7 project planning activities to make things easier

Project management can be a complex and challenging process, given that projects often involve multiple staff members, teams, and outsourced suppliers, all trying to work together within a set budget and schedule to achieve a specific goal.

So it should come as no surprise that projects sometimes fail — and for a wide range of reasons. In fact, 70 percent of projects are liable to fail, and 50 percent of the projects that fail have budgets in excess of $1 million. That’s a lot of resources going to waste.

The good news is that there are lots of ways to boost a project’s chances of success. One of the most important methods to foster better outcomes is project planning.

Properly planning a project in advance enables you to set expectations for the project team, prepare for problems that may arise, and better manage the resources at hand. Let’s take a look at seven project planning activities that can help you create a bullet-proof project plan.

1. Define the critical factors for success

Project planning comes with a lot of background noise. Everyone has an opinion to contribute, and the various constraints — like budget, time, and resources — make it difficult to plan and execute a project.

One of the key project planning activities you can focus on is defining the factors that are absolutely essential in order to deliver the desired outcome. For example, a project has a specific completion date, but there aren’t enough qualified employees to handle it. Is the due date flexible? If not, can we hire extra staff to meet the deadline? If yes, do we have the extra budget to do that?

In this case, the deadline is non-negotiable, so being able to meet it is a critical factor for success. The company can now decide whether it’s worth reallocating resources to hire extra help.

Pinpointing the critical factors for success will help you clarify what you definitely need to do to execute the project properly, what you can live without, and what isn’t essential but still preferred.

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2. Focus on subtasks

The workflow of a project is based on various tasks that a team must complete to produce the desired outcome. The more complex the project, the more tasks it will include.

It’s especially important to break down large tasks into more manageable subtasks. For example, if the intended project is organizing an event, then one of the tasks is sending invitations to potential event attendees. It’s best to divide this task into smaller tasks, such as drafting the invitations, designing them, creating a list of invitees, and distributing the invitations. When you focus on the subtasks, it’s much easier to create an accurate timeline, set workable deadlines, and forecast the task’s cost more accurately.

3. Create best- and worst-case scenarios

A big part of project planning is risk assessment. Every project comes with some risk. For example, a team can spend months developing a product. Good market research in advance will help predict the demand for the product, which will influence the decision about how much product to make in the first production run. This reduces the risk of the company losing money.

During the project planning stage, map the different scenarios that could play out and the ramifications of each. Imagine the best-case scenario. What if you finish the project before the deadline? How can you use that extra time to advance the project’s performance even more?

Conversely, take a look at the worst-case scenario. If you have to cancel an event completely due to bad weather, how much will it cost to delay or move the event? To what extent will it affect the company’s reputation? Diving into possible best- and worst-case scenarios is a great way to prepare for a wide range of contingencies.

4. Ask task owners to provide process outlines and specs

Projects are typically about different people contributing their specific knowledge and skills for a joint purpose. The finance manager is the expert in budget issues. The product engineer knows what materials she needs to develop a product, and so on.

During the project planning stage, you need to get the clearest possible picture about every aspect of every task. This includes time, resources and equipment, legal and regulatory requirements, costs, and more. And the best people to provide this information are the ones who are responsible for each task.

Approach each task owner and ask them to provide a comprehensive list of the task specs, requirements, and processes, based on their expert forecast. You’ll not only get the most precise estimations from those who really know, but you’ll also boost teamwork and collaboration.

5. Hold brainstorming sessions

It’s true that people with specialist knowledge in different areas run projects, but it’s amazing how much creativity and innovative thinking you can spark with a brainstorming session at the project planning stage.

Brainstorming can help team members consider angles to the project they might not have thought of alone. It also brings different perspectives to the table, which can ignite new ideas and directions. Plus, brainstorming helps collaborators understand their coworkers’ needs and how they will impact each other during the execution stage. All this can be extremely helpful in the project planning process.

Brainstorming is best in smaller groups of five to eight people — that way, everyone gets a chance to be heard and to let their ideas flourish. If the project team is too big, you can hold sessions for small groups or even hold multiple sessions with different combinations of staff to get a broader perspective.

6. Get visual

Projects are complex enough without a lot of lengthy documents to read through. That’s why using visual tools during the project planning stage is really effective in helping team members assimilate project information quickly and easily.

Using a project planning timeline, for example, is a great way to present the different aspects of a project in a visually interesting way. Different task members can be represented with different colors and even headshot images on the timeline — which makes it easy for them to identify their part in the project. You can present the schedule as a calendar or the budget as a vertical graph showing the total costs at different stages of the project.

Use the visual tools at your disposal to create a project plan that team members can get excited about.

7. Use project management software

Projects can be confusing. The bigger the project, the more complex it becomes — and the harder it is for team members to stay on track. This complexity also makes it almost impossible for the project manager to keep a finger on the pulse of all the tasks at every moment.

It doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to the proliferation of project management software on the market in recent years. Project management software is designed specifically to make project planning and execution easier and more streamlined, with powerful features such as automated scheduling and alerts, document sharing, and direct communication channels for project team members.

Even so, adoption of project management software is relatively low, with just 22 percent of organizations using it regularly. This is a shame, as project management software isn’t just simple to use and cost-efficient; it actually makes a huge difference to the bottom line of a project — 77 percent of projects defined as high performing were created by teams that used project management software to help them reach their goals.

Easy does it

Making a project easy doesn’t mean compromising on the project’s quality, performance, or outcome. By following the key project planning activities above, you can plan your project in advance for optimal performance and to reduce risk, boost teamwork, and align workflows.

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