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Introduction To Project Planning (and Why It’s Important)

by: Shiv Sharma

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln

At some level, all of us would agree with President Lincoln. But deep down, we’ve all been frustrated by the amount of wasteful work project planning creates.

When I first became a manager, I had a deep bias towards execution. Planning felt overrated. The endless documentation and meetings that it entailed felt worthless. They didn’t feel like “actual work”. I thought that extensive planning in an environment where requirements change often is inherently useless. To confirm my bias, I even misinterpreted Agile to convince myself how it means running projects without planning. (Which is completely wrong. However, that is a post for another day)

Such an approach worked for me in more straightforward, short-term projects. It was only when things spiraled out of control for strategic projects, I realized the true importance of project planning. 

The problem isn’t project planning. It’s the lack of understanding of its goals. It’s understanding that project planning doesn’t mean sustaining processes for their own sake. It can be focused, measured, and highly effective.

The goal of project planning is to create a plan to accomplish project goals by minimizing stress for its members. If a project meets its goals but the team is burned out, it’s not a success. The same is true for a happy team that fails to meet deadlines.

Regardless of the size and complexity of your project, the first step of project planning remains the same:

Defining the scope

Scoping a project simply means defining its goals. What work needs to be done to meet the expectations of your stakeholders, and how long should it take. The scope needs to be defined in detail. For example, if the project involves creating a website, the scope should define what pages should be included. In what priority would they be launched and how long would they take? 

The goal is to avoid a situation where the team and stakeholders have different expectations about project success. 

A common mistake made during scoping is not involving the team in the process. Too often stakeholders and project managers seal the scope and then convey the results to the team. The team’s input on the scope is invaluable. It motivates them and at the same time makes the scope more defined. It also helps align the expectations of the stakeholders, project manager, and project members. 

Select PM methodology

Not every project requires a formal PM methodology, but if you’re planning to use one, specify it during the planning phase. Ensure that everyone involved in the project understands the methodology and their role in it. 

For example, if you are using a particular Agile methodology like Scrum, the team needs to understand it well. Not only the technical aspects of Scrum such as Sprint planning, review, retrospective, and daily scrums but also the framework’s application in their specific project. What adjustments would it require? Should the sprint be 2 weeks long or 4 weeks? 

If the project doesn’t require a specific PM methodology, state the ground rules that clarify the cadence of the project updates, and answer any questions that the team might have at this stage. 

Select a PM tool

According to Hive, 77% of high performing projects use project management software. A decade ago, only large projects that involved hundreds of people (construction, manufacturing, etc.) used a PM tool. And PM tools were complex that required extensive training to use. This has changed radically since the emergence of cloud-based SaaS products. 

Now teams of all sizes, across all industries are using collaboration tools to organize their projects. This ranges from project management and team messaging tools to simple task managers. Some teams prefer to organize their tasks using Kanban, some prefer spreadsheets or tables. 

Kanban in Taskworld
Taskworld is a Kanban based project planning tool.

It’s important to specify which PM tool (or a combination of tools) your team would be using to run the project. Without it, team members would resort to using different tools that they are most familiar with. This would cause important project updates and insights to get scattered across multiple platforms, and make it impossible for you to keep track of overall progress. You don’t want to waste your time chasing everyone and having status update meetings. A project management tool will keep everyone in the loop in real-time. 

Plan for contingencies

Unfortunately, failure is always an option. Regardless of how high the stakes are or how confident the team is, every project can fail. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean you’re making excuses prior to the outcome. It doesn’t and shouldn’t take anything away from the team’s dedication to the project.

Contingency planning is proactively charting a course of action in case of an unexpected project outcome. Every project should have a contingency plan. The amount of effort you put into it is directly related to its associated risks. A project to redesign office decor would require a less comprehensive contingency plan than a project to overhaul your SaaS application. 

It’s easy to understand why contingency planning is important. It helps the team prepare for the worst-case outcome. It also helps motivate the team as the effort in any project is proportional to its risk of failure.  

If a project has low risk, the least you should do is to communicate the risk to the team and discuss Plan B. If the project has really high risk, look into a formal approach to contingency planning. Projectmanager.com has a good post on the subject. 

Optimize continuously

Project planning isn’t a one-time exercise that ends as soon as the starts working on the project. It’s a continuous process that needs to evolve with the changing requirements. This is one of the critical aspects that make Kanban such a popular project planning methodology. 

This is also what makes Scrum such a popular Agile framework. At the end of each sprint, the Scrum team reflects on its progress and makes adjustments to the upcoming sprint based on their insights. 

Set the expectations right with the project team so that they are comfortable with changing requirements. You don’t want to be in a situation where every change in the plan is met with resistance. A project management tool is especially useful to optimize projects in real-time because every stakeholder stays abreast of the progress. There are no nasty surprises. This makes it easier for you to adjust the plan base on a continuous stream of feedback. 

If you want a simple, yet powerful project planning tool for your next project, try Taskworld for free. The first month is on us.

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