of each contributor to a particular task or deliverable. This chart can be useful because it is very clear on what is expected from everyone involved. For example, a writer is responsible for writing a blog post, while the marketing manager is accountable for it. To write the post, the writer consults with the Sales team, and the VP of Marketing would like to be informed. This chart is useful for cross departmental activities in large organization.

Gantt Charts

The one thing we know for sure in life is that things can and will go wrong. Having this information imbedded in our DNA, it would be irresponsible to set up a contingency plan. Projects are no different; no matter how much you plan, you can rarely get a perfect execution and outcome. Fortunately, there are things we can do about it.

Risk management is an art and a science in the world of project planning because to be able to foresee problems, you need to have the insight and know when to react. Using project management software is a great risk mitigation tactic to start with because after you set up a project the way you anticipate, you’ll be able to see the bigger picture and data points like dependencies, the critical path, budget, resources etc.

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