small business team addressing project planningLately, I have been part of several project teams. Some of these experiences have caused me to sit back and analyze the project planning process to understand how project management planning and implementation could be improved.

Why do projects managed by talented people end up being delayed or not completed? Why do project teams sometimes feel that they are shooting at a moving target? I find that the lack of proper planning or failure to create a systematic approach can be fatal to projects.

What is project planning?

Project planning is the process of defining your objectives and scope, your goals and milestones (deliverables), and assigning tasks and budgetary resources for each step. A good plan is easily shareable with everyone involved, and it’s most useful when it’s revisited regularly. Simply outlining a plan and never discussing it with your team again is a good recipe for wasted time and effort.  

You can do your project planning in a simple Google doc, or you can use project management software. The benefit of using project management software is that you’re usually able to store all of your documents and deliverables in one place, and you can avoid losing important discussions and decisions to the email or Slack void. With a tool like Basecamp, for example, it’s easy to track progress and keep track of conversations and items that require collaboration with a few different people.

If you’re thinking about project management as an entrepreneur or within a fast-paced startup, it might seem like it all takes too much time at the outset. But, you’ll actually save a lot of time and resources if you document your project plan right from the start and use it as a roadmap to keep you and your team on track.

Here are seven keys to successful project planning to help you get started.

1. Think of your plan as a roadmap for stakeholders

Every project needs a roadmap with clearly defined goals that should not change after the first phase of the project has been completed. All stakeholders benefiting from the outcome or involved in executing the project should be named and their needs stated during the initial project planning process.

These stakeholders might include:

  • The project manager or the person ultimately responsible for completion
  • The “customer” who receives the deliverables—this can be someone on your team (internal) or an actual paying customer.
  • The team, or the people responsible for any tactic that’s part of the plan.

Don’t assume that you automatically understand each stakeholder’s needs and goals. Before you get too far into documenting your project plan, talk to them to make sure you really understand the project and abilities and resources of everyone on the team.

2. Break the project into a list of deliverables

Develop a list of all deliverables. This list should break down the larger project into smaller tasks that can be assigned to specific team members, and you should include estimated deadlines associated with each deliverable or task.

Make sure that you understand and document the approval process for each deliverable. If your project is for an external customer, make sure you are clear on their internal approval process, so that you’re not surprised by delays or slowed down with wading through competing opinions.

3. Talk to your team

Identify by name all individuals and/or organizations involved in each deliverable or task, and describe their responsibilities in detail. Otherwise, miscommunication can lead to delays and situations where team members may have to redo their work.

Hold a kickoff meeting to talk to your team about your intended plan of attack. Ask them to help you think about the best way to get the work done. Not only will this help you be more efficient, it will help you get their buy-in because they’ll feel more ownership over the process. Using a project management tool like Basecamp can be helpful keeping everyone on track and storing documents and conversations all in one place.

If you use email to communicate about projects, consider using a team inbox email solution that will allow you to assign emails that need project-related attention to team members as appropriate, rather than endlessly forwarding huge conversation threads back and forth.

4. Identify risks

Determine the risks involved in your project. Think through what you’ll do if something takes much longer than expected, or if costs end up being much more than you initially anticipated.

You don’t have to have a specific course of action identified for every possible negative outcome, but you should spend some time with your team, thinking through what could go wrong. Then, you can do as much as you can to mitigate those risks from the outset, rather than being caught off guard later. Risk factors can also have some influence on how you budget.

5. Create a budget

Attached to your list of milestones and deliverables should be information about the project cost and estimated budget. Resist the urge to assign large dollar amounts to big projects without identifying exactly how the money is intended to be spent. This will help your team understand the resources they have to work with to get the job done. When you’re setting your initial budget, these numbers might be ranges rather than absolutes.

For certain items, you might need to get quotes from a few different vendors. It can be helpful to document the agreed upon project scope briefly in your budget documentation, in case you end up needing to make changes to the larger project based on budgetary constraints, or if your vendor doesn’t deliver exactly what you expected.

6. Add milestones

Use your list of deliverables as a framework for adding milestones and tasks that will need to be completed to accomplish the larger goal. Establish reasonable deadlines, taking into account project team members’ productivity, availability, and efficiency.

Think about your milestones within the SMART framework. Your goals should be:

  • Specific: Clear, concise, and written in language anyone could understand.
  • Measurable: Use numbers or quantitative language when appropriate. Avoid vague descriptions that leave success up to personal, subjective interpretation.
  • Acceptable: Get buy-in from stakeholders on your goals, milestones, and deliverables.
  • Realistic: Stretch goals are one thing, but don’t set goals that are impossible to achieve. It’s frustrating for your team and for your stakeholders, and might ultimately delay your project because accomplishing the impossible usually costs more and takes longer.
  • Time-based: Set concrete deadlines. If you have to alter deadlines associated with your milestones, document when and why you made the change. Avoid stealth changes—or editing deadlines without notifying your team and relevant stakeholders.

7. Set progress reporting guidelines

These can be monthly, weekly, or daily reports. Ideally, a collaborative workspace should be set up for your project online or offline where all parties can monitor the progress. Make sure you have a communication plan—document how often you’ll update stakeholders on progress and how you’ll share information—like at a weekly meeting or daily email.

Use the framework you set up when you identified your milestones to guide your reports. Try not to recreate any wheels or waste time with generating new reports each time you need to communicate progress. Keep in mind that using a project management software like Basecamp can keep stakeholders in the loop without cluttering up your inbox, or losing conversations in long Slack chats.

The secret to effective project planning and management is staying organized and communicating well with your team and stakeholders. Whether you decide to use project management software or not, think about where and how you store all the materials and resources that relate to your project—keep everything in one place if you can. Good luck!

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