Project Planning: The Definitive Guide


Ask any experienced project manager about the most important time for any project, and you’ll probably get the same answer: before you start working on it.

Project planning is often deemed to be the single most important process that determines the success or failure of a project. Your performance indicators, base metrics, and even monitoring techniques depend on a solid project plan. Make a mistake at this stage, and you won’t even know about it until it’s too late.

Read on to get up-to-speed on the basics of project planning, and learn how to go about it the right way. Additionally, learn how the right software can help simplify the process for you.

What is project planning?

Planning is an essential part of a project’s lifecycle that can significantly improve a team’s efficiency and effectiveness. The project plan describes how each phase of the project will be conducted and is often the reference point for all stakeholders.

During the planning phase, project managers and their teams define the scope, set up a budget, assign responsibilities, and decide their overall approach.

Project planning is a formal activity that is approved in the beginning and requires considerable documentation. However, the project plan is not always set-in-stone as project managers and teams can make some changes based on new developments.

The importance of planning in project management

Project planning is a tedious task, and you might be tempted to jump right in and start working. Of course! Who likes to spend their days running back and forth between stakeholders, creating schedules, and documenting processes?.

Wouldn’t it be better to start working immediately? Turns out, it’s not. Project planning is a wearying process but it saves your time and resources in the long run by streamlining the project and keeping everything on track.

Companies waste a significant portion of their investment due to poor project performance. Failures, delays, and budget overruns can all be avoided with proper planning. No matter how much pressure you face to get started or how simple a project may seem, planning is well worth the time spent on it.

Consider the example of the Airbus A380, the largest commercial airliner today. Producing a behemoth like the A380 was unprecedented, and the manufacturer poured in a lot of resources to make it a reality.

However, it is widely rumored that Airbus sustained a loss of $6 billion on the project and it was close to failure.

An incomplete plan is widely considered to be the biggest reason for this loss. The project did not have a standard CAD tool, and teams working on different parts used what they preferred. Aviation applications require precision, and the tolerance difference between the CAD tools didn’t allow the plane’s components to fit together. This seemingly small gap in plan caused a 2-year delay and required billions to rectify.

6 ways a poorly-planned project might fail

Despite all the precautions taken, many projects fail.

The results might not be what you expect, you might be dealing with cost/time overruns, or your bosses and stakeholders might not be happy with the progress and decide to cut their losses. There are numerous reasons behind project failure. With proper planning, you can either eliminate project failures or significantly minimize their chances.

Here’s a brief overview of the six main reasons behind project failure.

1. Not focusing on the business value

This is a prevalent problem in the tech industry as teams start focusing on adding technical details rather than on the business case. For example, you often see numerous products in the market that have excellent features but no customer base.

Consider a development team working on creating a software tool. Now, if they start focusing on adding advanced features rather than focusing on end-users’ needs, the project will most likely fail because they’ll either run out of budget or face delays.

The best way to avoid this from happening is through making clear objectives. If your team knows exactly what they are trying to achieve and plans accordingly, the chances of success will improve.

2. Inconsistencies in methodologies and execution strategy

Another common cause behind project failure is ineffective communication. Ineffective communication leads to inconsistencies in approach and causes projects to progress haphazardly. 

Some project managers also have to deal with multiple change requests and cater to stakeholder demands. These deviations can cause issues like scope creep and may require you to drastically change the original plan. As a result, you will be left with a confused team and a chaotic structure.

In most cases, setting up an effective communication plan and keeping everyone on the same page can eliminate these issues. Project managers also make a change management plan beforehand to keep scope creep in check.

3. Inadequate stakeholder engagement and interest

Stakeholder management is among the most important responsibilities of a project manager. You’ll come across two types of key stakeholders that are difficult to manage.

The first type will be too involved in the project. They’ll expect regular reports, will have many suggestions, and might even have some unrealistic expectations from your team. The second type is even more challenging. They won’t even bother to read your updates but will expect timely results.

Some project managers don’t like too much outsider involvement in their projects and discourage stakeholder involvement. This may end up being detrimental to the project and cause failure. 

