Project Plan in 5 Steps

Dick Billows, PMP

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

You can produce an excellent project plan that can fit on one side of one piece of paper and take less than an hour to create. It will be suitable for 90% of the projects that most organization do. The key to making this work is for you and the project sponsor to play your roles properly. The project sponsor (that’s the boss, executive or customer who wants the project done) has to define the business result that the project must produce. That business result is the scope of the project and it has to be a metric. The scope must have acceptance criteria that define success in objective, measurable terms. If the sponsor prefers to “plan as we go,” and “stay flexible so we can adjust,” they are not fulfilling their role on the project. It would be foolish to start work on the project without knowing where you need to be at the end.   Main Project Planning Page

Your role as the project manager is to get the sponsor to tell you the acceptance criteria-type of scope definition. Then you and the sponsor break the scope down into the major deliverables the project has to produce. These deliverables the stepping stones for how the project will move from where it is now to the end result the sponsor defined. You are not doing your job if you start work before you have a clearly defined scope with major deliverables. Let’s look at the steps you need to follow.

Project Plan Step 1 – Defining the Scope

Defining the scope involves gaining agreement on the metric that the sponsor (the boss, executive or customer) will use to measure the end result of the project. Project planSponsor who have a successful track record for initiating projects know that you (the project manager) need a clear definition of the project scope that includes a success metric. If the sponsor doesn’t know how to play his or her role, anonymously send them a link to this article. You don’t want your project to fail because the sponsor has a failing record on their projects.

Once you have that success metric, you can create the project plans and schedules rather easily. The difficulty comes when people try to skip this first step or when the sponsor doesn’t know how (or is unwilling) to define the project’s success. Without that scope metric, the rest of the project pieces are useless. Here’s an example of a small project to illustrate how this is done.

A project manager gets a phone call from a project sponsor who says, “I’d like you to run a project for me to deal with our problems getting office supplies out of the warehouse.”

The project manager goes to the sponsor’s office and during the discussion, asks open-ended questions aimed at defining the scope. It’s very possible that the sponsor has started the conversation about the project without having a clear picture of the end result they want. The project manager has to ask questions which help the sponsor define the project’s end result. The project manager asks how performance of the warehouse will be different after the project is complete. The sponsor says, “We can’t run out of supplies so often; we have to reduce the number of these stock-outs. And it shouldn’t take people as long to find what they need.” The project manager should follow up with questions like, “How often do we run out of supplies now?  What’s an acceptable number of stock-outs each month?” The project manager might also ask, “How long does it currently take to find supply items and how long should it take?”

That’s a good example of the project manager asking polite and respectful questions in an attempt to get the sponsor to be specific about the project’s scope. Let’s say the sponsor says people should be able to find the supply they want in less than 120 seconds 90% of the time. That is a crystal clear metric or acceptance criteria for the project scope.

Project Plan Step 2 – Breaking Down the Scope into Major Deliverables

With the scope defined as a metric which the warehouse project must produce, the project manager will work with the sponsor to break that scope into 4 to 7 major, high-level deliverables. They will lead from where the warehouse performance is now to the end result the sponsor wants. The PM may talk to people in the warehouse to find out why it to take so long for people to find the supplies they need. The PM may also ask the warehouse staff for their ideas about how to reduce the time needed to get a supply. The project manager may come back to the sponsor with some suggestions based on this fact-finding process. They may suggest the following high-level deliverables:
1. Increase the lighting in the warehouse to an average of 65 lumens
2. Track the location of all supply items with 95% accuracy on a commercial PC inventory system. The system cost should not exceed $500.
3. Discard any supply items in the inventory that have not been used in the last four years.
4. Redesign the inventory layout so the most frequently utilized supplies can be retrieved in less than 30 seconds.
5. Distribute new procedures for using the supply warehouse to all employees.

Each of those high-level deliverables has an acceptance criteria that can be objectively measured. The project manager reviews the deliverables with the project sponsor. The sponsor may change or adjust any of the deliverable’s metrics to fit his/her assessment of the situation. When the sponsor signs off on the scope and the high-level deliverables that will lead to it, the project manager has a strong start on the project plan and can move on to the planning details. The key point here is that the sponsor and project manager worked top-down; starting from the end result down to the contributing deliverables that will help them get there.

Project Plan Step 3 – Breaking Down the Major Deliverables

The next step is for the project manager to continue to break down those major deliverables into smaller deliverables. The lowest level of deliverables should be suitable for assigning to an individual. These assignments should also be measured deliverables so the team members know what is expected of them (what they must produce) before they start work. These deliverables will become tasks in the work breakdown structure (WBS).  They are also the basis for estimating the amount of work, cost and duration of each deliverable.

Project Plan Step 4 – Estimating

Once this breakdown into smaller deliverables is complete, the project manager has an assignment for each team member. The next step is to meet with the people accountable for producing each of those deliverables. Each of the tasks (the lowest level deliverables in the work breakdown structure) will have an estimate of the amount of work and  the duration. The project manager engages the team members in this estimation process. Involving each team member in this part of the process produces more accurate estimates. The team members also become more committed to producing their deliverables in the estimated amount of time. The PM will enter this data into project management software to create the schedule and budget. Using project management software saves project managers a great deal of time. Software options include Microsoft Project and several low cost or free scheduling applications that are available on the web. Any of those are suitable, especially for a small project.The project manager  will track each task’s actual work and duration against the plan.

Project Plan Step 5 – Final Approval By the Sponsor

The last step in developing the project plan is to secure the sponsor’s final approval on the project scope, major deliverables, budget and the planned duration of the work. With that approval, the project plan is finished and the project manager can begin work.

You can learn these project planning skills in our Project Management courses. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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