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Project Planning: The First Line of Defence for Preventing Failed Projects

Project Planning | By Matthew Sheaff | Read time minutes

Gantt chart

Every year thousands of projects are completed over budget, out of scope and past deadline. Still, with each passing year, project managers continue to rush into projects without due diligence in defining the project and creating a plan for project execution. By lightly addressing these critical components they are, in essence, failing their projects before any work has even commenced. So how can project managers efficiently execute a project plan while at the same time meeting the deadlines and expectations of senior management? Here are three simple but critical tips for any project manager to improve project results.

1. Ensure All Stakeholders Are Identified

When beginning any project it is important to meet with all potential stakeholders and understand their interests with respect to the project. Many projects fail when the project manager doesn't realise how a special interest group (ex., unions, environmental groups, etc.) can delay or stop a project. The project manager must represent all such interests in defining the project. In many cases project managers only have a general understanding of the project definition as per the project sponsor (i.e., customer) and do not adequately understand the needs of the target audience/end-users of the project deliverables. Remember that a stakeholder is defined as a person or organisation that is either actively involved in the project, or whose interests may be positively or negatively affected by the execution or completion of the project. A stakeholder may also exert influence over the project and its deliverables.

2. Define, Describe and Validate the Project Definition

Most projects fail due to poor definition. This is the leading cause of scope creep, which leads to unavailable resources and more time and budget necessary to completely satisfy scope. Since the plan reflects the work, resources, budget, and time necessary to satisfy the scope it is easy to see the critical importance of understanding the project definition and description. It is also necessary to ensure agreement from all stakeholders before planning. Let stakeholders review the draft of the project definition document, and get their sign-off, before moving to the planning phase of the project. Also, ensure stakeholders understand that agreement with the project definition only means we all agree with the definition, not that we can satisfy scope, schedule and budget targets. In order to commit to achieving the project's objectives, detailed bottoms-up planning needs to be completed by the subject matter experts who will be performing the project work. It is only through this detailed planning that we can confirm that the project definition is realistic and achievable.

In translating the project scope statement, it is necessary to identify the major deliverables that will satisfy the scope. In addition the team should identify what is in scope and out of scope for each of the major deliverables. It is often a challenge to ensure implicit expectations are surfaced and are made explicit by documenting them in the project definition document.

There are seven essential elements that need to be included in the project definition:

  • A clear description of the business problem and the solution to that problem
  • A description of the benefits of completing the project (the business case)
  • A concise (25-30 word) definition of the project schedule, scope and budget)
  • A list of the major deliverables (which, when delivered, completely satisfy the scope of the project), including what is in scope and out of scope for each
  • A priority matrix which summarises the sponsor's priorities for the schedule, scope and budget parameters that define the project
  • Target customers for the project deliverables
  • Project dependencies (committed dates and commitments to/from other projects)

The above project definition components do not exclude other possibilities that can enhance understanding of the projects, for example:

  • A milestone schedule that can document interim deliverables requested by the sponsor
  • An impact statement that identifies what can or will be impacted by the project
  • Strategic risks
  • Constraints (ex., schedule, environmental, political, cultural, technological)

3. Create a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

The WBS is the foundation of the project plan. The WBS is a hierarchical logical structure that represents all the work necessary to produce all the project deliverables. By doing so it organises and defines the total scope of the project. Work that is not in the WBS is outside the scope of the project. The WBS must be broken down to a sufficient level of detail so that one owner can be assigned responsibility for planning and managing each activity at the lowest level. By understanding the deliverables for assigned activities, by having clear completion criteria, each activity owner can successfully develop realistic and defensible time and budget estimates.


In order to get the right resources at the right time project managers must have a clear definition and a good project plan. Best practice project management isn't an impediment to the project, it is critical to project success. As the saying goes, "Pain me now…or pain me later."

Matthew Sheaff serves as the Director for Information Technology and Project Management at the Performance Institute. For comments and/or questions, he can be contacted directly at The Performance Institute, located in Arlington, VA., is a private, non-partisan think tank seeking to improve government performance through the principles of competition, accountability performance and transparency. PI serves as the nation's leading authority and repository on performance based management practices for government. The mission of the Institute is to identify, study and disseminate the leading management innovations pioneered by "best in class" organisations.

Recommended read: Project Planning a Step by Step Guide, by Duncan Haughey.


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