The forgotten art of Project planning. A definitive guide.

Every software development project brief that lands on your desk aims to tell a story about the goals, team, timing and/or deliverables of a client or a project- and the very success of a project is dependent on a dynamically evolving project plan. A well-crafted project plan might not be getting the praise it deserves, and we are here to change that. Creating a project plan is the first thing you as the project manager should do when you take on a project. Whether your project is similar to a short and to the point anecdote, or if it’s an epic tale rife with plot twists and turns, it has to follow an arc or an outline- or as we like to call it, a project plan. Often however project planning is ignored in favor of getting on with the work prematurely. Many people fail to realize the value, especially in a fast-moving, instantly-gratifying society, of a project plan for saving time, money and many problems. We are hearing more and more clients and project managers questioning the importance of a project plan and we will dissect the arguments made against the value of project planning later-on in the article.

A project plan gives us the opportunity to think about the bigger picture associated with a project and work backwards from understanding the ultimate-goal of a brief as opposed to developing temporary recommendations and partial solutions to your client’s problems. In this article we will be analyzing the importance of a project plan, regardless of the scope of the project or the length of the story it tells. We will also provide a project plan checklist for you to help perfect the art of project planning.

So, what exactly is project planning?

In order to have a sound project planning approach that you can use for future projects you will first need to get on the same page about what project planning is. At its core, a project plan outlines your approach and the process your team will employ to manage a project. The key here is to realize that whilst this map is not set in stone and you may take some interesting side trips along the way, you will always know your ending credits. That right there is the most valuable component of project planning. It gives you the opportunity to think about what lies beyond just the brief in front of you by making you draft your story’s world and create your characters and their backstories before you start writing the actual story. Project planning thus refers to everything you do to set up your project for success, including activities or tasks in each phase of the project cycle. Developing a project plan doesn’t have to be a complicated process. It is usually presented as a Gantt chart and could be made in Microsoft Project or on one of the other Microsoft Project alternative planning tools.

The project plan is your story arc that will guide you through the path to your desired end and consists of four primary phases: Initiation, Planning, Baking, and Evaluating. Initiation consists of researching and brainstorming, planning is acquiring all the required elements, baking is where you will be mixing the elements and creating your project and evaluation is when you will finally test out the project and review it. When you’re listing out the subtasks under each main phase, be sure to map out the hypothesized hours for each task, start and end dates as well as foreseeable milestones for the project (eg: going live). Microsoft Project also has a feature which allows for you to see a 50,000ft view summarizing the project, phases, milestones and progress. This feature will once again help visualize the big picture before you start working on a project, and the dependencies once you’ve started working through the project.

Project planning is pretty easy when you break it down into these four phases, but it definitely has its share of skeptics. The arguments against project planning often follow as such:

1) Due to the very nature of the tech industry, project plans are often changing and becoming out of date, thus making it challenging for anyone to stick to.

2) Project planning can hinder a team’s ability to self-optimize, meaning by outlining the phases of the project and its subtasks, you as the project manager will end up constraining your team.

3) Projects plans are not grounded in reality. The fantastic nature of project planning makes it arduous for the team to deliver.

The alternatives suggested by the skeptics is to make the team more self-organized. A team is given a brief and asked to figure out the nitty gritty’s of the project. This entrusted the team to do their own “planning”. Whilst this method sounds empowering, it lacks the vision to motivate the workers to truly understand the goals of the project.

If you are also skeptical of the skeptic’s “plan” to eliminate the need for a project plan you’ve come to the right place. We have listed down 7 reasons why a project plan is probably the single most important piece of project documentation despite having to constantly keep up with the evolving nature of the tech industry.

1) It clarifies the process and the activities of the project

2) It gives you the opportunity to see the big picture of the project and see how individual tasks are related to one another

3) You can use this information to create an accurate estimate and define the perimeters of a project’s outputs and scope

4) It will help you allocate team members to each subtask

5) It will help you establish milestones within the project life cycle

6) These milestones can be used to track the progress of the project

7) All parties involved will be able to use the project plan to agree on the deliverables and the timelines

As the 7 reasons mentioned above outlines why, both clients and project managers shouldn’t forget the importance and the art of project planning. If you’re working with clients, they will ask for a project plan before they release their budgets. In your project plan you will need to establish when the project is going to be delivered, how much it will cost, what will be delivered and how it will be delivered. A project plan is more than just a blueprint, it is essentially a synopsis of the project, available for all the parties involved to refer to throughout the project’s life cycle. Without a project plan it will be difficult to answer the questions above with a certain level of certainty. It’s not just clients who need a project plan. As a project manager you will need to know more than just a detail the client wants to know. Following the outline of the project will help you, the project planner, ensure the project is on track in terms of the budget, delivery dates and the scope.

Project planning isn’t a difficult task, but it could definitely be a time-consuming task when done properly. A project plan isn’t set in stone thus will need continuous reformations and amendments. Even if you’re working on an agile project, a project plan will provide a clear direction for you and your team to follow. This living document will ensure all your team members are on the same page with the project goals and timelines. Since the document should evolve as the project progresses, it will document the changes, challenges and victories of the project.

