Project planning like a boss
Your super meta plan for when you need a plan
So you want to make some waffles. You’ve made waffles before and can almost wing it. (Not to downplay the effort it takes to whip up such deliciousness.) You know you need some kind of flour, eggs, sugar, milk, butter, and a griddle. But, who are you cooking for? Yourself? A party of four, including one who can’t have lactose and another who is gluten-intolerant?
Even something as everyday as breakfast – never mind something as complicated as building an app, moving offices, or revamping your sales process – can use a bit of pre-planning. You’ll need to step away from the table to sort out not just what needs to get done but how, and when, and why.
What is project planning?
Project planning is thinking through and organizing everything you need to get a job done as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. It involves everything from figuring out the goal, scope, tasks, and resources, to setting a budget and timeline. These are all the things that you do at the very start of a project to make sure it goes off without a hitch.
It’s one stage of project management, which is seeing a project through from kickoff to close. Project management includes five stages: initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and closing.
You may have also heard of “strategic project planning,” which is different from the broader “project planning.” Strategic project planning typically happens at the highest level and includes setting company goals and priorities, improving operations, and guiding employees through the company’s mission, vision, and values.
Whether it’s strategic or project planning, you’ll need a clear, accessible, and easy-to-grok roadmap that anyone in your company can follow.
How to create a project plan
At the risk of making us all very hungry, let’s return to our test scenario of making waffles. We know you’re an Iron Chef, but even Bobby Flay would agree that there are many elements besides the food that go into a fine dining experience.
All those other elements and specific details (creating a shopping list, picking table settings, inviting guests) make up your project plan. It’s the single source of truth for your project activities. While it’s not hard to create, it does take some time and thoughtfulness.
1. Nail down the who, what, and how
A plan is more than tasks and dates. A good plan begins by asking some key questions and documenting the answers:
- What are the goals and objectives?
- Who are the stakeholders?
- What is the budget?
- What are the deliverables?
- Who is on the project team and what role will they play?
- What is the final deadline and are there other milestones?
- Who provides feedback and final approval on the deliverables?
The answers to these questions will give everyone a high-level view of what to expect as the project progresses.
2. Figure out what you need
The next step is to decide what you’ll need to get it done. Start by thinking through how much effort will go into each task and who can take the lead. Factor in any resources or vendors you can tap into from outside the company. Don’t forget about the review process and whose feedback and approval you’ll need before you ship.
This may seem obvious, but don’t plan in the dark! Reach out to all team members and vendors to go over the project, get their buy-in, and confirm their commitment to delivering on their assignments. You’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary frustration and stress by making sure everyone is doing their part.
3. Research, research, research
Before drafting a plan, know all the facts. Read through the RFP, scope of work, or project overview and take notes. Be thorough. Document decisions and clarify any outstanding questions, including:
- Goals and objectives
- The client’s (or project sponsor’s) expectations
- The make-up of the project team and the decision-making process
- Additional stakeholders and their expectations
At this point, it’s also valuable to identify any potential roadblocks or concerns:
- Has the team been through a project like this in the past? Do they need additional support or training?
- What is the project deadline and are there any issues that could affect final delivery?
- How responsive is the client or project sponsor, and will their schedule affect the overall timing?
These are often tough questions to ask, but looking into them up front avoids those hair-pulling surprises down the road.
Also, take a minute to think through how you can really smash your goal. Besides shipping the project, what else can you do that will take the project above and beyond? (Top those waffles with NutellaⓇ. No one will hate you for it.)
4. Create an outline
After you’ve checked research and “answer the big questions” off your list, you’re ready to draft an outline of your project plan. Your initial outline can be simple but should include the following:
- Deliverables and associated tasks
- What resources you need
- Any assumptions you’re making
- The approval process
5. Regroup with the team
Once you have the project plan sketched out, check in with team members for a taste test. Remember: your team members are experts who know how to deliver, so do yourself a favor and ask for their input.
This is your chance to float your ideas and challenge your team to make them better. Is there a faster or more creative way to get this done? Can we simplify the approval process? Do we need anything else?
Another bonus to going back to the team: it sets an open and feedback-welcoming tone for the project. It also builds trust and gets the team excited about working together towards a common goal.
6. Heat it up
After adding in your team’s notes, you’re ready to draft the detailed project plan. (Pro tip: try an online project planning tool.) Include the following:
- All pertinent project info, even if it seems obvious: client name, project name, version number, and delivery date
- Deliverables with start and end dates
- The person responsible for each task
- Durations of tasks and dependencies
- Task details and any clarifying notes
- Risks or potential roadblocks
As you and your team become more familiar with the process, project planning will become more efficient, and your project plans more effective and powerful. Practice makes perfect, and writing project plans is no different.
7. Share and get final sign-off
Is it ready yet? You’re so close. You just need to share the final plan with all team members and vendors so they can take another look at their responsibilities and deadlines. Confirm that stakeholders are on board with the overall goals, deliverables, timing, and budget.
Is everyone feeling good? Once you have their thumbs up, it’s time to execute. But, thanks to your careful and thoughtful prework, you’ve got this.
Go big with strategic project planning
We touched upon the idea of strategic project planning earlier; now let’s dive deeper. While not every project plan calls for high-level strategic planning, sometimes the approach can help you gin up new ideas and better see the solutions to your challenges. Think of it as a way of clearing off your countertops before you really start cooking.
Vision and mission statements
The first step of strategic project planning is to develop a vision and mission statement. A vision statement defines the ultimate goal of an organization. A good one not only describes what the organization does from day to day, but also the biggest win for the company. It should inspire everyone to imagine the greatest impact of their work.
