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Project Planning Essentials

~ By Michelle Symonds

Tablet computer with project manager app and documents with Gantt and financial charts

Very few project plans are simple and straightforward because there are often so many contributing factors to take into account. What exactly are all the tasks that will be required and how long will each task take? Are there dependencies between tasks? Some tasks or activities may require specialist skills or training and sub-contractors may need to be hired for certain aspects of the project. The initial brief may not be very detailed or, even if the requirements are fully documented, problems or omissions may still be revealed at the planning stage. There may also be an unrealistic fixed deadline to contend with.

Time and Money

Project Managers can come under enormous pressure to complete a project by a fixed deadline that has been set because of factors outside their control. This may be a marketing issue where time-to-market for a new product is critical; it may be an investor requirement or any number of other reasons. Whatever it is, the project manager has to work with it. But the worst thing to do is to try and squeeze all the necessary tasks into the schedule and allow for no slippage.

It is completely unrealistic to expect that there will be no need for contingency in the schedule of any project however large or small. So what can be done if all of the required tasks simply will not fit into the time available? Assuming that you have reasonable estimates for these tasks (and make sure that you do) then the best option is to negotiate with the project sponsors to scale back the requirements by either removing some aspects altogether or altering the final deliverable. It is far better to deliver a working product without lots of fancy bells and whistles than to deliver a product with myriad features, but in which the basics do not function properly.

Surveys of individuals affected by the roll-out of a new product highlight the fact that users are usually only interested in the basics working.

So always ensure there is a time contingency built into your plan and if the schedule simply does not allow for this because the project is over-ambitious then negotiate for a reduction in the features of the final deliverable. The same applies to the costs of the project - keep them within budget by scaling back the features rather than cutting corners and delivering a poor quality product or service.

Planning a project is a balancing act between achieving a high quality product or service at the end of the project and having a responsible and realistic attitude towards the timescales and costs involved. These two aspects are not mutually exclusive and with the right skills they can be balanced very effectively.

People

You may, as a project manager, be fortunate enough to be able to select your own team members, but very often the team is the one assigned to you. This is particularly true where work is outsourced to sub-contractors or partners.

In either case the key element that will affect the whole of the project, and your ability to manage it effectively, is how committed the team members are. For large projects you will have to appoint just a few people, gain their commitment and then ensure that they work with more junior members of the teams to ensure the commitment of everyone involved.

Project managers have different skills, personalities and methods of working so it is difficult to define one approach that works better than another. But the key factor to gaining commitment throughout your team is to nurture the individuals within that team. That means noticing when they have done a good job and praising them for it, taking an interest in their concerns or problems with the project and watching out for issues between different team members such as personality clashes. You might think these are not part of the role of a project manager, but try taking a personal interest in key members of the team on your next project and see for yourself what a difference it makes when you build up a team that value each other, trust each other and can work together with real commitment.

Planning Techniques

As with every area of business today, there are software packages available to make the job of a project manager easier. However, a full understanding of the basic principles of project planning is essential in order to get the most out of these tools. The tools are only ever as good as the workman.

Some of the most frequently used techniques in project planning are Brainstorming, Cause and Effect Diagrams, Gantt Charts and Critical Path Analysis.

Just as brainstorming is a useful technique during the business analysis and requirements phase so it can also be useful at the planning stage to identify relationships between tasks, to throw up ideas for efficiency or cost savings, to raise issues of concern and highlight potential problems.

At the planning stage the charts and diagrams are useful tools to visualise all of these issues and more. They can help to clarify different aspects within the plan and, depending on the type of project, they may all be used for different, but equally valid reasons.

Each of these four techniques: Brainstorming, Cause and Effect Diagrams, Gantt Charts and Critical Path Analysis are covered in detail elsewhere.


Michelle Symonds is a qualified PRINCE2 Project Manager and believes that the right project management training can transform a good project manager into a great one and is essential for a successful outcome to any project. There is a wide range of formal and informal project management courses now available that include online learning and podcasts as well as more traditional classroom courses.


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