How to plan a project: Going from zero to green lights

The planning phase is the most critical phase in a project.

Most of your future success depends on how you start off …

In this article I’ll show you how to plan your project.

Project planning teaser

Here’s what you need to do:

Step 1: Get an understanding of the subject matter

You can’t plan a project without a good understanding of the field. In this section I’ll show you how to become an expert in a few days.

When I took over my first IT project, everything was new. I had to deal with servers, storage, backup and more. The problem was: I didn’t know anything about these things. So, I sat down with each of my specialists and asked: “Tell me, what’s all that stuff about?” This was helpful because I got a picture of their work, and I understood how a backup system should be planned.

Similar to my approach, you should try to get a good understanding of the topic.

How do you become an expert in a new field?

By reading articles and by talking to a lot of people:

  • Read relevant studies, articles or books
  • Talk to people in your organization
  • Talk to experts in the field
  • Post questions in online discussion forums
  • Talk to people who have done similar projects (contact other companies if necessary. You’ll get VERY valuable feedback here.)

Focus your research on those points:

  • What are the main tasks in such a project?
  • How do the tasks relate to each other? What needs to be done first, second and so on?
  • What tasks are most difficult?

My recommendation to you: Don’t be afraid to ask questions

The best way to really grasp a topic is by asking questions. As you’re having conversations with subject matter experts, people with similar project experience and those in your team, ask questions like these:

  • Why can’t we just do X instead of Y?
  • What would happen if we did X?
  • Why was it done this way?
  • What would we have to do in order to achieve X?

Most people feel uncomfortable asking questions. They worry about what others might think. That should not be your concern! Your job is to run a successful project. Not to worry about how you appear to others.

ColumboI would like you to adapt the investigative style of detective Columbo. If you haven’t heard of Columbo: he was the detective in a popular crime series.

What was so special about Columbo?

He had an incredible eye for detail. And despite his absentmindedness, he always hit the nail with the right questions.

In a typical situation, he would leave the room, turn around and confront his counterpart with an uncomfortable question: “Just one more thing …”.

Usually this was this question that revealed the killer.

Columbo gave a damn of what others thought of him. He was dedicated to solve his case.

That’s the mindset you should adapt if you want to be a good project manager.

Step 2: Define the project goal

The project goal is a summary of the project’s purpose: What should the project achieve? A goal provides clarity and has a motivational impact on the team.

The best way to come up with a project goal is by asking: “What positive result do we expect from this project?”. Invite the customer and the project sponsor to discuss their expectations. Then try to create a short statement (1-3 sentences) that summarizes the goal.

An example of a project goal:

“The goal of the project is to roll out the Supersoft CRM system at our sales and marketing department to increase customer satisfaction and reduce average order processing time.”

That’s just a high-level goal you would put in a presentation. You can get more specifc by defining tangible objectives. A specific objective could be to, increase average customer satisfaction ratings from 4.8 to 5.0 over the next 12 months.

Read more about how to define a project goal here.

Step 3: Make a list of tasks and deliverables

Being in charge of a project can feel overwhelming. The best way to overcome the initial paralysis is by breaking the project down into small chunks.

building blocks in a projectDuring this step you want to look at two things:

First, make a list of all tasks and project deliverables that have to be worked on to achieve the project goal. No task should be missed. Even if it’s small. Your second goal should be to understand in what order these tasks have to be executed.

Try to imagine the flow of the project from start to finish. Then list all the things that need to be done (like in a brainstorming session). Start broadly and then go into detail.

For more complex projects I suggest creating a work breakdown structure (WBS). This is a graphical diagram where deliverables are broken down into smaller manageable pieces.

Knowing what the necessary tasks are and who is going to be in charge is a VERY critical step. You don’t want find out six months from now that you forgot to include somebody whose involvement is required. The consequences could be terrible.

It helps to break down tasks by project phase:

  • preparatory tasks: project planning and conceptual work
  • implementation tasks: where the product of the project is built or developed
  • closing tasks: tasks to be done at the end of the project

What I do at the start of a project: I schedule several meetings with those people that I think have some stake in the project. I give an overview of the project and I ask the folks: Tell me, what are your main tasks? In what order do they have to be performed?

The quality of feedback you receive during the information gathering phase heavily depends on the quality of input you give. Simply giving a one-liner about your project and expecting helpful feedback won’t work. You need to provide detailed information about what your project is about and how it will affect the current processes so that people can visualize how it might affect their realm.

The following will help :

  • slides including a project summary (sent out at least 1 week before the meeting)
  • process diagrams (what is going to change?)
  • organizational charts

Don’t worry if you have to make several attempts until you achieve the desired clarity. Often when I get back to my desk to go through the input I’ve just collected, new questions come into my mind. That means I have to check back with my team and solve whatever is still unclear.