As a project manager, your responsibility is to deal with both sides of the coin and make an effective strategy that keeps everyone on the same page. You need to involve stakeholders at the critical points and proceed only with their approval to ensure success.

4. Inadequate motivation

Project managers need to ensure that their teams are motivated to finish the project successfully. Your current state of mind can have a huge impact on how you approach a problem. A monotonous work schedule or the feeling of not being heard can negatively impact team productivity.

The simplest way to keep your team motivated is through celebrating key milestones and recognizing top performers. This would encourage your team members to perform to their fullest and keep the momentum going. 

5. Lack of transparency

Transparency is underrated as people often don’t understand the relationship between project visibility and success. However, in reality, transparency can have a significant impact on your team’s performance. Teams that trust each other and can see the bigger picture will ultimately be more invested in a project. 

Project teams are diverse, and members can augment one another’s experiences and collaborate effectively in a transparent environment. On top of that, there are virtually no risks involved as there are no disadvantages of sharing data except the obvious exception of employees’ and clients’ personal data with stakeholders.

6. Lack of access to necessary tools

Whether planning an event or a complex industrial project, you’ll have to ensure effective resource allocation. Most beginners make the mistake of only thinking about the financial aspect when they talk about resource allocation, and that creates problems down the line. 

Effective managers know that numerous other resources are just as important. Some of them are as follows.

  • Human resources: The people you have are the most important resource. As a manager, your job is to select the best people for the job, keep them engaged, and ensure their availability during the project lifecycle. 
  • Facilities: You can have the best plan and the best people, but they won’t be able to do anything without the tools/facilities they need. Managers are responsible for ensuring the availability of such facilities.
  • External vendors: In many projects, you might depend on external vendors for key tasks. A big part of project management is dealing with external entities and ensuring that they perform as expected of them.
  • Knowledgebase: You don’t always have to go through an experience to learn valuable lessons. Almost all projects are well-documented, and you can use the past experiences of other teams to improve your chances of success.

Steps for creating an excellent project plan

When it comes to project planning, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that guarantees results. All project plans are dynamic and require a different approach. However, some essential activities will always be a part of any project planning process. The following sections will take a brief look at them. 

Conduct research and outline the business case

Before you start the planning process, it’s important to take a break and first understand the demands of the project and create a business case for it. If you don’t know the importance of the project, it is impractical to expect that you can get all the stakeholders on the same page.

Identify and meet the stakeholders

The Project Management Institute (PMI) describes project stakeholders as anyone who can affect or can be affected by the project. They can be your team members, your company executives, the clients, or even some external groups. Depending on the complexity and scope of a project, stakeholders can range from a small group of people to population segments.

As a project manager, you are responsible for identifying and managing stakeholders throughout the project. You must also understand and manage their expectations and make sure no conflicts arise due to miscommunication.

The best way to ensure effective communication is through proactively establishing a tailored communication plan. This stakeholder register tells you about any particular party’s role, influence, and interest in the project. This is an effective strategy that can help you in managing and dealing with key stakeholders during the project’s lifecycle.

Define project scope

This is one of the most important stages of the project planning process. All projects revolve around their scopes because a project scope delivers the most comprehensive picture of what to expect from a project.

All stakeholders need to be involved in scope creation because the scope statement acts as a guideline or point of reference for everyone. A typical scope statement deals with the objectives, assumptions, estimates, and constraints of a project. In many projects, scope statements take considerable time and negotiations before they are finalized.

The project scope statement does not have a specific format per se. However, there are some best practices you must keep in mind while coming up with one.

  • Do not use any jargon or technical language
  • Keep it short and precise; brevity is your friend
  • Never make any sweeping statement or go over the top with commitments
  • Ensure that the scope statement clarifies the business case, the benefits, and the novelty of your project

Set your goals and objectives

Project goals are an extension of the scope statement and talk about the actual impact of the project. They define the long-term technical benefits, outcomes, and tangible improvements in the existing overall situation because of the project.

Many people use objectives and goals interchangeably. However, project goals and objectives serve different functions in project management. Goals define the high-level targets of a project, while objectives are more tangible, specific, and focus on the immediate impact.

The SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timebound) framework is one of the most effective tools you can use to simplify the goal-setting process. Learn more about what the SMART framework is and how it can help you.

Identify risks and create effective mitigation strategies

No matter how ideal the situation around a project is, there will always be some risks that may affect your progress. Risk assessment and mitigation is an important part of any project manager’s job because despite all the risks, finishing a project with little or no cost/schedule overruns is important. 

Some of the most common sources of risks in project management are market volatility, technical failures, legal issues, or any other extreme conditions. Assess all possible risks during the planning phase and develop contingency plans by the order of their likelihood. Through quick thinking and a proactive approach, you can ensure optimal performance even in adverse conditions.

Create a timeline

Once you’ve finalized your objectives and know what you plan to do, it’s time to create a schedule. A well-planned schedule has the expected start/end dates of each task, identifies dependencies, effectively delegates tasks, indicates the allocated resources, and states the duration of each activity.

That’s not all! Maintaining your team’s morale is crucial for progress. You can’t expect your team to work on top gear from day one till the end. Try to balance things out by mixing things up in the schedule. Include small breaks after intensive activities, and make sure to set aside some time to celebrate key milestones.

Finalize monitoring techniques

The final characteristic of any excellent project plan is that it will have predefined performance indicators and an effective reporting system. Regular reports and updates allow everyone to stay updated on progress. As a manager, efficient reporting and clear KPIs can help you maintain effective quality control on your project and ensure everything stays on track.

Common project planning techniques 

It’s up to you and your team to decide the best approach to planning a particular project. What matters most is that your plan includes all the aforementioned steps. Some of the most commonly used planning techniques are brainstorming, cause and effect diagrams, critical path analysis, and Gantt charts. Let’s explore them in more detail. 

Brainstorming

This one is quite simple. Brainstorming is a perfect activity for any team that works together like a well-oiled machine. Organizations with a matrix structure benefit the most from a brainstorming session. Project teams usually consist of people from different departments and all of them come with different perspectives and experiences. Brainstorming sessions are a perfect tool to positively leverage the diverse environment in such a team and come up with unique ideas.

Cause and effect diagrams

Cause and effect diagrams or fishbone diagrams are a great visualization tool for projects with a lot of external influences. These diagrams allow your team to learn more about the deeper causes of the problem at hand and effectively categorize them.

Critical path analysis

Even someone only remotely associated with project management is likely to have heard of critical path analysis. This technique is best suited for projects with a lot of dependent tasks. Critical path analysis allows your team to visualize the entire project and identify the most important tasks for success. Team members also get to know the exact effect their tasks have on the project, which can be great for motivation.

Gantt charts

A Gantt chart is a simple visualization tool that can encapsulate all the necessary data about a project. What are the current activities, what has been done, and what’s planned next? A Gantt chart will tell you everything you need to know.

Benefits of using project planning software

For the longest time, spreadsheets have been the go-to tool for planning a project. However, they are not as perfect as they are thought to be. Spreadsheets are clunky, boring, and an absolute nightmare to track. If you are still relying on them for project management, it’s time to stop and embrace positive change.

Project management software tools are a viable alternative to spreadsheets as they can potentially revolutionize the way you handle projects. From effective collaboration to report generation and automated tracking algorithms, project management tools are designed to help streamline your projects from cradle-to-grave. 

Furthermore, the best part about project planning software tools is their scalability. Any market competitive tool will offer enough intuitive features and data-driven approaches to handle the most complex projects with the same efficiency and intuitiveness.

An increasing percentage of projects are starting to meet their original goals while staying on time and within budget. There are numerous reasons behind this increase, but the most important factor is increasing accessibility to quality project management software.

Final thoughts

Planning is often the foundation on which a project stands. A strong plan that effectively utilizes all available resources and streamlines project activities can make your life easier down the road. 

Benjamin Franklin once said, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” The same philosophy applies to project management. By having an effective plan, you can always stay ahead of the curve and ensure a successful end to your project regardless of the complexities and risks involved.





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