Starting with the obvious, most people, project managers included, view planning as a tedious, less-than-thrilling endeavor. There's a common temptation among teams to dive right in, get hands-on, and begin the actual work of the project. This rush into action often wins the favor of senior management, as they can immediately see things happening.
However, without a clear understanding of the project's requirements and a solid plan on how to achieve them, derailment is almost certain. That's not a mere guess; it's a well-documented fact.
This underlines the importance of a thorough project plan. A plan that succinctly captures the objectives, key requirements, milestones, deliverables, and more. (Refer to the end of this article for a sample project plan.)
A well-structured project plan is the bedrock of efficient project management. No matter how skilled your team is, a project without a plan is likely to fail. Even Agile projects, known for their flexibility, require planning – each Scrum sprint begins with sprint planning.
So, plan. Then plan again, and keep planning. Even an imperfect plan is better than no plan at all. Begin your planning by addressing the most critical issues.
One major benefit of planning is its problem-unveiling nature. Building a project plan can reveal a plethora of potential issues that need addressing before project implementation. You might discover unclear requirements, insufficient resources, lack of strong project sponsorship, high costs, or a suboptimal business case.
This is particularly relevant for projects with vague business requirements and documentation. Hence, crafting a project plan serves as a stress test for your project before implementation.
Note: A Project Plan is NOT a Project Schedule
When asked for their project plan, many project managers might produce a project schedule or a Gantt chart. But a project plan is much more than just a schedule. It's crucial to understand this distinction.
Planning isn't an exact science. A proficient project manager generally formulates her plan based on experience, common sense, and team involvement.
Therefore, involve your team in building the project plan. They'll appreciate it, and you'll gain their support. Once your plan is complete, have it peer-reviewed, ideally by those with experience in similar projects but who are not involved in yours.
Fresh eyes can provide valuable feedback from a new perspective, helping identify overlooked or incorrect elements.
Here's a quick run-through of what a typical project plan for a medium to large-sized project contains. Note that plans for large projects can span hundreds of pages, while smaller ones require less detail and might only be 20 pages or less.
Executive Summary: This is a concise summary of your entire project plan, written after you've completed all other sections. It serves as an overview, providing the key points of the project at a glance. It usually includes the project's purpose, key objectives, and high-level timelines and costs.
Project Objectives: These are the specific goals your project aims to achieve. The SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) framework is useful in formulating clear and realistic objectives. They guide the direction of your project, serving as the benchmarks against which you measure progress.
Project Benefits: This section identifies the value the project will bring to stakeholders. Whether it's a bridge that will reduce transportation time, a new CRM system that will improve customer service, or a modern kitchen that will make cooking more efficient and enjoyable, focus on explaining how these benefits align with the needs of the stakeholders.
Scope (In & Out): This details what the project will and will not cover. Defining the scope helps manage expectations, provides clarity, and helps prevent scope creep. It identifies the specific activities, processes, and deliverables the project will produce, and just as importantly, what it will not.
Methodology Used: This refers to the project management approach you'll adopt for the project. It could be a traditional waterfall (predictive), Agile (adaptive), or a hybrid approach. The chosen methodology will influence how the project is planned, executed, monitored, and controlled.
Budget: This outlines the financial resources allocated to the project. It should detail all costs associated with the project, including human resources, materials, training, and any contingency allowances. It should also specify the sources of the funding.
Schedule: This uses a Gantt chart to display the project timeline, including the start and end dates for each task, and their dependencies. It also highlights major milestones and deliverables, providing a visual representation of the project's timeline.
Team/Stakeholders: This involves using a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrix to clarify roles and responsibilities of each team member and stakeholder. It ensures everyone understands their tasks and responsibilities, promoting efficient communication and collaboration.
Project Governance: This section describes the management structure of the project. It outlines how decisions are made, who has authority, and how different groups within the project (such as the Steering Committee, Technical Teams, Functional Teams, etc.) interact and communicate.
Risk, Constraints & Dependencies: Here, you identify potential risks, along with plans for their mitigation. You should also detail any constraints and dependencies the project has on other projects or departments, which could impact the timeline or resources.
Communications: This outlines the communication strategy for the project, detailing who will communicate, when, and how. It could include regular meetings, steering committee meetings, technical team meetings, and other communications.
Change Management: This explains the process for accepting and reviewing changes to the project's initial scope. It provides a controlled mechanism for managing and implementing changes, preventing scope creep and maintaining focus on the project's objectives.
Quality Control: This section details how you'll test and verify that the deliverables meet the agreed-upon acceptance criteria. It ensures that the project outputs are of a sufficient standard to meet stakeholder expectations.
Organizational Change Management: This section discusses how you'll manage the changes your project introduces to the organization. It typically includes strategies for communicating changes, training staff, and managing resistance to change, ensuring that the project's benefits are realized and sustained.