Below you see an example of an Outlook invite as I would send it out to each one I want to talk to:

Outlook invite

At the end of this step you should have come up with a list of activities and the responsible for each one.

What if you can’t figure out who can fulfill a specific deliverable? Your HR department may be able to help you. Give them a list of skills and required knowledge and they can check through their network. If nobody inside your organization can take over the work you have to look for an external resource.

Step 4: Identify the stakeholders

Stakeholders are the people and groups you need to keep in the loop. Either because they are actively involved in the project. Or because they have to approve or oversee the project work.

Imagine you’re taking a trip by plane: First you take a cab to the airport. Then somebody at the check-in counter will validate your reservation, accept your baggage and issue a ticket. Next, you’ll have to get through security. A TSA officer is going to check your baggage (and every corner of your body).

What I want to show with this analogy: The cab driver, the airline staff, the TSA officer, they all have an important role in your journey. You can’t get from A to B if you skip one of them. They are like stakeholders in a project. You can’t reach accomplish your project goal if you don’t involve each of these people.

Stakeholders fall into 3 categories:

  • users: the people who are going to use the product of your project
  • providers: people actively working for the project (internal and external)
  • approvers: people who have to approve what the project is doing (management, government entities, regulators etc.)

Here’s how you can find out who these people are:

Ask as many people in your organization as possible: “Hey, who do you think I should involve?”. “Who else is involved in this process?”, “What are the people who are using this product?”

Another advice from me: Make your project known to everyone in the organization. In my last company we had a meeting of the directors every quarter. Sure enough, I took the opportunity to inform everyone about the project I was planning. That was really helpful, because the directors would give me helpful pointers: “Please talk to us, because we are also using this process that you’re planning to change.”

I’ve written a detailed post on how to identify project stakeholders. Check it out.

Step 5: Create a resource plan

How many hours do John, Linda and Pete have to work on your project? That’s what you define in a resource plan. It shows the monthly effort that team members and departments have to contribute.

Other departments who provide resources for your project need to know the approximate effort they have to contribute. That is, how many hours or days each colleague has to contribute per week / month.

Here is a simple example of a resource plan. I usually put in percentages and later multiply the total by the number of working days each month (20 on average) to get the number of workdays. For example, 0.8 means you are using the resource 80% in a specific month. 0.8 x 20 = 16 days.

project resource plan

Step 6: Create a project schedule

The earlier steps were mostly about thinking and talking. Now it’s time to actually put something on paper. It’s time to create to create a project timeline.

First, download my project plan template. It’s a simple Excel template that you can see in the image below. Then, take the insights from your initial research and the discussions with your team and write down the main project tasks in the appropriate order.

Here what an actual project timeline looks like:

This project plan template is great for reporting project progress.

Here you can download the Excel project plan template

Personally, I have always used Excel in my projects. It’s very easy to use and anybody can open it. Stay away from complicated project management tools including MS Project unless you are managing a multimillion dollar project with complex dependencies (I’ll cover MS Project here on tacticalprojectmanager).

Why?

Your most precious resource as a project manager is your time.

As it is the case with most software, it takes a long time to get really familiar with it. Making a simple change to your project plan isn’t that easy, and you will find yourself wasting time. Focus your attention on the things that really matter: Checking in with your team and see if tasks are progressing and handling all the communication.

Besides the project plan, you usually also have to provide a couple of other documents: a cost estimation and a resource plan.

Step 7: Create a project budget

Now let’s create a project budget. You must have your effort and cost estimations ready. Creating a budget isn’t difficult at all. And I have a budget template for you. Use it to plan and track project cost.

Your cost estimation (project budget) should give the approximate cost per cost category.

Cost categories that go into a project budget:

  • labor cost
  • material cost
  • service fees
  • depreciation
  • travel cost

Again, keep it simple. Put everything into an Excel worksheet and add up the numbers. If you are required to provide a breakdown by month or by specific categories, then do so.

To calculate the cost of internal resources, you usually multiply the number of hours by a pre-defined hourly rate. Your HR department or the guys from internal accounting can give you the hourly rates of your organization. For external resources you anyway pay a fixed rate per hour or day which you can find on the quotation.

Material cost is the value of goods and services that have to be procured as part of the project. What items go into this category really depends on the industry and type of the project.

Very often projects require investments in buildings, machinery, software or other items. An investment is shown on the balance sheet and it is depreciated over a number of years. You have to discuss the numbers with your accounting department, as they have to make sure the investment is correctly accounted for on the financial statements.

Read more on how to create a project budget.

Step 8: Hold a project kick-off meeting

The best way to inform everybody involved is through a project kickoff meeting. These are the meetings you schedule at the beginning of every project to present the project timeline, goal and all the organizational matters, like who is involved, where does the project take place, how often you hold update meetings, your project communication plan etc.

Usually there is a wider audience that should know about your project.

