Planning a project
Planning a project

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Planning a project

3.2 The project plan

Although there are many approaches to planning a project, there are seven elements that are normally included in a project plan:

  • a work breakdown structure to show separate tasks and activities;

  • the team structure and responsibilities of key people;

  • an estimate of effort and duration for each task;

  • a schedule to show the sequence and timing of activities;

  • details of resources to be allocated to each task;

  • details of the budget to be allocated to each cost identified;

  • contingency plans to deal with risks identified.

The ways in which planning can be approached usually fall in one of the following:

  • bottom-up – identify all the small tasks that need to be done and then group them into larger, more manageable blocks of work;

  • top-down – start by mapping out the major blocks of work that will need to be carried out and then break them down into their constituent tasks;

  • work backwards from the completion date if that is a given point in time, for example, 1 January, and then fill in the intermediate stages that will enable you to get there.

Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages and you will need to choose the one that best fits your circumstances. Ideally, you should then use one of the other approaches to check that nothing has been missed out. It is important to record your thinking and to keep any diagrams or charts produced as these will help to provide detail in the initial plan.

Example 1: A project manager's view

Some people think that all that is required in planning a project is to make a list of tasks, classify them under headings, call the project team together and ask them to do particular jobs – and then work towards the deadline. Based on my experience, this will not work. Depending on the complexity of the project, high risks and cross-functional activities, this could very quickly lead to fire-fighting rather than managing the project.

Project planning is about addressing the fundamental questions: what needs to happen and when? It is the process by which the activities in a project are defined, their logical sequence determined and the effort required in terms of time, cost and quality is estimated. A project plan has two main purposes:

  • it underpins the ‘business case’ (business approval to proceed with the implementation of the project, including a full investment appraisal);

  • it provides a route map defining and communicating how the project will move from start to finish.

For the project manager, the project plan is the most important tool for monitoring and control. Most project planning tools and techniques have been around for a long time and have proved themselves to be useful, enabling the project manager to deliver his projects to time, cost and quality. In discussions I have had with many project managers from across the industry I found that where project planning is not given the priority it deserves, project managers failed to deliver their projects in a timely manner.

When I first started to project manage refurbishment projects, my planning was based on what I thought was the best way to plan the work. Some of my projects were late because I underestimated the resource requirements. Some were over budget because I did not carry out an impact analysis when the scope of the project changed and sometimes my project deliverables did not comply with the specification because I did not define and monitor the deliverables adequately. Any project manager who does not produce a plan will soon run into unplanned activities, which incur unexpected costs.

There is also the opportunity to filter out projects with negative returns at this point thus eliminating unproductive projects and avoiding abortive work. However, you can only make these savings if you carry out cost-benefit analysis. Forcing a systematic project plan to be produced can eliminate some of the more frivolous projects. I use the project plan to check that the project is right for the business and meets the stated requirements of the project brief. A good plan can also show that the project manager took every possible precaution to ensure that the end result was positive.

The downside of planning is cost. It takes time to plan and if planning goes on for too long it can drain the project budget. On reflection I believe that project planning is a value-added activity.

Contingency plans indicate what to do if unplanned events occur. They can be as simple as formalising and recording the thought processes when you ask ‘what if …?’ and decide which options you would follow if the ‘what if?’ situation happened. The key points in contingency planning can be summarised as follows:

  • Note where extra resources might be obtained in an emergency and be aware of the points in your plan where this might be required.

  • Identify in advance those dates, which if missed, will seriously affect your plans, e.g. gaining financial approval from a committee that meets only once every six weeks.

  • Know your own plan very well; probe for its weak points and identify those places where there is some ‘slack’ which only you know about …

  • Keep all those involved (including yourself) well informed and up-to-date on progress so that problems can be addressed before they cause too much disruption.

  • Recognise the key points in your plan where there are alternative courses of action and think through the possible scenarios for each one.

  • Learn from experience – sometimes the unpredictable peaks and troughs in activity follow a pattern – it's just that we have yet to recognise it.

The following suggestions for dealing with contingencies were all made by practising managers:

  • Break key tasks down to a greater level of detail to give better control.

  • Be prepared to overlap phases and tasks in your plan in order to meet time-scales, but give the necessary extra commitment to communication and co-ordination this will require.

  • Spend time at the start in order to pre-empt many of the problems.

  • Learn from experience, e.g. develop a list of reliable contractors, consultants, etc.

  • Try and leave some slack before and after things which you cannot directly control, to minimise the knock-on effect of any problems prior to, or during, such tasks.

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