The Art of Project Planning: How to Develop Projects Successfully

At the heart of every project lies a plan that drives the activities that result in the final outcome of a project or product that was initially envisioned by the customer.  In the project management world the customer (whether internal or external) is king.  Meaning delivering on what was planned in a timely manner will make the difference between a good customer experience and one that can go awry.  The tricky thing about any project plan is that it’s the project stakeholders involved that help define the level of complexity and direction of its structure. With this being the case, it is up to the project manager responsible for building the plan to manage customer expectations while identifying the needs of team members so that deliverables can be efficiently managed and met.  

Developing the Project Plan

Developing the perfect project plan requires the skill set to truly gauge your team members needs while satisfying the final customer.  Depending on the type of project, varying levels of detail are required in the construction of a plan.  In projects that need to carefully guide the team members on a specific path, a more detailed plan will make more sense, where in highly independent project teams a less detailed plan would be more appropriate.  As planning goes, it is best to keep the level of detail to the minimum so that team members have just enough information to effectively execute on tasks while optimizing the ability to improve your project manager skills and control the plan.

In order to successfully build a plan, the first step is to understand the role of the plan in the context of the project as a whole.  For many project managers, the plan and the project are one and the same.  The approach is to build a plan and if executed on time and within budget, project success will ensue.  This overly simplistic approach can leave open many possible avenues of failure.  Although it is true the plan should be the heart of the project, project managers must not forget that the “heart” still needs all other vital organs and body parts to pump life into in order to be a full functioning project.  That being said, a plan’s success is equally dependent on the resources, stakeholders, charter and documentation and all other project factors that must work harmoniously towards the success of a project.

In light of this, the plan must be treated as the primary document on the execution, management and control of all activities based on the equal input of stakeholder needs, available resources and overall project vision.  A successful plan is built on all pieces that make up the project and not the other way around in which many build a plan to drive the needs and vision of the project.  In fact, best practices in effective project planning demand continuous review and adjustments to the plan to reflect the true direction of the total project.   

Developing a project plan can be a daunting task.  Putting together a well-crafted document that includes all necessary activities, milestones, assignments and details can take a lot of effort and in many cases will present the planner with obstacles preventing the smooth development of the plan.  In order to mitigate the difficulties of project planning, project managers can incorporate certain basic strategies to optimize their efforts.

Here are some of the common pitfalls and solutions to facilitate the quick and successful development of projects plans:

  1. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Plans do not need to be fully developed before they are put into action.  The reality is the project plan in a living document will be adjusted with the ebb and flow of the project they serve. Use the Pareto’s 80/20 rule to get the ball rolling and then let your team and stakeholders guide the document as needed.   
  2. No need to start from scratch. Reinventing the wheel will not necessarily make for a better plan.  In fact, more often than not, too much time can wasted on building a plan that will eventually undergo a number of changes down the line. Leveraging existing project templates and best practices is an excellent way in reducing the initial effort in project planning.    
  3. Avoid analysis paralysis. An over detailed plan in many cases can result in ineffective execution on granular activities and can cause problems in tracking progress.  Finding that right balance of detail in the plan will allow team members to have a better understanding in their execution while still delivering the necessary project data for stakeholder decisions.
  4. Building the plan alone. One of the most critical steps in successful project planning is including stake-holder buy-in and involvement in the development process.  The plan needs to be the road map of the entire project and all parties are responsible for its success. Working in a vacuum and building a plan based on assumptions is dangerous. The fact is, the plan will always be imperfect and evolving. For this reason alone, stakeholder involvement is needed to help guide and approve the project plan despite the final results.

Although pitfalls are unavoidable in the planning development process, it is still the role of the project manager to develop a plan that will reflect the best version of the truth of the evolving project. This being the case, planners must recognize that they should not be left alone to their own devices and involve as many relevant parties as possible to build a plan that will have the best chances to succeed.

Working with the plan

Once the well-crafted document presented as the “Project Plan” is ready to be put into action, the next step is to effectively share the relevant pieces of the plan in the best possible manner to the different team members and stakeholders responsible for successful execution.  How this information is shared and to whom will make the difference between a poorly executed plan and a plan that exceeds expectations.  To best determine the different methods in delivering planning details there needs to be a mapping of the various resources that will interact with the plan and the most appropriate mode of delivery of those details.  The goal of this mapping exercise is to streamline and optimize the execution of the plan.

There are typically three types of “users” that need to interact with the plan:

  1. Project planner(s). This user type is typically the project manager (assigner) that is responsible for building the plan and in larger projects can include schedulers that will assist in plan development process and task assignment.
  2. Project workers. These users make up all the team members (assignees) responsible for delivering/executing on activities and milestones laid out by the plan.
  3. Project stakeholders. This group compromises of all the decision makers including executives and sponsors that need to track and analyze planning details to ensure the project is on the right path and to drive change (if and when needed).     

Since each of these users types have different needs, it is essential that the right tools and information are selected based on the different user profiles.

Carefully evaluating your project resources and implementing a strategy to serve their specific needs will not only improve a plan’s success rate, but will also allow a plan to be quickly adjusted as critical changes arise.

Gantt Charts are a commodity that every project management solution needs to provide for effective project planning. Genius Project is a project management software that offers its own web-based Gantt charting tool, Genius Planner, which includes a tight integration with Microsoft Project. On a related note, you can read our article on the most important skills of a project manager. 

Stephanie Seymour

By Stephanie Seymour

Stephanie Seymour is a senior business analyst and one of the crucial members of the FinancesOnline research team. She is a leading expert in the field of business intelligence and data science. She specializes in visual data discovery, cloud-based BI solutions, and big data analytics. She’s fascinated by how companies dealing with big data are increasingly embracing cloud business intelligence. In her software reviews, she always focuses on the aspects that let users share analytics and enhance findings with context.

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