Prepare a set of slides which you can send out for such purposes, along with a note saying: If you have any questions, please contact me.

Step 9: Don’t forget the organizational stuff

The following section may only be relevant if you’re working in a corporate environment. To be able to do your job, you are dependent on certain resources. :

  • important people (decision makers)
  • conference rooms
  • individual project team members
  • other items like hardware or tools

You’ll need those resources sooner or later in your project. The thing to remember is: you may not get a hold of them if you wait until the last moment where you need them. Just think of managers who need to be involved to get approval from. Their calendars are usually blocked a long time in advance.

So what you do is you reserve time many weeks or even months before you need them. Let’s say you plan to hold a monthly team meeting with 20+ people, you reserve an appropriately sized meeting room now for the entire duration of your project. If you already know you’ll need your director’s signature at the end of July, schedule an appointment through his assistant.

As for your team members, you usually don’t block their time. But I wanted to know when they were off. So I asked everybody to enter their vacation time in an Excel. That way I could see if there were any conflicts, such as somebody being absent in a critical phase of the project.

Think of all the resources and tools you might need in the course of your project, and make sure you have access to them when needed!

Bonus: Prepare for failure

As a project manager, you are like a commander of a boat who has to navigate his ship through rough waters. If you know where to expect cliffs, dangerous currents or heavy storm, you are much more likely to arrive at the destination.

So you sit down first, and you think thoroughly about everything that might go wrong. Any obstacles that could jeopardize your project’s success.

Put everything down in an Excel table.

Then, as a second step, brainstorm possible measures that would either help to eliminate a risk completely, or that could reduce the impact.

To give you an example:

If you have a technical expert in your team, there’s a possibility that he will be unavailable in a critical phase of your project, be it due to sickness or because he changes jobs. As a mitigating action, you could add a second programmer as backup and require that both colleagues work closely together, so the knowledge is shared.

If this is not possible, you could at least check for an external person that could be taken onto the project in case of emergency.

Now, if you just draw from your own experience, chances are that you miss some potential risk. This is dangerous. That’s why I always talk to other people to get a second opinion. It’s also very helpful to talk to project managers who have lead similar projects.

Any problem that you have thought of before means less trouble along the way! You will be prepared if something goes wrong, and instead of falling into a frazzled mode, you can react calmly and with a clear state of mind.

This is one of the most important points, and I want you to internalize the concept of preparing for risk.

Here are some examples of how we dealt with risks in some of my own projects:

  • During our India project the biggest risk was failure to meet Indian tax regulations. Indian tax regulations are terribly complex! We easily could have missed something or gotten a wrong understanding. The consequences would have been devastating. You cannot use an IT system that produces wrong tax statements! That’s why we started VERY early to immerse ourself in the tax regulations and build up an overview of the tax rules and the corresponding scenarios.
  • Working in different timezones
    When you work with distributed teams you have very little overlapping time to make phone calls etc. Tasks which could be completed in a matter of hours take days or even weeks to complete because you have to rely on email communication. In order to limit the negative impact of this, we installed a local project manager who coordinated the resources at the other location.
  • Resource bottlenecks due to parallel projects
    Usually you have to ‘fight’ to get the resources you need because your people are also supporting other projects. If people have to put in extra time for another project, they may not meet the deadlines in your project. This is a common issue in big companies. What we did was to constantly monitor the progress of “competing” projects. The earlier we knew the other project was in trouble, the faster we could respond to resource bottlenecks.

So, guys and girls reading this article: Immerse yourself in the topic of your project, and then get things moving! Create a good enough project plan, project calculation etc. Don’t put yourself under pressure to have everything perfect. This is not required. Instead, schedule the first meetings and start with the first activities. Then make updates to your plans if needed.

I’d be curious to know: What do you struggle with when starting a new project?

— Adrian

Adrian Neumeyer

Hi! I'm Adrian, founder of Tactical Project Manager. I created the site to help you bring your projects to success. In the past I've worked as an IT project manager for 10 years.

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2 thoughts on “How to plan a project: Going from zero to green lights”

  1. Thank you for this very interesting article, Adrian!
    I like how to make managing a project so clear and concise.

    Here are a few additional questions that I have after reading your article:
    What do you mean by « work package »?
    How to find people with the right skills for my project?
    (Some ideas of platforms?)

    How to delegate the most important tasks to them?
    (How can I be sure they will do it right?)

    How to make a good process diagram in excel?
    How can I keep track of my project?

    I hope to see more interesting articles coming to your blog soon 🙂

    —Cyprien

    • Hi Cyprien,
      thanks for commenting! These are indeed very important questions. Let me take them up in separate articles. As for the term “work package”, this is just another name for a task (or a bundle of tasks). For example, the development of a script for cleaning up data could be a work package.

      Best regards

      Adrian

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