Project planning: A step by step guide

brenda sitting at desk with Gantt chart in the background

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 in saving time, money and many problems.
Planning is the key to a successful project. Therefore, creating a project plan is the first thing you should do when undertaking any project.

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

Step 1 Stakeholders

A project is successful when the needs of the stakeholders have been met. A stakeholder is anybody directly or indirectly impacted by the project.

As a first step, it is essential to identify the stakeholders in your project. It is not always easy to identify 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 outputs
* The project manager and project team

Once you understand who the stakeholders are, the next step is to establish their needs. The best way to do this is by conducting stakeholder interviews. Take time during the interviews to draw out the actual conditions that create tangible benefits. Often stakeholders will talk about needs that aren’t relevant and don’t deliver benefits. These can be recorded and assigned a low priority.

Step 2 Project Goals

Often you will be given the project goals as part of your brief. However, there are also times when determining the project goals is part of the process.

Once you have conducted all the stakeholder interviews and have a comprehensive list of needs, the next step is to prioritise them. Then, from the prioritised list, create a set of goals that can be easily measured. A technique for doing this is to review them against the SMART principle. This way, it will be easy to know when a goal has been achieved.

Once you have established a clear set of goals, they should be recorded in the project plan. It can be helpful to also include the needs and expectations of your stakeholders.
This is the most difficult part of the planning process completed. It’s time to move on and look at the project deliverables.

You can download a free project plan template here.

Step 3 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. Then, specify when and how each item must be completed.

Add the deliverables to the project plan with an estimated delivery date. More accurate delivery dates will be established during the scheduling phase, which is next.

Step 4 Project Schedule

Create a list of tasks that need to be carried out for each deliverable identified in step 2. For each task, specify the following:

* The amount of effort (hours or days) required to complete the task
* The resource 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. Then, update your deliverables section with the more precise delivery dates.

You could choose to use a software package such as Microsoft Project to create your project schedule at this point in the planning. Alternatively, download Happen Consulting’s free project plan template. Input all deliverables, tasks, durations and the resources who will complete each task.

A common problem discovered at this point is when a project has an imposed delivery deadline from the sponsor that is not realistic based on your estimates. If you find that 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 5 Supporting Plans

This section deals with other plans you should create as part of the planning process.

Human Resource Plan

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

Next, describe the number and type of people needed to carry out the project. Then, for each resource, detail start dates, estimated duration and the method you will use for obtaining them.

Communications Plan

Create a document showing who needs to be kept informed about the project and how they will receive the information. The most common mechanism is a weekly/monthly progress report describing how the project is performing, milestones achieved and work planned for the next period.

Risk Management Plan

Risk management is an integral part of project management. Although often overlooked, it is essential to identify as many risks to your project as you and be prepared with a strategy in case it happens.

Here are some examples of common project risks:

* Time and cost estimates too optimistic
* Customer review and feedback cycle too slow
* Unexpected budget cuts
* Unclear roles and responsibilities
* Stakeholder input is not sought, or their needs are not adequately understood
* Stakeholders changing requirements after the project has started
* Stakeholders adding new requirements after the project has started
* Poor communication resulting in misunderstandings, quality problems and rework
* Lack of resource commitment

Risks can be tracked using a simple risk log. First, add each risk you have identified to your risk log and write down what you will do in the event and what you will do to prevent it from occurring. Then, review your risk log regularly, adding new risks as they occur during the project’s life. Remember, when risks are ignored, they don’t go away.

Congratulations. Having followed all the steps above, you should have a good project plan. Remember to update it as the project progresses and measure progress against the plan.

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