Top Down Project Planning

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP

In many organizations, managers and senior management view project planning as a waste of time. To them, the project plan is needless. They want to “start work immediately without wasting time in useless planning meetings and creating mounds of paperwork.” As a result, project managers have difficulty engaging management in the project-planning task. Why do they have this attitude? Why are they unwilling to invest their time in project planning? Some of the reasons are:

  • They have never seen a project properly planned so they have no understanding of how smoothly things can run.
  • Project planning requires that the sponsor and stakeholders know what business result they want the project to produce. Often executives start projects to fix a problem they have just heard about. They had no idea what the solution should be.
  • The sponsor and stakeholders are unwilling to make commitments about the acceptance criteria for the project’s deliverables. They are unwilling to take the risk of specifying precisely what they want. See Main Project Planning Page

Why do many managers and executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time? The first and most common reason is that the organization exercises no control or justification for starting a new project. There is no reason to plan if they can start a project any time they want and there are no organizational requirements about the return on investment (payback) from doing the project. On the other hand, executives must plan their projects if the organization requires the following:

  • a cost-benefit analysis for new projects
  • a clear specification for the business results the project will produce and its cost and duration.

A second and very common reason for these attitudes is that many executives have never sponsored, run or even worked on a properly planned project. As a result, they have no idea of the benefits a properly planned project can deliver. Their projects usually miss their planned completion dates and budgets. They rarely deliver the project scope or any business value. Project teams don’t know what they are accountable for delivering, what performance level the project manager expects or how the PM will evaluate their work. As a result, the project manager must tell the team members what to do each week. The executives also have no practical experience with change control. They don’t realize that a well-conceived project plan gives them and the project manager tools to manage changes to the scope, budget, quality and resources.

Despite the reasons why the executives have the attitude that project planning is a waste of time and resources, you (as the project manager) must persuade them of the benefits of doing a project plan. When executives want to start a project, you must describe the right steps and explain how that process benefits the organization. Finally, you must discuss the required top down project planning techniques, documents and meetings. Executives also need to understand that you cannot use the same project planning techniques for every project. You should not bury a small project in needless paperwork. But a large strategic project will suffer if there isn’t sufficient planning, control and risk management.

Benefits of a Top Down Project Plan

On a well-run project, you and the team members don’t have to stop work to figure out what to do next. A well-planned project uses the top down project planning technique. That means the sponsor identifies the overall scope of the project and the deliverable(s) the project has to produce. Then you and the sponsor identify the acceptance criteria that the executives will use to approve those deliverables. This lets you and every project team member know exactly what the executives want in a deliverable before you start work. Each team member’s assignment or task is specifically defined so they know what a good job is before they begin down project planning

Project teams that must stop and figure out what to do next are working on a project that was planned like a To Do list. The project manager planned the first thing they’re going to do, then the second and then the third. Things get a little vague after that so the team members must stop work and ask the PM what to do next. That process continues until the planned completion date is looming on the horizon. At that point, the PM and team members must stop work and plan what they can quickly finish before the completion date. This is a disaster for the project and the PM’s career.

When you use top down project planning, you make as many of the decisions as possible, during the  planning process before you start work. This lets the team focus on executing, not re-planning the project. You save several hours of meetings, talks and arguments for every hour you spend planning before the work actually begins.

Top down project planning also saves you from doing the wrong things on the project. Because you have done all the thinking on the deliverables before you start work, you don’t incur the costs of having to produce “missing” deliverables at the last moment.
If you fall into the trap of starting work immediately without using the top down project planning technique, you are certain to have a failed project. The same executives who force you to start work quickly will be exceedingly dissatisfied with the results, the money and the time spent to produce them. The only way out of this situation is to explain to the project executives that success is a direct result of a solid planning effort. It must also be the right size for the scope and size of the project. You and the sponsor must define the scope of the work and the acceptance criteria that the project stakeholders will use to judge its success. That’s the key to top down project planning. When you have a clear scope definition, you can break it down into high-level deliverables. Then you have the basis for a work breakdown structure (WBS) that minimizes the amount of work required to deliver the project scope.

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