In this article, I will cover project planning and how I conduct project planning meetings. I’ll take a broader perspective on the topic and share some practices that have helped me build solid project plans. From there, we look at how you should be running project planning meetings.
So let’s assume you are in charge of a new project, and now your job is to set up this project, figure out the details and create a time schedule that works for everybody. How do you go about it? And how do you integrate planning meetings into your process?
Let’s jump right in.
Project planning the way I do it happens in several cycles
You can also call them iterations. The thing is: creating a realistic schedule that takes into consideration all constraints and everybody’s wishes is not something you can accomplish in one or two planning sessions. Planning is done and in several iterations, and it can take a dozen or more attempts until you have a good schedule that will work and that everybody involved will agree to.
Before you start planning, make sure you have a few key things in place.Those are the prerequisites that enable you to go into the planning process.
What you need before you start the planning process
1. First of all, you need to have an approved project. Getting involved in planning the details before having a general approval would be like planning out details of your wedding without having ever asked your partner whether he or she would like to marry you.
2. You need to have a general idea of when the project should be scheduled. On a more detailed level, that means knowing when the specific deliverables created during the project are needed.
3. You need to have a general idea of when the project should be scheduled. On a more detailed level, that means understanding when the specific deliverables created during the project are needed. Suppose you are building a machine that your sales team would like to present at a trade fair mid November, that would require the machine to be ready by — let’s say — end of October.
4. Also, you need to have a project organization in place. You need to know what roles (functions) are needed in the project. And you need to have a project team with team members who have been nominated to support your project.
Why do you already need a set team when going into planning? Well, eventually it’s going to be the individual team members who are going to do the work. And in order to create a plan, you need to know when your teammates are available. Also, your team members are the ones to give you estimations for the various project tasks. So you need to know the team.
5. Lastly, you need to be clear about any assumptions your project is based upon. Assumptions are certain prerequisites or conditions that you assume to be true to create the project schedule. I have written in a separate article about project assumptions. I recommend you check it out.
My Multi-Stage Planning Process (with Planning Meetings)
So how do you go about planning your project? And how do you use planning meetings in the process?
I usually start with 1:1 meetings with every team member. First of all, it gives me an opportunity to get to know everybody, and we can discuss their involvement in the project and how they contribute to the “big picture”. So my questions to people are: How can you contribute? What specific tasks can you perform? When are you available? How long do you think this task is going to take you? Do we need to put you on training first so you can accomplish your project work? Those kinds of questions.
The 1:1: meetings also will reveal any dependencies. So I will understand the different tasks we need to do and how they are related. What tasks have to come first, which ones come second, third, and so on. So basically how the tasks are linked, how they depend on each other. This will then also later help to identify the critical path, which is the shortest time it will take us to go through the entire project.
So I will have a 1:1: meeting with every team member and every stakeholder. Basically with everybody who is somehow contributing to the project. From these meetings, I get all the input I need for the second step which is to create a draft project schedule. I usually create the first draft schedule on my own, locked into my room. Often I’m joined by my co-project manager. So let’s say I’m managing a project for a client. Then they will also have a project manager who coordinates the customer side and team. So we will work together and we will sit together, look at my screen and we will build a project schedule from scratch.
A word about tools I use for project planning: If you have followed me for a while you know that I like to keep things simple and I usually use Excel for creating project schedules because it is good for most projects (I’ve managed million-dollar projects in Excel using these templates).
Here's what my project plan in Excel looks like ...
You can get this template as part of my Project Template Pack -- a complete set of templates I use.
For projects of greater complexity and with more dependencies, I use Microsoft Project. Primarily to create the initial schedule that shows all the dependencies and Project will calculate the expected project finish date for me. That’s what Project can do really well! You can find dozens of tutorials on Microsoft Project on my site!
My first “draft” project schedule is already a pretty solid version which, I would say is 95% complete.
What to do next? I will review the schedule again individually with each of my team members. Why again 1:1 meetings? I don’t like meetings with a lot of people to discuss conceptual stuff like a project plan. It’s not effective because at a given moment, you can only discuss a specific topic and that’s only going to be relevant for maybe 1-2 attendees. So you are wasting everybody else’s time and people are gonna fall asleep. That’s why I like to do one-on-one meetings and wherever possible.
