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The Six Disciplines Blog

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

What Are the Basic Steps in Project Planning?

In the rush of our day-to-day work, planning a project right requires more time than we often want to invest. So it’s easy to assume that you only need to thoroughly plan large, complex, and expensive projects. Is this assumption right? Which of the following projects would you say require thorough planning?

  • Re-routing a highway through a major city
  • Creating a marketing brochure
  • Implementing a new ERP system
  • Find a new internet service provider

Most of us would say that the ERP and highway projects obviously need plans, while the brochure and internet provider projects likely do not. But there is a paradox in project planning. Large projects naturally garner the attention necessary to cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Management watches large, complex, expensive very closely to make sure the team gets the right deliverables done on-time with as little waste as possible. But small projects have unique challenges compared to large ones.

Because a project is small, it is tempting to skip the planning process and just start working. This leads to skipping steps, doing things out of order, delivering work late, or needing to do rework because what you assumed your boss wanted was not what she expected. And while your organization might only have 3-4 truly large and complex projects this year, you’ll likely have hundreds of small projects. So if you don’t have a culture that plans every project, small projects are likely nickeling and diming you. Moreover, the cost is not just in dollars, poor project planning leads to unnecessary frustration and resentment for your teams.

What can you do? Start by training your team to plan every project with this simple three-step process.

NOTE: Be sure to check out our recent post on the first phase of project management, initiating a project.

List Key Deliverables

A deliverable is any unique product, result, or capability you need to produce to complete your project.

With your project charter complete, you should know the specific requirements for your project. Now it is time to get your project team together and start brainstorming what you need to create to complete the project. This is your list of deliverables.

Deliverables are the “WHAT?” of your project. The key here is to think in terms of things rather than activities, or nouns rather than verbs. List real things that you will deliver to another person on a specific date. Listing deliverables instead of activities gives the work you are describing objectivity, and therefore accountability.

For example, here is a list of deliverables for a home construction project.

  • Property deed
  • Design home
  • Water/Sewer/power lines
  • Foundation
  • Framing
  • Roof/windows/siding
  • Wiring/Plumbing
  • Interior finishes

Did you notice the mistake? The second item, “Design home,” is not a true deliverable, it describes an activity. What does “design home” mean? A sketch on a napkin? Or an intricate 1:16 model with a working miniature fountain out front? More than likely your construction team needs something like “blueprints of the house.” So get specific and list deliverables, not activities; nouns, not verbs.

For the first step in planning your project, try this process:

  1. With your project team, brainstorm as many high-level deliverables as you can. Don’t worry about getting them in the right order or about listing any supporting sub-items
  2. Then, sequence your list and fill in any gaps
  3. With your list complete and in order, describe the desired outcome for each deliverable
  4. Then assign each of the deliverables to a team member

Break Down the Work

Work Breakdown Structure – a list of project deliverables and the components that go into making the deliverables. This organizes and defines the total scope of your project.

Now you want to “break down” your deliverables in smaller, clearer, and more manageable chunks. This process is commonly called “decomposing” the work, and the result is a Work Breakdown Structure or a WBS. A good rule of thumb is to break your deliverables down until you can realistically estimate the time and cost of each specific step. Here is an example of a WBS for a new website project.

Work breakdown structures can get very detailed. You may need to schedule several separate meetings to complete the WBS. Another option to divvy up the high-level deliverables amongst your team to break down on their own time. You will then want to scehdule a meeting to review the completed WBS.

Schedule the Next Quarter

The last step in planning your project is to create a project schedule. Project scheduling can become very complex (i.e. dependencies, work-time vs. duration, resource availability and efficiency). For most of our clients and for most of your smaller projects, we find this simpler approach to be more effective.

First, estimate the time (in hours) needed for each deliverable in your WBS. When you break your project into smaller steps, you make it easier to estimate the time needed for each step. Once you have your estimates, you can roll up into an overall project estimate.

Second, as a project team, use the time estimates to figure out how far your team can get on the project this next quarter. If your work breakdown structure is simple (a flat list that can be completed in sequential order), your first quarter of work is simply how far you think you can get down that list.

If your work breakdown is complex (multiple levels, several dependencies, and work packages running in parallel), you will likely need to schedule supporting projects from several of the high-level deliverables for the coming quarter. So pull all of those into a single quarterly project that captures everything you want to get done in the next quarter on the entire project. We call this a “Work Package.” The work package now shows you exactly what is getting done in the next 90 days from across all of the complex work breakdown.

Third, add “forecast end” or due dates to each of the items in the work package. Repeat this quarterly planning process each quarter until the project is complete.

You’ve spent a serious amount of time properly “front loading” your project by initiating and planning it right. In the next post we will describe what it takes to lead and manage your project team to get the project DONE.

Want to start helping your managers manage all there projects effectively? Click here to learn more about Six Disciplines’ Workgroup Alignment Kit. Click here to book a demo of our management system.

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Since 2005, the Six Disciplines blog offers posts about performance excellence, strategy execution, business coaching, leadership development, innovation, and business process improvement. This blog has received prestigious awards for leadership and management and has been syndicated by several major media sources.