Here are a few examples of vision statements that nail it:
- Atlassian: To help teams all over the planet advance humanity through the power of software.
- Alzheimer's Association: A world without Alzheimer's disease.
- Tesla: To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.
On the flip side is the mission, a more grounded and action-oriented statement that describes what an organization does and how it does it. A mission statement gets down to the nitty-gritty by clarifying the “who,” “why,” and “what” of a company.
These mission statements check all the boxes:
- Make-A-Wish: The mission of Make-A-Wish International is to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy.
- Starbucks: To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.
- Southwest Airlines: The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.
As an organization grows and reaches milestones, the leaders may combine vision and mission statements into one larger, inspirational statement.
With your vision and mission statements locked down, it’s time to figure out what to actually do about them. It’s goal-setting time!
Obviously, goals are essential to any business’s success; it’s pretty tough to get to your destination if you don’t know where you’re going. When creating your goals, have your mission and vision statements on a sticky note on your monitor so you remember to align all these statements into a cohesive path forward.
You may have arrived at your goal via a dream you’ve had since learning to tie your shoes, an invigorating brainstorm (more on that later), financial need, or a gut instinct. So, basically, anywhere. They can vary widely as a result, but some common ones include:
- Increase productivity
- Lower ongoing expenses
- Improve customer service
- Extend brand awareness
- Find an office temperature everyone can agree on
Business objectives are the measurable actions you need to take to achieve your goals. They help your employees understand what you expect from them.
For example, if improving customer service is a goal, objectives might be increasing customer service staff or implementing a new policy that guarantees customers receive a return phone call within a specified time.
With the clear and firm company goals you’ve just set, everyone can set their own objectives to meet them. This way, employees are all working in the same direction but taking different steps to end up at the same finish line.
Next, you need to turn the goals and objectives into an action plan. This means you’ll need to break down long-term goals into specific, achievable milestones. From there, you can create a more detailed roadmap that speaks to the day-to-day activities you should prioritize.
A good action plan includes everything your company needs to get things done in detail, such as:
- Who leads the work
- Which teams are involved
- Tasks and responsibilities
- Required investments
- Key milestones
Over time, the details may change and evolve, but having a concrete plan in place provides clarity and direction both to the team doing the heavy lifting and to the broader organization.
Don’t you hate it when you’re pumped up to get a project launched, and you’re stuck in an approval black hole? We’ve all faced roadblocks of simply waiting for someone (anyone!) to say, “Let’s do this.” You can avoid these blockers in your company by passing the baton to different levels of the organization, granting them the authority to quickly make decisions and get work done.
While most decision-makers are the team leads – especially when it comes to making the final call – the rest of the group should have a lot of influence. The best decision makers collaborate with and welcome the expertise and different perspectives of the team. They also remember to plan for the unexpected and create a plan B and C so everyone can quickly switch gears if things go awry.
Go big with strategic project planning
In the kitchen, your go-to tools might be an immersion blender and a waffle iron. When you’re project planning, holding a brainstorming session or building Gantt charts are probably handier. Here’s why.
Brainstorming is a group exercise used to generate new ideas or solve problems. It’s a collaborative method that encourages spontaneous and creative ideas.
When running a brainstorming session, include brilliant subject matter experts and pull in those free-thinkers who churn out amazing concepts with a blink. Before you let the ideas flow, set ground rules to create a vibe of openness: never criticize other people’s inputs, build on other people’s suggestions, and focus on quantity over quality, etc.
The downside of a brainstorming session is you may end up with suggestions that are way off base or too pie in the sky – and that’s perfectly ok! After the session, look over what you have and pick the ones you want to refine.
Cause and effect drawings
These diagrams – sometimes referred to as Fishbone or Ishikawa diagrams – help find issues before it’s too late. A cause-and-effect diagram shows the relationship between all factors that lead to a situation. It identifies significant causes, breaks them down into sub-causes, and points to likely outcomes.
Cause-and-effect drawings are an excellent tool for risk management but they don’t include any subjective elements like likelihood or severity. They only look at the facts.
Critical path analysis
For large, complicated projects with many activities going on at the same time, a critical path analysis can be super helpful. Find your critical path by looking at the longest activity in your plan and measuring the time you need to complete it from start to finish. Understanding critical and non-critical tasks prevents timeframe glitches and process bottlenecks. It’s an excellent technique for managing large projects with multiple dependencies, but it can be too complex for smaller projects.
A Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. It lists the tasks on the vertical axis and time intervals on the horizontal axis to help you plan, coordinate, and track specific tasks. It’s also a visual representation of your progress that can be used in status reports. A Gantt chart is helpful for almost any project, as it makes it easy to ‘see’ the entire job from start to finish and, if you need to, pivot to plan B.
How project planning software can help
Project planning can be a long, manual process. Thankfully, the tech world has figured out a way to make it much less painful. There are many solutions to choose from, but save yourself a headache and make sure your project planning tool includes the following essential features:
- Robust tools that help you organize, track, and manage projects
- Flexible templates to create everything from meeting notes to product requirements
- An intuitive interface that allows you to organize and share work with your team
- A search feature that makes it easy to find what you need
- An open and shared workspace that encourages collaboration and feedback
If you’re eager to begin using these project planning tips and tricks but aren’t quite sure where to start, a project plan template can guide you in the right direction. Download our free project plan template to help you to define, manage, and track your next project, all while keeping stakeholders in the know.
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