5 Tips To Smarter Project Planning

Project planning can seem painful, but it’s generally not nearly as painful as dealing with the consequences of not planning.

You’ll find lots of advice on how to plan and run a project out in the Internet. Some of it comes with nice mnemonics: the 5 Ps (Poor Planning Produces Pitiful Project), or the 5As (Align Key Players, Act Quickly, Adjust Often, Assign Roles, Authority).

I’m not smart enough to come up with a mnemonic, so, very simply, here are five tips distilled from years of project planning — which I hope you will find somewhat thought provoking and useful:

1. Start by being crystal clear about what you are trying to achieve. The number-one cause of project failure is unclear objectives, or to put it another way, lack of clarity about the final end product of the project. To help you avoid this, think about these three questions:

  • What’s the objective? E.g. develop a growth strategy for a new product.
  • What are the deliverables (the physical or other end products you’ll need to produce)? E.g. a market assessment, a 50 page articulation of new growth strategy, a robust process with senior management, etc.
  • How will we define success? E.g. the value/growth rate of the strategy, level of management endorsement/enthusiasm, delivered without blowing up the project team, etc.

2. Not all plans are equal. Every plan does not need to have the same components and the same level of detail. Rather, you should plan at the level that makes sense for the project. For example:

  • If you are building a battleship where there are 1,000,001 things that need to come together with complex dependencies and resourcing requirements, then the plan will be multi-faceted and very detailed.
  • If on the other hand you are developing some marketing materials, you’ll likely need a clear idea of objectives, audience and measures of success; a timeline that details what to produce by when; a budget; who’s involved; and the immediate next steps.
  • In general, keep it simple. You can always add more detail as you get further into the project.

3. Not every plan needs to be an end-to-end road map. Some plans require explicit steps for how you are going to get from A to B. But if you are embarking on something new and uncertain, you may not have any idea of what the whole journey will look like. In these situations, if you do try to plan it out in detail, you may get frustrated and never get started. So the best advice here is just to be clear on what you want to achieve and on the next steps to move things forward — and then get started. Once you are underway, you’ll learn more about what is involved and can build up and adapt the plan as you go.

4. At least have a plan – please. Some people don’t think a plan is worthwhile because project planning is boring and time consuming, and because things always change — at which point they would have to spend time updating the plan, if they have one. So they’d rather just get started — and, of course, ironically, without a plan, they never fall behind. This might work for a really simple and short project, but 99 times out of 100 you’ll be better off with some sort of plan – at least something high level that captures the objectives, deliverables, resources and timeline.

5. Get stakeholder buy-in. Most likely there will be other people involved in your project, and you should be sure to get them involved in project planning and in endorsing your plan to the extent you need. If you’ve not involved the stakeholders, you’ll probably be missing something in terms of project goals, deliverables or measures of success. If you’ve not involved the team in planning, then you are less likely to have the understanding, buy-in and commitment you’ll need to deliver. But if you get the buy-in from the right people from the start, you’ve got a much greater chance of succeeding.

Smart project planning will help you save time, create clarity for you and others, and get results. I hope these five tips get you started.

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Peter McWhinnie is a founder and the CEO of Torridon Solutions, the company behind Swiftlight project management software. An experienced senior executive, he started his career with 7 years at Exxon, before pursuing an MBA and then spending 10 years in strategy consulting where he was a Partner with the Monitor Group. He has been involved in planning and in projects all his professional life, both in consulting and "in the real world" of industry. He has worked at all levels of a project team - as team member, project leader, partner/Steering Committee member - and this broad and practical "users" experience has informed the design and development of Swiftlight project management software. He holds a Bachelor's and a Master's Degree in Chemistry from Oxford University, and earned his MBA with distinction from INSEAD, France.