I may also invite several team members to a planning meeting when they have some joint tasks or in case there are dependencies between tasks.
During this second round planning meeting with 1:1 with each team member, we go over the draft schedule, discuss the structure and I gather feedback. To make these meetings very effective and to make sure each meeting results in an improved schedule, I usually share the draft schedule with the people I meet with a few days before the meeting. So by the time we meet, they have already had a look at it and put together some notes. In the planning meeting, I listen to their feedback and we make changes to the schedule, always double-checking the tasks and effort estimations (Did we miss anything? Are the numbers still ok?).
You might be rolling your eyes about the effort I put into planning and the number of meetings I am doing just for the purpose of creating a schedule. The thing is, planning a new, unfamiliar project is really complex. And you easily miss important steps or make some stupid error that will haunt you later on. So through the many discussions and review sessions, you can discover and eliminate mistakes or gaps in your plan, and create a schedule that’s most likely going to work! Also, my collaborative planning approach helps to get buy-in from stakeholders and team members, because they feel they have contributed in an important way and they are more committed to our common “mission”.
Now onto the third step of my planning process: Once I have reviewed the schedule individually with everybody and once all project participants have nodded to the schedule, then I will present the schedule to the entire team. Usually in the kick-off, but we might also do a team meeting before the kickoff where we go through the final schedule. At that stage, it’s not about discussing the schedule and whether it is right or not. It’s just to get everybody on the same page so that all team members know when they are going to be involved.
How do you run an effective project planning meeting for your project? What are things you should consider to make these meetings valuable and effective?
1. First, make sure you are talking to the right people! For creating a schedule, get input from those people who eventually are going to do the work. Supervisors, self-proclaimed experts and other people with no knowledge of the subject matter are not going to be of any help and you should not rely on their feedback.
2. Also, be very transparent in your communication. Keep meeting minutes and share any important points and decisions with your meeting attendees. And sure enough, share your draft schedule with the project team. This is another important reason I use Excel for project planning because any file can easily be shared with anybody.
3. Block enough time. My planning meetings typically last between 1.5 and 2 hours, and that is totally acceptable. I wouldn’t go below 1.5 hours because you need time for discussion and brainstorming ideas and workarounds.
4. Before a planning session, clearly define the intended goal, so what you want to achieve in that meeting. This way, people will know why they have been invited and they also know what to prepare. Because very often, people need to make some analysis or they need to talk to their coworkers or their manager before they can give you the input you are looking for. So give people a heads-up about what you want to get from the discussion. What you do not want is to leave a meeting empty-handed, without having made any progress.
5. Openly share your assumptions. Don’t just assume that somebody will do a certain task and to what extent or in what timeframe. Reconfirm any assumptions you have made: “Okay. So my understanding is that you’re going to be doing X and you have the tools and so on”. So because then maybe it turns out that your assumptions are not entirely true. Maybe somebody else from some other department needs to be involved that you didn’t think of. Or you need to get some additional equipment, approval or whatsoever. So put your assumptions on the table and confirm the responsibilities for every team member.
Remember that project planning is a very collaborative process — a team activity coordinated by you!
Finally, focus on your coordination and leadership role (as a facilitator) and don’t get too involved in technical questions or estimations. Input on tasks and work effort should always be provided by your team members, who understand the subject matter best. Never make estimations yourself (you are not the expert) because they may turn out to be dead wrong. Read my guide on estimating work effort.
So this is generally how I go about project planning and how to run project planning meetings. I hope this was useful for you.
Want to see how I tackle the other steps in a project?
If you want to learn more about how I manage the other critical steps in a project, not just the planning, but also how I get stakeholders involved, how I go about understanding customer requirements or how I motivate the team, how I keep the team motivated etc. I have an online course, it’s called Real-World Project Management. In this course, I show exactly and with lots of examples how I set up and lead big projects from start to finish, successfully and with a highly motivated team! Interested? Click here to learn more about my course.