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Top Down Project Plan

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Creating the project plan is the first step in every project. The best practice is a Top Down Project Plan. To be successful as a project manager, you always need a project plan but length is not important. An excellent project plan of one page works well. The important thing about the project plan is the thinking that goes into it.   Project Planning Main Page

Top Down Project Plan: A Best Practice 

The top down planning technique means we begin the planning process by knowing the result the customer or boss wants from the project. Part defining the result is spelling out the specific measurable criteria we (and the sponsor) will use to decide if the project succeeded. It can be something simple like, “Employees can get the supplies they need from the supply room in less than two minutes.” What’s important about that kind of definition is that it tells people what they’re going to get from the project.  As importantly, it tells them what they are not going to get. If there are managers who think employees should get their supplies in one minute, we need to clarify their expectations before we start work.

The project result is at the top of the project planning pyramid. We start there and then break it down into smaller pieces until we get to the level of team member assignments that are deliverables. We now have a pyramid with the overall project result at the top and smaller deliverables below. That hierarchy is our work breakdown structure (WBS). It’s the spine of the project. We add flesh to it by assigning people to the deliverables. Then we work with them to estimate the time and effort to produce the deliverables. One important piece is that we define every deliverable with measured acceptance criteria.  That way the boss knows what the project will deliver. And everybody working on the project knows precisely what he or she has to do. Everyone knows this before we start work.

The top down project plan needs to communicate several important things to the team and everyone who’s affected by the project. As we just discussed, we need to define what the project is going to deliver to the organization. Part of that definition is to spell out the specific measurable criteria we (and the sponsor) will use to decide if the project is a success. The measure of success can be something simple like, “Employees can get the supplies they need from the supply room in less than two minutes.” What’s important about that kind of definition is that it tells people what they’re going to get from the project.  As importantly, it tells them what they are not going to get. If there are managers who think employees should get their supplies in one minute, we need to clarify their expectations before we start work.

Second, the top down project plan also needs to communicate what resources we need to produce the planned result. How much time and money do we need? We also need to explain what authority we need to manage the project. We might ask for the authority to assign work directly to the project team members, even if they work in another department. Other items we might address are the risks the project faces and the help we need from management to defend the project from those risks.

Remember, this top down project plan can be short; one page. We project managers get into trouble when we write so much detail that no one reads it. When that happens, we can’t manage our stakeholders’ expectations for what they’re going to get and what they must invest to get it. Small Project Plan Techniques

Project Plan: The Wrong Way

The wrong way to do a project plan is to start by identifying the first task we’re going to do, then the second, then the third and so on. This “to do” list approach is easy and doesn’t need much thinking. But it has some downfalls. When we use this approach, we tend to include a lot of good ideas. But we don’t limit our plan to what we absolutely must do to deliver the result the boss wants. Since we don’t know exactly what the boss wants, we can’t decide how to deliver it. That results in doing many things that aren’t necessary. We also waste a lot of time and resources adding things to the project later on. These are vital things that we discovered too late. The “to do” list approach to project planning is faster but we wind up with projects that take longer and cost more than they should.

Top Down Project Plan: How To Do It

You may have managed projects for years using “seat of your pants” techniques. And you may have had some success.  Long-term success, however, requires you to use project planning best practices. Those are the skills needed to consistently deliver the scope on time and within budget. For small projects at an entry-level, a five-step method is enough. Here are the steps:top down project plan

  1. Planning – focused on a clear scope and a deliverable-oriented project plan and work breakdown structure (WBS). You also plan how you’re are going to do the next four steps.
  2. Scheduling and assigning work – create a schedule with project software so you can stay on top of your project’s progress. Assign work to your team members and give them a crystal-clear understanding of what you expect before they even start work.
  3. Estimating how much work it will take to produce each deliverable. It’s always best if the team member who’s going to do the work takes part in this estimating process. It’s more accurate and you get their commitment.
  4. Tracking progress against the plan and spotting variances – use project management software and status data from your team to spot problems early. This avoids unpleasant surprises late in the project.
  5. Designing corrective action and reporting status – design corrective action when you find problems. Then you clearly report the problems and propose solution options to the project sponsor.

You can learn this top down planning process in our online project management courses. You will be able to use these techniques so your projects finish on time and within budget. You’ll work privately with an expert project manager who is your coach and instructor. You may have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. You begin when you wish and work on it at your pace and as your schedule allows. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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