At the beginning is the obvious and flippant answer. But seriously how do you go about producing a project plan from scratch?

Years ago I had a question from a participant on one of my training courses. When does a project become a project and need a project plan? There can be some undertakings that are relatively simple and short term where simply agreeing a list of actions should suffice. As a rule of thumb if a project involves more than three or four people, is complex or is likely to exceed two weeks it is best to produce a project plan.

A project plan is a key tool in any project of significance, it plots the journey from where you are to where you want to be. To my mind the project plan is more of a guide than a timetable, it indicates the direction of travel rather than the precise path. As long as you are headed in the right direction and know how you are performing compared to the targets in the plan that should be sufficient to exhibit control and direction.

There can be objections to producing a plan, ranging from the “too busy being productive” argument to resistance on the basis that as the project is innovative how can you plan something unknown?

Any project of significance is likely to involve a degree of the unknown and as such can be regarded as a voyage of discovery. However there will like as not be some elements that are familiar or similar to what has gone before so a project is rarely a blank sheet proposition.

Having a project lifecycle model can provide a framework upon which to build a project plan, projects typically evolve through a series of phases. They can use different terms but in essence any project will encompass concept, design, deployment, test, handover elements. The terms you employ may differ but the principle of moving from the germ of an idea to a completed solution is the typical project story.

Having identified the key elements of the project you can consider allocating time to these elements, in effect setting target dates for the completion of each element and ultimately the end of the project itself. All too often a project will have a deadline but early elements of the project will consume a disproportionate amount of time meaning subsequent elements are deprived of sufficient time to be completed efficiently. Setting target dates for the conclusion of each element also provides more immediate targets to work to – human nature is such that we tend to defer action until a deadline is imminent and invariably by that point it is too late to avoid a crisis of one kind or another.

Another common obstacle to planning is paralysis – people can be so overwhelmed by what is confronting them that they don’t know where to start. The clichéd management theory question “how do you eat an elephant” illustrates this quite neatly – the proposition can appear overwhelming but breaking the challenge down in to less threatening and more manageable chunks makes the seemingly impossible possible.

My favourite example of making the seemingly impossible possible was provided by President JFK in a speech on September 12th 1962 – the entire speech is quite inspiring but there is a section that neatly illustrates how overwhelming challenges can be made less overwhelming by breaking things down into more intelligible elements.

“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240 thousand miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25 thousand miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.”

In essence what JFK did in this speech is to explain how a seemingly impossible proposition could be made possible by dissembling the problem in to a series of reasonably easy to conceive concepts that together comprised the entire programme. The space race is a fascinating story for all sorts of reasons but primarily it was a huge political statement, America and capitalism can achieve more than Russia and Communism are capable of.

It is incredible to think that barely 50 years before powered flight was in its infancy and that in the intervening year’s humanity progressed to supersonic flight and then travelling to another celestial body. I am not suggesting that your project is a match for the Apollo programme but if it was possible to put people on the moon nearly 50 years ago how hard can your project be in this day and age?

As always the devil is in the detail, how far do you go in breaking down a project into a list of manageable tasks? Work breakdown is a well-established concept. The question is how far do you go in breaking things down? Getting the balance right

A useful guide is the 8/40 rule – if you break things down to less than a working day you are probably guilty of trying to micro-manage things. If individual tasks are of more than a week’s duration you may not have sufficient detail to exhibit control over your project. Again there can be some who object to this and regard it as too much like hard work, producing a plan with this much detail. If you are not prepared to invest in planning be prepared to pay the price later on. This may seem a bit of a brutal riposte but it is possibly necessary to get people committed to planning to an appropriate level of detail.

There is a project management truism, if you cannot measure something you cannot control it. Project plans which lack detail are unlikely to be of any assistance in managing and controlling a project once it is in progress.

In a lot of cases tasks will be identified “sequentially” and will make perfect sense to the individual providing the input on that level of detail. Whilst it may be obvious to those who know the work it may not be to others with an interest in the project. Sometimes breaking things down and illustrating the sequence can serve to educate those with no appreciation as to what is involved, in effect justifying the time required to complete that element of the works. The process can also serve to illustrate how team members are reliant upon each other for progress to be made thus promoting a culture of mutual reliance.

When conducting “work breakdown” there is a question you need to ask relentlessly – what do I need to do this? Persistently asking this question should result in the project being broken down into its constituent parts.

Having broken your project down into its constituent parts the next step in planning is to put it all back together by establishing dependencies between tasks. That can be the topic for another blog, in the meantime some closing words of wisdom.

“We have a plan therefore nothing can go wrong” – Spike Milligan