Project Planning a Step by Step Guide

Project Planning | By Duncan Haughey | Read time minutes

Three business people working together with laptops around an office table

The key to a successful project is in its planning. Creating a project plan is the first thing you should do when undertaking any project.

Often project planning is ignored in favour of getting on with the work. However, many people fail to realise the value of a project plan for saving time, money and many problems.

This article looks at a simple, practical approach to project planning. Upon completing this guide, you should have a sound project planning approach that you can use for future projects.

Step 1: Project Goals

A project is successful when it has met the needs of the stakeholders. A stakeholder is anybody directly or indirectly impacted by the project. Remember, a stakeholder can be internal or external to your organisation.

As a first step, it is crucial to identify the stakeholders in your project. It is not always easy to determine the stakeholders of a project, particularly those impacted indirectly. Examples of stakeholders are:

  • The project sponsor
  • The customer who receives the deliverables
  • The users of the project output (end users)
  • The project manager and project team
  • The project's investors

Next, you need to prioritise your stakeholders by their influence on the project. How important is it that they are happy with the outcome of the project? A tried and tested way to understand the interest level of each stakeholder group is to create a Power-Interest Grid.

Power Interest Grid: Keep Satisfied, Manage Closely, Monitor, and Keep Informed
Figure 1: Power-Interest Grid for Stakeholder Analysis

As you can see from the matrix above, stakeholders in the top right quadrant are the ones you should pay close attention to because they can have the most significant impact on your project, either positively or negatively. Manage these stakeholders carefully.

Once you understand who the stakeholders are, the next step is to determine their needs and concerns. The best way to do this is by conducting stakeholder interviews. Take time during the interviews to draw out the requirements that create tangible benefits. Sometimes stakeholders will talk about needs or concerns that aren't relevant and don't deliver benefits. These can be recorded and set aside.

Once you have conducted all the interviews and have a comprehensive list of requirements, the next step is to prioritise them. From the prioritised list, create a set of easily measurable goals. A good technique for doing this is to review them against the SMART principle. This way, the achievement of the goal will be easy to identify.

Once you have established a clear set of goals, record them in the project plan. It can be helpful also to include the needs and expectations of your stakeholders.

You have completed the most challenging part of the planning process. Now it's time to move on and look at the project deliverables.

Step 2: Project Deliverables

Using the goals you have defined in step 1, create a list of things the project needs to deliver to meet those goals. Specify when and how to deliver each item.

Add the deliverables to the project plan with an estimated delivery date. You will establish more accurate delivery dates during the scheduling phase, which is next.

Step 3: Project Schedule

A Gantt chart, pen and notebook

Create a list of tasks to carry out for each deliverable identified in step 2. For each task, determine the following:

  • The amount of effort (hours or days) required for completing the task
  • The person who will carry out the task

Once you have established the effort for each task, you can work out the effort required for each deliverable and accurate delivery date. Update your deliverables section with the more precise delivery dates.

At this point in the planning, you could use a solution such as Wrike, Microsoft Project Online or GanttPRO to create your project schedule. Alternatively, use one of the many free templates available. Input all of the deliverables, tasks, durations and the people who will complete each task.

Create a Fully Featured Excel Gantt Chart

A common problem discovered at this stage is when you have an imposed delivery deadline from the sponsor that is not realistic based on your estimates. If you find out this is the case, you must contact the sponsor immediately. The options you have in this situation are:

  • Renegotiate the deadline (project delay)
  • Employ additional resources (increased cost)
  • Reduce the scope of the project (less delivered)

Use the project schedule to justify pursuing one of these options.

Step 4: Supporting Plans

This section deals with the plans you should create as part of the planning process. These can be included directly in the project plan.

Human Resource Plan

Identify, by name, the individuals and organisations with a leading role in the project. For each, describe their roles and responsibilities on the project.

Next, specify the number and type of people needed to carry out the project. For each person, detail start dates, the estimated duration, and the method to obtain them.

Create a single sheet containing this information.

Communications Plan

Create a document showing who to keep informed about the project and how they will receive the information. The most common mechanism is a weekly or monthly status report, describing how the project is performing, milestones achieved and the work you've planned for the next period.

Risk Management Plan

Risk management is an integral part of project management. Although often overlooked, it is crucial to identify as many risks to your project as possible and prepare to mitigate those risks.

Here are some examples of common project risks:

  • Time and cost estimates are too optimistic.
  • Customer review and feedback cycle too slow.
  • Unexpected budget cuts.
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities.
  • The project team obtained no stakeholder input.
  • Not clearly understanding stakeholder needs.
  • Stakeholders change requirements after the project has started.
  • Stakeholders add new requirements after the project has begun.
  • Poor communication results in misunderstandings, quality problems and rework.
  • Lack of resource commitment or required skillset.
A risk register showing a typical risk and mitigation entry
Figure 2: Risk Register

Project managers can track risks using a simple risk log, as you can see from the example above. Add each risk you have identified to your risk log; give it a rating, high(5), medium(3) or low(1), write down what you will do if it occurs and what you will do to prevent it from happening (mitigation). Review your risk log regularly, adding new risks as they arise during the life of the project. Remember, if you ignore risks, they don't go away.

Congratulations. Having followed the steps above, you should have a good project plan. Don't forget to update your plan as your project progresses and continually measure your progress against the plan.

Recommended read: Project Plans: 10 Essential Elements by Trevor Roberts


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