“The nicest thing about NOT planning is that failure comes as a complete surprise and is not preceded by a period of worry and depression.”
Sir John Harvey Jones

Planning is a corner stone of project management. Good planning skills are critical to the success of projects and careers of Project Managers but time and time again when talking to clients and reviewing project plans it’s clear that many PM’s lack these skills.

I would say the largest weakness in project management is the ability to build and use quality project schedules. So where should a PM start?

Once we have an understanding of potential scope and hopefully gathered an initial small team of experts we can start our planning workshops. This is likely to be at a very early stage in the project life cycle as part of developing the idea or initial proposal.

There is a tendency for the PM to go off into a corner and start writing a “to do” list of tasks. This becomes a very flat list of tasks that are probably quite detailed for work being undertaken over the next few weeks but then then become more loose and general as we look further into the future. It also lacks buy-in from team members.

Rather than doing this, the PM should first build a high level plan that charts the whole journey of the project. It may be appropriate to take complex projects and break these into phases so planning can be concentrated around each phase. Either way we must be as clear as possible as to the scope of work that is to be planned. Often planning itself helps flush out questions and different views on scope.

So how do we create this initial high level plan? This is best achieved using sticky notes and a large piece of paper (a sheet of flip chart paper works best). Agree the start point and end point of the project or phase. These become the bookends of this particular journey so now you can focus on the scope of work between these points.

  • Have a start sticky note on the top left hand side of the sheet
  • Have a finish sticky note on the bottom right hand side of the sheet
  • Identify tasks in any order; simply write the task on a sticky note and stick it up
  • Once you feel you have thought about all the tasks then start re-arranging them in order
  • Recognise that some tasks can be worked on in parallel (at the same time) while others will complete in series (one after the other)

So how do we re-arrange them in order?  For each task ask yourself the question, “what do I need in order to start this, what is stopping us from completing this task now?”. This will help identify predecessors and successors, i.e. the logical relationships between tasks. For example; I need to dig the foundations before building the walls and need the walls before installing the roof. There is a finish-to-start logical dependency between these tasks; finish the foundations, start the wall, finish the wall, start the roof…

The work should flow from the start sticky note to the finish sticky note. Draw lines between the sticky notes to show the dependencies. Every sticky note should lead to something even if it’s just the end of the project, otherwise why are we doing it?

Some of your tasks will be fairly discrete small pieces of work whereas others may contain a great deal of work. These tasks can then be broken down further and in some situations you might even create a separate sticky note plan to work out the detail underneath that original sticky note. For example you might have a high level sticky note titled “recruit new staff” and then your HR team member can take this away and build a detailed plan for that recruitment. We could identify this as being a simple work breakdown structure.

Once you have captured all the scope on the high level plan, start thinking about dates.  You might have been given a target deadline for a specific point within the project or even had an end date imposed.  Many small projects are given target end dates before detailed planning and these become our Anchor Points.  Add these known deadlines and targets to the appropriate sticky note or notes on the high level plan.

Then look at all the other sticky notes and estimate elapsed time. How long will they take to complete?  In estimating we should think of two separate variables; elapsed time and work hours.  This task will take 8 work hours but it might be completed over a 5 day period (the elapsed time).

Add your elapsed time estimates to each sticky note and then working back or forward from any defined Anchor Points calculating approximate dates. Remember, this is your first high level plan so pencil works best! Write the start and finish dates in the top left and bottom right corners of each sticky note. The elapsed time goes top right and then the details around resources and work hours can go bottom left.

Once you have calculated estimated dates for each task then go through the exercise again but this time focus on resources.  Who is going to do each of these tasks?  Are they going to be able to work on these tasks on these dates (holidays, other projects)?

This sticky note plan can become the visual guide through the project and many small projects can be managed just using a few sheets of flip chart paper and plenty of sticky notes.  Other larger projects will benefit from being transferred onto Microsoft Project.

Many people do not use the cost and resource management functionality of Microsoft Project at all or use it incorrectly.  The majority of people therefore use it purely as a scheduling tool to help calculate start and finish dates and manage the task list.  Many people have access to Microsoft Project but have never received any training.  It’s a major gap for many PMs who simply lack the skills to use the software correctly so go get some training!

I’ve condensed what is typically a 3 hour training session into this brief article.  I hope it provide you with some guidance the next time you start a project and need to build a plan.  Remember, planning is a team game, not something the PM does in isolation and it should drive the work on the project once your progress cycle gets under way. Good luck!

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