8 Things to Think About When Planning Your Project
Here are some tips for anyone who’s about to plan a new project. They are for novice project manager but hopefully any project manager will find something useful here:
- Be clear about the deliverable. What exactly gets delivered at the end of the project? You may think it’s obvious but it’s not always the case, particularly in complex projects that have multiple stakeholders. Your project is at risk if your important stakeholders don’t have a shared understanding of what the project is about.
- Read up on Work Breakdown Structures and then use one to break up a complex project into simpler deliverables. Take each task and breakdown into its constituent parts. Keep going until you’ve got a more manageable set of tasks. You end up with something that looks a bit like an organisation hierarchy chart and you’ve now got something to transfer to a plan.
- Create a risk register. Usually created at the start and then ignored for the rest of the project but actually incredibly useful if taken seriously. Taking time out every two or three weeks to think about risks, their likely impact and what you can do to mitigate them can save a lot of pain later. Be honest - sometimes it’s hard to give people bad news but you do yourself no favours if you sugarcoat things when reporting progress. Getting the Project Board to review the risk register is a good way to manage expectations.
- Break a bigger project down into stages. Another one that seems obvious but may not be. Software development is often done in phases - big releases of new functionality or product development are broken down into smaller releases. Rolling out a big new software system across the company ? Can you start with a pilot, or do a department at a time?
- Turn a plan into a Gantt Chart. Include tasks and milestones but put a bit more emphasis on the milestones. You don’t have to do the plan in MS Project but keep it simple if you do. Again, think about your wider audience. Don’t create a plan that looks like you’re trying to micromanage every aspect of the project; step back a level and identify the important milestones that show real progress. Plans with too much detail are hard to follow and even harder to keep up to date.
- Ask for a Project Board if one doesn’t already exist. You need support from the wider team, particularly from senior staff. You sometimes need advice and it’s also important that you manage expectations. People don’t like surprises when things start go wrong and a regular forum is an opportunity to update people, flag up risks and talk about issues.
- Don’t do resource planning in MS Project. It’s useful for creating simple Gantt charts with dependencies between milestones and tasks but for the novice it can be hard to do any kind of resource scheduling in MS Project. Spreadsheets are a better way to schedule resources and track time spent on different activities. Get team members to submit timesheets (assuming you need to track time) or alternatively get them to use one of the low cost online time tracking applications.
- Have a project ‘kick-off’ meeting. Project management is a leadership role. Get as many team members as you can in a room and tell them about the project. Don’t assume everyone understands a Gantt chart - walk them through it. Invite feedback, listen to people and be prepared to adjust the plan if people tell you you’ve got something wrong.
Project Management is a craft - it has to be ‘hands on’. A good plan is important but so are communication skills, a knack for anticipating problems and a willingness to pick up the phone and make stuff happen. Finally, it’s important to review how things went when the project is finished - lessons learned are invaluable preparation for the next project.