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“Plans are of little importance – but planning is essential!” – Winston Churchill

Think about it…planning is a very natural process. Every day we all make lots of little plans (eg. what we will do when we get into work, where will we go at the weekend, what we will have for lunch, when shall we go on holiday). The practice is so natural and regular 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.

Project planning is a procedural step in project management, which relates to the use of schedules such as Gantt charts to plan and subsequently report progress within the project environment. This includes identifying all actions required to define, prepare, integrate and coordinate execution of the project, and clearly defines how the project is monitored, controlled and closed.

PRINCE2 defines planning as “…a statement of how and when a project’s objectives are to be achieved, by showing the major products, milestones, activities and resources required on the project.”

What is involved?

The objective of a project plan is to define the approach to be used by the Project team to deliver the intended project management scope of the project. At a minimum, a project plan answers basic questions about the project:

Why?

What is the problem or value proposition addressed by the project? Why is it being sponsored?

What?

What is the work that will be performed on the project? What are the major products/deliverables?

Who?

Who will be involved and what will be their responsibilities within the project? How will they be organized?

When?

What is the project timeline and when will particularly meaningful points, referred to as milestones, be complete?

Project planning

Project planning begins by setting the scope of a project and eventually working through each level of dependent actions, tasks, milestones and deadlines. All of this information is integrated into Gantt charts, or other types of scheduling charts, to provide a project overview for all involved parties.

Initially, the project scope is defined and the appropriate methods for completing the project are determined. 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 build an extension on your house next year, it’s a good thing to start your extension project now. You know that to have an extension you will need to obtain planning permission, hire an architect, and obtain quotes from builders. At some point you will also need to pay any fees, buy materials and procure some surveys. Six things (known as ‘activities’ or ‘tasks’) you need to get done in order to achieve your objective.

Following this step, the durations for the various tasks necessary to complete the work are listed and grouped into a work breakdown structure. Start at the end of your project and work backwards to get the timing of the ‘activities’ or ‘tasks’ sorted. In the example, you probably have a good idea of what the extension will look like, so use that as the end point. You will probably buy materials a few days before you start. Surveys will need to be completed earlier, and hiring builders and an architect earlier still. Paying the fees will be set by whatever contract you agree with the architect & builders, leaving making obtaining the planning permission the immediate.

Project planning is often used to organize different areas of a project, including project plans, work loads and the management of teams and individuals. Review your timings and make sure you have the ‘activity’ or ‘task’ order right. It could be obvious (as in this case – eg. you wouldn’t hire an architect after you had bought the materials!) 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 logical dependencies between tasks are defined using an activity network diagram that enables identification of the critical path. Project planning is inherently uncertain as it must be done before the project is actually started. Therefore the duration of the tasks is often estimated through a weighted average of optimistic, normal, and pessimistic cases, otherwise known as Three Point Estimation.

The only other thing you may want to consider at this stage is roughly how much it is all likely to cost. The necessary resources can be estimated and costs for each activity can be allocated to each resource, giving the total project 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.) At this stage, the project schedule may be optimized to achieve the appropriate balance between resource usage and project duration to comply with the project objectives. Once established and agreed, the project schedule becomes what is known as the baseline schedule. Progress will be measured against the baseline schedule throughout the life of the project. Analyzing progress compared to the baseline schedule is known as earned value management (which we will cover in a future blog).

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.

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. Planning must be continuous throughout your 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.

GSP Planning can provide services to enable you to plan your projects effectively & efficiently, ensuring you can concentrate on what you do best in delivering your product. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us to find out more about how we can help your business. All comments are welcomed below.