Now, if we have successfully convinced you about the importance of a project plan, you’re probably wondering what your next steps are. Before you start creating your next project plan, you will first need to understand the project’s brief. A project brief is the starting point of project as it defines the client’s requirements for a project. A brief should outline the projects goal (why), the deliverables and the outputs (What) the timelines for the deliverables (when) the process or the methodology (how) and the target audiences (who). Without understanding the basic components of a brief, it will be very difficult to deliver a project that meets all your client’s requirements. Dissecting the brief will help you create a plan that works towards achieving the project goals, allocating your resources properly and ensuring you meet all the deadlines.

Once you understand the project brief, you can start constructing your project plan. Regardless of the scope of the story you’re trying to tell, the principles and the steps remain the same. We have simplified the art of project planning to 10 simple steps to help you develop the perfect plan for your next project.

1. Wireframe your workflow
Sketch out your project from initiation to completion even if it’s in a rough state. Ensure you start with the overall structure of the project and then eventually work in all the subtasks that fall under each task. Use the four phases Initiation, Planning, Baking, and Evaluating as guiding tools. These four basic phases will help construct the wireframe for your project and will make adding in specific tasks much easier. At this stage you’re not looking at individual tasks, but rather how they can be grouped together and how they play into and with each other.

2. Forecast your timeline
Timelines can often make or break projects. During this stage be sure to allocate appropriate time slots for each task. In order to allocate enough time for each task you will need to plan in detail for phase. If you know you have a lot of control over a certain task or a resource, ensure you plan it in great detail. Remember to make generous allowances for the rest so you don’t over-commit yourself and/or the team. Keep in mind that there will be certain tasks that carry a large level of uncertainty around it, and for make sure you are being realistic and make appropriate updates to the project plan as the project progresses.

3. Highlight the details
Once you’ve wireframed your workflow and forecasted your timeline, your next step will be to let the details of your project shine. Details can be overwhelming, but don’t shy away from it. Defining each task into sub tasks and each subtask into sub-sub tasks will help you understand the tasks under each phase and thus accurately estimate how long each stage of the project will take.

4. Don’t guestimate
You might be feeling the pressure to quickly create a project plan, but guestimating how long each task will take to complete will only come back to haunt you. Guessing will result in a poor timing plan and you will be blamed eventually when your team isn’t able to deliver on time. It also doesn’t give you solid ground to stand on when discussing the project plan with your clients. If you are unsure of exactly how long a task will take, allow your team to chime in and help come up with a fair timeline.

5. Question the timeline
When you’re asking someone to estimate how long a task will take, make sure you’re not asking them to do so in isolation. As the project manager you should give them enough context and a rough number you think is suitable for the task to be completed. Once they’ve come up with a more manageable timeline, ask them how they arrived at their estimation. This is not to question their capabilities, but rather to trigger your team to think about elements they might have forgotten to include in the initial timeline. It will also help you further understand the sub tasks and the sub-sub tasks a phase is comprised of.

6. Allowance for amendments
As you maneuver through the twists and turns of the project, you will need to allocate enough time for amendments in your project plan. Amendments are not due to poor planning on your end but is due to the very nature of planning. It is not only internal changes you need to be mindful of, but also the changes coming from clients. Clients are notorious for changing things despite having a perfect project plan. You might think your project goal and the plan is closely aligned the client’s needs, but last-minute changes are part of the journey. These changes will take time and should be taken into consideration when you’re planning your next project.

7. Plan for Plan C
Whether you look at the glass half full or half empty, planning for the best-case scenario is a rooky mistake because plans never go to plan. Make sure you thread the fine line between being optimistic and realistic when creating your next project plan. Have a flexible module that will allow for you to entertain multiple plots and scenarios should plan A not work out in your favor.

8. Final phase
The final phase might seem quite straight forward- finish on time and get it live- unfortunately it’s not always as easy as it sounds. The final stages can be the most complex and therefore it’s crucial you don’t shy away from details when it comes to this phase of the project life cycle. Ensure you allot a generous amount of time for this phase, so you can load content, QAs, test, get client approvals and finally deploy to production.

9. Live & Reviewed
Though there is a lot of excitement around going live, it doesn’t mark the end of a project. When a project is live it should actually be signally the start of the next phase, which is testing and analyzing the performance of the project. Many project managers will mark going live as the final milestone of the project but be sure you plan for post-live testing when you’re planning your next project. Post-live testing is comprised of making amendments to optimize the project and taking notes of all the lessons learned.

10. Milestones & Baselines
Use milestones throughout the project plan to ensure the client and your team are on the same page regarding timelines and key dates of the project. Milestones are a good way to gage if the project is running smooth on schedule.

Whether you were fan of project plans to begin with or a skeptic questioning the need for a project plan in the modern day and stumbled upon this article, we hope you’re now convinced by the benefits of having a well thought-through project plan. As a project manager, a project plan will help you, your team and your clients get on the same page and keep the project on track. A project plan is arguably the most important document created on your project and should be detailed out before your team starts working on the project. At its core, a project plan should communicate your approach and the process your team will use to manage the project according to goals of the brief. In order to create a thorough project plan, you will need to first understand the brief (why, what, when, how and who). Once you’ve developed the brief you can start tackling the project plan. Make sure you follow the project management plan checklist since it covers the basics you need to master in order to develop your own project plan.

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