Large Project Planning Techniques

When your success as a project manager leads to larger assignments, you should learn and be ready to use these Large Project Planning Techniques.  Planning larger projects requires different techniques than those that are successful fro small projects . When you started your career in project management, the projects were small and planning was relatively easy. So even poor techniques worked. Often the project sponsor was your immediate supervisor and you had frequent conversations about the project’s business result and deliverables. There was only one person to satisfy and the whole team worked for the same boss. All of you received your priorities from the same person. There were no conflicting goals or priorities. These factors contribute to the high success rate on small projects, even if the planning process is weak. Project Planning Main Page

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP

When you move up in the project management ranks, however, planning large project gets more difficult and the consequences are more serious.  Now you must know how to use Large Project Planning Techniques. If you try to use your old small project planning techniques on larger more complex projects, management will quickly send you back to the minor leagues.

Large Project Planning Techniques are Different

On larger projects, the sponsor may not be your immediate supervisor. You may be doing the project for an executive with whom you haven’t worked before. In addition, there may be other executives involved whose career success depends on your project.  These stakeholders will have goals that differ from the sponsor and the other executives. In fact, your project planning effort may even take place in the midst of turf wars between functional areas or divisions of the company. People may try to use the project and its deliverables as part of their political battle.  Worst of all, there may be strong pressure to begin planning and even start work without the decisions about scope and deliverables locked down.  That approach is easier for the executives than trying to reach agreement on priorities. It also allows them to get the project started without making any commitments about exactly what they want it to deliver.

However, the project team is the biggest difference between large projects and the small ones you’ve been managing. On small projects, all or most of the team worked for the same boss. On larger projects, you will be borrowing people from other functional departments. Their priorities and your priorities are often starkly different. Additionally, many functional departments loaning people to your project team are really putting an observer on your team to “represent” their department’s interests. These borrowed resources can be a real management challenge. Their managers often pull them off your project whenever they need them for something in their home department. All of those threats may be new to you.  Learning how to handle them is required for your continued project management success.

Large Project Planning Technique #1 – Define the Scope and Deliverables

There is a strict rule on larger projects that most PMs learn by suffering the consequences of ignoring it. That is Never skip defining the scope and major deliverables.” That’s true even if the sponsor or stakeholders spout these phrases:

  • “We’ll plan as we go”
  • “Let’s make an exception on this project and start work without a plan”
  • “You know what you’re doing.  We trust you to do it right.”

Ignore all that stuff!  You are committing professional suicide if you proceed with setting a completion date and/or budget without objective measures of success. Those measures are the agreed upon acceptance criteria in the project scope. All those greasy executive promises will go up in smoke if you don’t deliver what they want.  Remember, without a scope they’ve sign off on, it will be impossible to give them what they want because you don’t know what they.

Large Project Planning Technique #2 – Define the Acceptance Criteria

Next you must secure the sponsor’s and major stakeholders’ written approval of a measurable scope with acceptance criteria. The acceptance criteria define success for the project as a whole and all the major deliverables. Here’s an example. You can’t just start work on the “World-class Customer Service” project. That doesn’t define success criteria for the project. The sponsor and executives must approve (in writing) the success/acceptance criteria for the project scope.  What you want is an acceptance criterion like, “Resolve 90% of customers’ issues on their first phone call.” That is objectively measurable. It also tells you what end result is good enough.

How do you get the executives to tell you the acceptance criteria? You have to ask them questions about the end result the project should produce. Often executives have not talked about that end result. In this example, they are reacting to the need to do something about the customer service problem. Therefore, you need to ask leading questions about what they want to see from the project. You don’t want to discuss how to get there. You want to ask questions like, “Six months after this project is done, how will our customers’ experience be different?” If you have some of the data you might say, “Now our customers have to wait on hold for 30 seconds and 60% of them have to call back a second time about the same problem. How will that be different six months after this project is over?” This last question is a particularly good one because when the executives answer it, they will answer with data. If they say that 30 seconds is too long on hold, asked them what the hold time should be.large project planning techniques

That Large Project Planning Technique is the way you get objectively measurable acceptance criteria. Once you get those acceptance criteria, they become the foundation for your planning and change control. The executives can certainly change those criteria whenever they wish. However, changes to higher results like “resolving 98% of the customers’ issues on their first phone call” will increase both the cost and duration of the project. This method of defining the scope will be your life preserver as you navigate the tricky political currents of larger projects. This measurable scope definition will also allow you to avoid change control battles. If you can’t clearly identify what is and what is not a change to the original scope of the project, you will have new features added every week without any increases in the project’s budget or duration. Moreover, you’ll be blamed when the project is late and over budget.

That’s why a Large Project Planning best practice is to have objectively measurable acceptance criteria for the scope, the project’s major deliverables and every task you will assign to a team member. Then everybody knows what to expect. Accomplishing this is exceedingly difficult. Executives have to commit to exactly what they want. Moreover, you need to stick to your guns on the definition of these deliverables. When they insist that you start work before they define the scope, you give reasonable answers like, “How can I possibly start work when I don’t know what you want from the project? That would be like you sending me to the grocery store with money bit not telling me what you want me to bring back.” You might also say, “If this customer service project is important to the company, we really need to define what we mean by good customer service. Otherwise we’re going to waste a lot of money and time and probably produce nothing of value for the organization.” You can move on only when you have objectively measurable acceptance criteria for the scope of the project.

Large Project Planning Technique #3 – Define the High-level Deliverables

Next you must subdivide the objectively measurable scope into 4 to 7 high-level deliverables. These deliverables will lead you from where you are now to the end result, the project scope. This is also a critical step. From the first moment on the project, you will be under pressure to commit to a completion date and budget. As you work on defining the scope and high-level deliverables, you must refuse to make any kind of commitment or even discuss the cost and completion date. Instead, you should say, “I can’t possibly tell you how long it will take or how much it will cost until I know precisely and exactly what you want. Then I can estimate how much work it will take to produce it. Next, I will need to know what resources I have to do that work. When I have that information I can give you a reasonable commitment on completion date and budget.” When you have a network or hierarchy of deliverables with defined acceptance criteria, you can move onto the next step.

Large Project Planning Technique #4 – Develop Two Sets of Commitments

First, you need commitments from department and division heads about the team members who will work on your project and how much of their time the project will “own.” The second set of commitments is from the team members themselves. They must estimate how much work is required to produce the deliverables you assigned to them. Only after you have these two sets of commitments can you create a project schedule and calculate the budget based on the hourly rates of your project team members.

Large Project Planning Technique #4 – Develop a Change Management Process

The final Large Project Planning Technique is to enforce the principle that all changes to the project deliverables, schedule or budget, have a cost. There are no “free” changes. Every change has a trade-off. It isn’t possible to cut the project duration without any consequence to the project deliverables, schedule or costs. For example, the trade-off for finishing a week early might be an increase in the budget of $5,000 to pay for the required overtime.

Large Project Planning Techniques are Unique

These Large Project Planning Techniques are certainly different from techniques for managing small projects.  However, when you leave the warm cozy world of managing small projects in your home department, you need to follow a very specific sequence of steps to handle the challenges of larger projects. You need to operate like a consultant who is managing a project for a client. You must adopt a different way of dealing with the sponsor and stakeholders. You have to become comfortable with “pushing back” and insisting on doing projects the correct way. You also need to avoid giving the executives any commitments about the project cost and duration before you complete the planning steps correctly. You can’t allow executives to get away with a vague project scope just because it’s politically easier for them. It will lead to project failure and they will blame you.

More information on the lean project methodology

You can learn how to use these Project Planning Technique in our online advanced project management courses.

Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on