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This is the third blog in a series on the important aspects of project management. Last week, I gave some tips for getting projects off to a good start. This week, we focus on project planning steps that will improve results. Planning is the cornerstone of successful project management, but in today’s rapidly changing world, it is essential that we embrace just-in-time planning or at least align planning needs with project needs so that we aren’t unnecessarily over-planning. Typically, the planning process begins once a signed project charter is distributed.

Define scope inclusions and exclusions so that the team is clear about what they are doing.

The challenge in the early part of project planning is to define scope. This is particularly true for ambiguous projects where folks really don’t understand the path forward. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by what you don’t know. Start with what you do know and put it in writing. In many cases, projects simply unfold. Take the first steps without knowing where they will lead. In highly ambiguous projects, start small and learn fast. Don’t try to scope out six months of work when you don’t know what you’re doing.

That being said, it’s important to document what you do know. Define what you’ve agreed to do and NOT do. As you begin to document the scope that you can agree on, you will learn a lot.

Identify and understand your stakeholders so that you can ensure effective communications with everyone.

People do projects. And people have different styles and personalities. To further complicate matters there will be many stakeholders who are only peripherally involved. They too have opinions that matter. You need to discover what their “hot buttons” are. You need to know what communication styles work for each stakeholder. Not everyone does email well. Sometimes a text, phone call, or letter in the mail might be the only way to get a particular person’s attention. Have you documented the communication needs for each stakeholder?

Different projects will have different needs for tracking stakeholder factors. Government projects are notorious for having a lot of “interested stakeholders,” including the public. International aid projects can have foreign government stakeholders. Non-profit projects can have lots of volunteers and communications can be quite a headache.

Think about whether your project management software solution provides the fields for tracking stakeholder information, and if not, be thinking about additional templates if you have complicated stakeholder management concerns.

Break the project into discrete activities so that you can define ‘done’ for each activity.

There is often the challenge of knowing how far down to break the project. It comes back to the agility versus specificity question previously discussed here. There are many ways to create an activity breakdown, or what project management professionals call a work breakdown structure. I recommend that you think about a couple of things:

  • When costs are important, break the project down far enough so that you can estimate a budget for each activity.
  • Break your project into activities that will provide real value to the client or management team.
  • Have the person doing the work define, in writing, their understanding of what ‘done’ means. Confirm this understanding with the client.

If you want to know more about how to create an activity breakdown, read this four-step guide here.

Fully define each activity so you can create a reliable budget.

After you’ve identified the discrete activities that will create value for the client, engage the entire team in a conversation about what is needed in order to accomplish these activities. There should be some serious dialogue here, some with your client and some with your management team. Here are some questions to ask:

  • What does ‘done’ look like? Hopefully this question has been answered, but I encourage you to get very specific.
  • Who is responsible for each activity? While you have hopefully figured that part out before you finished defining what ‘done’ looks like, you may want to identify a backup leader for the activity.
  • What quality is desired for this activity? Are you producing a draft or a polished document? Is your working software ready for client testing, or were you supposed to test it?
  • Who is going to be responsible for testing the quality? Who will approve the quality? I recognize that these questions may seem strange if you are talking about a Word document executive summary.
  • What deadlines are critical? Where are the dependencies? I recommend that project teams get very clear on the important deadlines. You can then choose whether to use the other deadlines as a schedule management tool, or whether to use a more agile scheduling approach. It depends on how important it is to have some type of a schedule. It may also depend on whether you are working with people who need the discipline of deadlines.
  • Are there risks, or issues, that will directly impact a particular activity? It’s important to note these before you create your budget. An activity that has significant risks, or issues, will cost more than the same work, where there are not associated risks or issues.

Document the person who is responsible for each piece so that you can ensure accountability.

In the above step, you defined each activity. If you answered all of the questions, you noted the people who were responsible at each step of the way. This will provide accountability as you move into the execution and monitoring processes.

Depending on what kind of software you’re using to manage the project, you may need to create some kind of responsibility matrix. If you’ve never been exposed to those, you can read more about them here.

Create a reliable budget so that you can identify scope creep.

In most cases, managing the budget is an important part of project management. A question that often arises in creating a budget is the granularity question. The more granular you are in creating the budget, the more granular you will need to be in tracking time, and at some point, the cost benefit isn’t there.

For example, suppose your activity is to review and revise all of the HR rules and regulations in an organization. Is it important to know how much time was spent on each one? Are there logical categories where you need to track costs, so that costs can be allocated in some appropriate way? Or, do you just need a bottom-line cost for all of the HR revision work? Timekeeping can be hard when you opt for more granularity. After all, many times people are working on multiple activities at the same time.

The decision about how to track costs will often require input from your client and/or your management team. Find that sweet spot between something too high-level to identify scope creep and so granular that it’s not worth the effort. If you have broken your project down into discrete activities, all of which have a clear definition of ‘done,’ I’d start with creating a budget for each of those activities and then, tracking and reviewing the costs for each one.

Did these project planning steps help? Stay tuned for next week’s blog – on project execution.

Part 1 – Why You Need Project Management Processes and How to Create Them

Part 2 – Starting Projects Wisely Will Boost Your Results

Part 3 – Six Project Planning Steps to Boost Your Results

Part 4 – Five Project Execution Tips Guaranteed To Improve Your Results

Part 5 – How Regular Project Management Reporting Can Improve Your Project Results

Part 6 – Why Do Great Project Managers Close Projects Effectively?