Planning a Project

Managing a project means exercising control over the execution of the work that needs to be done in order to achieve the stated objectives, as well as making sure that the necessary resources are available. Control consists of regularly monitoring progress to ascertain whether you are where you need to be at any given time, and if necessary taking corrective action to bring things back on track.

Since it is the project plan that tells you where you are supposed to be, control is not possible without a plan. We must have a plan if we want to exercise control over deadlines, costs, and overall performance. The project plan tells us what must be done, who will do it, what resources are required, how long it will take, and how much it will cost.

In order to produce a plan in the first place, however, there is quite a lot of work to do in terms of estimating costs, calculating the amount of time required, identifying the activities involved, allocating resources, and creating a project schedule. Many of these tasks can be achieved using standard tools and techniques (for example, work breakdown structures, CPM/PERT and Gantt charts).

The plan also defines the project strategy (the overall approach used to carry out the project) and the individual steps that must be taken to implement the strategy. The plan itself will consist of a large number of documents that deal with various aspects of planning. The initial planning documents will be added to over the lifetime of the project as reports are generated and changes are implemented.

Once complete, the project portfolio will contain a complete history of the project which can be used as the basis for planning future projects of a similar nature. The use of project management software to generate project documentation and a database system to store project data will enable project personnel to access project information quickly whenever they need to. The initial project plan will typically include the items listed below.

Once the plan has been prepared, it should be reviewed and signed off by the key project stakeholders, including members of the project team. A signature on the part of a team member is not a guarantee of performance, but it is a commitment on their part to make a reasonable effort to carry out their responsibilities to the best of their ability.

The review process should not be seen simply as rubber-stamping the project plans, but rather as an opportunity to ensure that the plan is complete, and does not contain inherent weaknesses that will cause problems later. If changes need to be made, it is better to make them in the early stages of the project rather than wait until a problem manifests itself, perhaps with serious consequences for the project schedule or project costs.

Hopefully, the risk analysis process will have highlighted potential problems in advance, and contingency plans will be in place in the event that something does go wrong. Problems invariably occur that dictate a change of plan, so the plan itself should include change control procedures to ensure that any change is dealt with in an orderly manner.

The three major dimensions of project planning are the project's scope (what are the agreed deliverables that the project is to produce), a budget (how much money will be spent and how will that money be allocated over time), and a schedule (how long will the work take and how will it be broken down over time).

It is vital that the people who will actually carry out the work are involved in the planning process. If they are not kept in the loop, they may not be committed to the plan. Estimates of the effort required to carry out the various work activities may be inaccurate, and important tasks may be overlooked.

Bear in mind that initial estimates of overall cost and project duration are unlikely to be all that accurate in any event. The plan will therefore be continually refined as the project progresses in order to incorporate change, to take into account updated information, and to allow progress to be evaluated against an up to date and valid baseline.

The degree to which planning should occur will be a matter of some debate, since it is likely to be subject to organisational culture and will to some extent be influenced by the relative importance attached to the project. Generally speaking, however, the degree of planning undertaken should be proportional to the size and complexity of the project.

There are a number of guidelines that can be used to establish how much planning is required, but essentially it is a case of finding the right balance between too little planning and too much. Some of the commonly encountered problems associated with project planning are described below.

One of the most vital activities involved in project planning is that of estimating. We will need to estimate how long it will take to do the work, how much everything will cost, and what resources will be required (and when), including human resources. Even if the estimator has significant expertise and a lot of experience, an estimate is still only an approximation – essentially an educated guess based on what is currently known, and what we expect to happen in the future.

We can increase the probability of an estimate being accurate by asking the project team member responsible for undertaking a particular task to estimate the cost or duration of the task, since they are presumably the person with the necessary experience. We could also consider using historical data, if we have access to project documentation for similar projects that have been undertaken in the past.

Ultimately, the accuracy of the estimates produced will depend on the skill and experience of the estimator and the amount of time allowed for producing the estimate (estimates made under pressure are often unreliable). Note also that if an individual tasked with carrying out a particular task is asked to provide an estimate of cost or duration for that task, they may well "pad out" the estimate in order to give themselves a generous safety margin.

It may be prudent to insist that all estimates are accompanied by some form of rationale that explains the basis on which the figures have been calculated, and to conduct reviews of estimates with the project team as a whole before they become part of the project plan. Above all it is important to remember that a project of any size is a complex undertaking with many variables.

Uncertainty is inevitable, and at best estimates will only be the most likely outcome based on what is currently known. In reality, there will be a range of possible outcomes within which you can expect the actual figure to fall. The size of the range will reflect the degree of uncertainty that exists.

The ability to estimate the time and resources required to complete a project with any degree of accuracy, and to produce a realistic and achievable project schedule, depends on being able to break the project work down into a series of individual low-level tasks (work packages) that can be performed in a relatively short space of time. This is achieved using the work breakdown structure (WBS), which decomposes the project activities into a hierarchy of tasks and sub-tasks until the required level of detail is obtained.

A work package is sufficiently small that accurate estimates can be made for its duration, resource requirements and cost. Once all of these low-level tasks have been defined, task dependencies are identified and a project network can be created using an appropriate technique. The project network essentially describes the sequence in which tasks may occur, shows the way in which the various tasks are interrelated, and indicates where each task should begin and end in relation to the project schedule as a whole.

The high level activities that appear in the WBS are the result of top-down planning that gives the project strategic direction and focus, and forms the basis for initial project estimates. The more detailed breakdown that results in the low-level work packages is used to obtain more precise estimates, and is the result of a bottom-up planning approach. These two approaches complement each other and contribute to the production of a project plan that accurately reflects the requirements of the project.

The project plan is usually produced as the result of a series of project team meetings, the number and duration of which will depend on the scale of the project being undertaken. Usually, an initial meeting is conducted to identify and agree upon the overall objectives of the project and to allocate roles to individual team members. The scope of the project will be determined, and a preliminary work breakdown structure drawn up. Further meetings will be held, during which the WBS will be completed, and a project schedule will be produced. Budgetary and time constraints will be discussed, and risk management and change control procedures will be put into place.

Once the initial planning phase has been completed and the project moves into its implementation phase, regular meetings should be held to review progress and apprise the project team of any issues, or to discuss any changes that must be made to the plan. The frequency of these review meetings will vary according to the overall timescale of the project, but ideally they should coincide with the completion of scheduled tasks so that project status reports will be as up to date as possible.